Radiation experiments raise ethical questions

 

SEATTLE, Wash. - The Clinton administration and major universities are apologizing for Cold War radiation experiments on humans, but the man behind the largest such experiment in Washington state maintains he did nothing wrong.

Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen used X-rays on the testicles of 64 prisoners at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla during the 1960s to find the dose that would make them sterile.

Now, 24 years after the experiments were stopped, Paulsen defends the tests while conceding they couldn't be done today. And if Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary wants the names of Paulsen's subjects, she'll have to get a court order.

Paulsen, who keeps his prisoner research files at the Pacific Medical Center in Seattle, isn't relinquishing the names voluntarily, he said in a recent interview.

That stance puts Paulsen at odds with the White House, which promises full disclosure of the government's Cold War experiments - and possible compensation for the people involved.

A tall, 69-year-old physician with bushy eyebrows and a lengthy résumé of publications on male fertility, Paulsen is the focus of publicity about the prisoner experiments for the fourth time.

The federal government first revealed the Walla Walla experiments in 1976, six years after they ended. Then-Gov. Dan Evans demanded an investigation into the experiments, but none was conducted. Paulsen's work made the news again briefly in 1984 and 1986, when congressional committees listed it among experiments funded by the Atomic Energy Commission.

But this time, the scrutiny isn't fading. Paulsen's prisoner experiments were born in a flash of blue light at Hanford, Wash., the federal complex that produced plutonium for the nation's first atomic bomb during the early 1940s. On April 7, 1962, four men were working near a plutonium solution when the most dreaded type of nuclear accident happened - a nuclear criticality.

When sufficient nuclear material comes together to go critical, the resulting flash - a flux of neutrons and gamma rays - can deliver a lethal dose in a fraction of a second.

The Hanford workers were lucky. They escaped, but were exposed to radiation doses ranging from 1.43 to 110 rems. Today's safety limit for nuclear workers is 5 rems a year.

Hanford officials asked Paulsen, then an assistant professor and male fertility expert at the University of Washington Medical School, to examine the men and answer their most urgent questions: Would the accident make them sterile or give them cancer?

"I couldn't really answer them. There was very little in the scientific literature," Paulsen recalled. General Electric Co. officials who ran Hanford for the government asked him to look for an answer.

They encouraged Paulsen to apply for a federal research grant through the university to experiment on prisoners in nearby Walla Walla.

Prisoners were considered ideal subjects because it would be easy to do follow-up studies. "They were a population that wasn't going anywhere," Paulsen said.

His Hanford contacts told Paulsen what type of X-ray machine he would need. "I didn't know anything about radiation at the time."

The project was approved in 1963 after AEC's high-level Division of Biology and Medicine decided it would provide valuable information. The Cuban Missile Crisis and other Cold War tensions had increased fears of nuclear war, and the military was demanding answers about radiation's effects on soldiers and astronauts.

An academic rivalry led to a second set of prisoner experiments in Oregon. Soon after Paulsen's project was approved, his former professor, Dr. Carl Heller of Seattle's Pacific Northwest Research Foundation, applied for a similar grant using prisoners at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

"There was some scientific competitiveness. When I was invited over to see those men at Hanford, he didn't like that," Paulsen said.

The two experiments cost $1.5 million.

Searching for volunteers, Paulsen tacked notices about the experiments on the prison bulletin board. He also spoke to the inmates at an assembly.

Many volunteered, and 64 were selected after interviews and physical examinations. Participants were paid $5 to $10 a month.

The men signed consent forms, but Paulsen admits they were "very sketchy compared to nowadays. The first ones indicated that I had discussed the risks with them. Later on, more of what I told them in the assembly was put on paper. The consent form expanded."

Paulsen's goal was to determine the dose at which the men would lose their fertility, and then to track their recovery.

The men lay down, exposing their testicles to the machine mounted over them. Their genitals were placed on a small bag of sugar because the granules prevented radiation from being deflected to damage other organs.

The doses they received ranged from 7 to 380 rems - very high compared to a diagnostic X-ray, which ranges from .01 to 1 rem.

At 15 rems, some sperm were killed. At 50 rems, all sperm died. At 380 rems - which only two of the men received - it took as long as 500 days for fertility to return.

"This was longer than it would take for a dog to recover. We discovered men were very sensitive to short-term sterility," Paulsen said.

The men were examined for up to six years to measure changes in their hormones and sperm. All were encouraged to have vasectomies to prevent the possibility of defective offspring, but eight refused, Paulsen said.

The experiment's findings were later applied to other industrial accidents.

"I think it led to some valuable information," Paulsen said. "But you could also argue, as many do, that the end doesn't justify the means."

The Walla Walla experiments ended after a university-wide human experiments committee denied Paulsen permission to conduct a second set of experiments in 1969. That committee didn't exist when the first tests began in 1963.

The committee was uneasy with Paulsen's new proposal to bombard prisoners with neutron radiation, said George Farwell, a nuclear physicist who was the university's vice president for research in 1969. The 1962 Hanford accident had exposed the four workers to both X-rays and neutrons.

"The committee declined Paulsen's proposal. The feeling was, there were very serious risks. Neutron radiation is no joke; you can die from it," Farwell said.

"There was concern that the risks outweighed the scientific benefits."

Mark McDermott, chairman of UW's physics department, was on the committee that reviewed Paulsen's proposal. Committee members debated whether prisoners were true volunteers, McDermott recalled.

"The question was, could there really be any truly informed consent, or were these people just so bored that they'd take any opportunity?"

"There was already a consensus in the late "60s that these experiments really weren't justifiable," McDermott said.

Political support for the experiments also was eroding.

"I got calls from Olympia that they didn't want me to do any more (experiments), and I said fine," Paulsen said.

But ending the experiments ended the follow-up. Prison officials told Paulsen he was no longer welcome.

The last X-rays were administered in 1968. The follow-ups ceased in 1970.

The AEC intended long-term follow-up through annual medical exams to ensure the men didn't develop tumors or other problems, but it never happened.

"I couldn't sneak into the penitentiary," Paulsen said.

The inmates' medical charts are still at the prison with notations about the amount of radiation they received.

In his last meeting with the inmates nearly two decades ago, Paulsen promised to be available for any medical problems that might arise. Over the years, three have contacted him. One wanted his vasectomy reversed; the procedure was unsuccessful.

Another, still an inmate, complained his testicles "glowed in the dark," Paulsen said. The man turned out to have been part of a control group that was not irradiated, he said.

A third complained of swollen and painful testes, but did not allow Paulsen to do further follow-ups after an initial, inconclusive examination.

Paulsen does not know how many of his subjects remain in prison, and how many have been set free. "I have lost track of them. The door was closed to me."

Karen Dorn Steele reports for the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review. She is working on a book about secrecy and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

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