Penn State Harrisburg

Researcher questions ethics of government human experimentation programs

According to a Sept. 2011 CNN poll, a record-low 15 percent of Americans said they trust the federal government “to do what’s right just about always or most of the time.” Associate Professor of Sociology Kenneth Cunningham is conducting research that may provide historical reasons for the popular distrust.

Cunningham has been analyzing previously classified records for the U.S. government’s 235 Cold War atmospheric atomic bomb experiments conducted from the 1940s to the 1960s. Cunningham studied the involvement of several hundred thousand military personnel and civilians, and safety precautions – or lack thereof – that the military employed.

According to a memo from Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson in 1953, all test subjects for biological and chemical warfare experiments were required to provide written consent to participate. Known as the “Wilson Memo,” the memorandum was kept classified, not widely known, and often not enforced, leading to military personnel being used for the testing without their consent, Cunningham said.

Of main concern, Cunningham discovered, was the absence of safety equipment for troops watching the blasts from within a few miles. Typically, troops were told to shield their eyes briefly during the blast to protect themselves, he said. Citing Department of Defense training manuals from the time, Cunningham said that participants were assured that no radiation danger existed in the blast zone “90 seconds after an air burst.”

Although 220,000-300,000 people were present during the atomic tests, Cunningham estimates that many more “down-winders” were exposed to fallout. Occurrences of radiation-related diseases, including certain types of cancer and thyroid diseases, became more common among atomic veterans and down-winders in the years following the tests, he said. Previously classified government reports, released publicly in the 1980s and 90s, admitted to health risks associated with high radiation exposure, according to Cunningham.

Decades after exposure, some participants were compensated for negative health effects (e.g. cancers) with passage in the 1980s of legislation providing compensation for radiation exposure.

Cunningham cited several reasons the testing occurred. National security overrode health and safety concerns, and military personnel were pressured to follow orders and participate in the tests, he said. A culture of “experts” – scientists who solely decided the experiments’ safety protocols – and a climate of secrecy were also likely factors, he said.

Cunningham said that other government risk-taking with the health of U.S. citizens may have occurred – and may continue to occur – citing use of anthrax vaccinations during the Gulf War, as an example. He recommends more vigilance by citizens to monitor government activities and programs. “One can’t help but conclude that the government cannot necessarily be trusted to sufficiently protect the health and safety of our citizens,” said Cunningham.