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1940s DOE Study Gave Radioactive Pills to Pregnant Women

December 20, 1993

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Researchers at Vanderbilt University gave radioactive pills to pregnant women during the 1940s.

A follow-up study during the 1960s concluded that three children born to women who took the pills likely died because of the research.

The Department of Energy is looking for information on the experiments at Vanderbilt or other radiation research performed on civilians during the Cold War, said department spokeswoman Mary Ann Freeman.

Researchers gave radioactive pills to 751 pregnant women seeking free care at a prenatal clinic run by Vanderbilt University.

The pills exposed the women and their fetuses to radiation 30 times higher than natural radiation, about the same as an X-ray. The doses given were not considered unsafe at the time.

In a March 1951 report in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, researchers said they wanted to study iron absorption in pregnant women.

The article does not mention monitoring the long-term effects of radiation on pregnant women or their children. But a follow-up study in the 1960s shifted its focus to that subject.

A study published in 1969 in the American Journal of Epidemiology concluded that three children likely died because of the radiation exposure: an 11-year- old girl who died of a tumor, an 11-year-old boy who died of cancer and a 5-year-old boy who died of lymphatic leukemia.

Vanderbilt officials said researchers kept documents of the study until they were destroyed in the 1970s.

″The researchers who were working on that maintained their own files,″ said Vanderbilt spokesman Wayne Wood. ″They were not Vanderbilt proerty. They belonged to the researchers themselves.″

Vanderbilt officials said they don’t know if the women were told of the possible effects of radiation or even if they knew they were being given radioactive pills.

Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., asked DOE Secretary Hazel O’Leary for an expanded report on the radiation experiments and called the Vanderbilt study ″deeply disturbing″ in a statement Saturday.

″If they did not give consent, I would like to know why the experiments were performed without the knowledge of the subjects. I would also like to know whether DOE continued to monitor the health of these women and their children,″ the statement said.

The Energy Department promised last week to find and declassify evidence of a dozen top-secret radiation experiments conducted over New Mexico, Tennessee and Utah from 1948 to 1952.

A General Accounting Office report on those experiments did not evaluate the potential health effects of the release of radioactive materials because investigators couldn’t find enough details, said Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio.