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The X Files

Coventry Punjabis fed with radioactive chapattis. Pregnant women in Liverpool injected with radioactive isotopes. They sound like crazier tabloid headlines but they're not. They are atomic secrets. On the eve of a new wave of nuclear testing Maggie O'Kane investigates 15 years of officially backed clandestine research.

THE GUARDIAN Thursday July 6 1995.

GRACE BROWN was cooking pasta one Friday in April when the phone rang in her cottage in Llangollen, North Wales. The voice on the line asked the 66-yearold retired probation officer if she had lost a baby 39 years ago.

The voice belonged to David Leafe, a researcher with Twenty Twenty TV, an independent television company. He had been looking for Grace Brown for a year. He asked if he might visit her. Grace's son, Ray, had his first birthday on July 10, 1957. To celebrate, the family went to the seaside at Rhyl but Ray, who had been restless and irritable all day, fainted in the arms of his grandmother, Brodwen, on the way home. He was taken to Denham Hospital where it was discovered that he had had a brain haemorrhage. In the early hours of the next morning, Grace watched her son's face "turn" and knew he was dead.

She sent his christening robe to the hospital the next day so that it could prepare her sons body for cremation. In her grief, she did not want to see Ray again, so she did not find out that parts of his legs had been removed.

A week later, Ray's leg bone became Ref HB88-HB, one of 33 leg bones taken that month by the Medical Research Council (MRC), mainly from the corpses of children from hilly regions of North Wales. The clandestine experiments went on from 1955 to 1970. In all, 5,999 bone specimens were used in a study. At the same time a similar study - Operation Sunshine - was taking place in the USA

A week before Ray died, an unscheduled meeting of the MRC had been held in the rooms of its secretary, Sir Harold Himsworth - who also headed the panel on Atomic Bomb Explosions. It concluded with an agreement to "approach pathologists with a request for bone samples ... from children 0-5 years old (cleaned bone - preferably femur) for the Governments nuclear research laboratory at Harwell".

Since 1953 the levels of radioactivity in the atmosphere had increased due to nuclear testing by the British and Soviets. The best indicators of radiation level in humans were in young children, who absorbed the radiation much quicker than adults. The hunt for bones (preferably femur) was on.

The meeting in Himsworth's rooms ended with one doctor, Prof. Cappell, saying: "It is of course rather difficult to do this since the whole matter must be kept so confidential."

Grace Brown said last week: "It was something that in your wildest dreams you never imagined might happen to your baby. If they had asked me for his heart to save another baby; it would have been hard but I would have done it. But taking bits of him without asking ..."

Leafe's search for Mrs Brown uncovered other questions about the kind of radiation research that' was going on in Britain. Documents passed to the Guardian by Twenty Twenty show terminally ill cancer patients were also used to collect data for atomic research. And they reveal the disturbing zeal with which scientists used the newly discovered radioactivity, making Punjabi women in Coventry guinea-pigs and injecting hundreds of pregnant women with radioactive isotopes.

The trail begins in the US. In 1987, Eileen Welsome, a reporter working for the Albuquerque Tribune in New Mexico, stumbled across a footnote to a document on animal experimentation at an air force laboratory. It referred to 18 people secretly injected with plutonium. It took her six years to scramble through the undergrowth of classified documents and, with the help of the US Freedom of Information Act, to discover that scientists working on the army's Manhattan Project - which developed the nuclear bomb - had used unsuspecting, terminally ill patients to test the effect of radiation. Of the 18 injected with huge doses of plutonium - the chemical that triggers the .atomic bomb - had died within 18 months.

When Welson broke the news in spring last year, the US Department of Energy was forced to open its files on hundreds of other experiments, including tests on 130 prisoners in Oregon who had their testicles exposed to intense X-rays and, in the 1950s, the feeding of mentally retarded children in Massachusetts with porridge with radioactive milk.

Last November an investigation ordered by President Cling into military-backed radiation tests reported that, between 1940 anti 1974 hundreds of cancer patients had had high doses of total body radiation.

Watching the reports, Twenty Twenty programme-makers John Brownlow and Joe Bullman started on the nuclear trail in Britain in June 1994. They began at the Public Record Office at Kew Library with secret documents opened under the 30-year rule and then unpicked the evidence from obscure medical papers. They believe that what found is just a fraction of the experiments that have gone on in Britain since the development of the atomic bomb. Britain has no Freedom of Information Act and they say they have been given no real co-operation from the Ministry of Defence.

In 1952, Britain had begun a series of nuclear tests and, anxious to know how the radiation produced by the atomic bomb would affect soldiers, the Government's nuclear laboratories at Harwell were given the task of investigating. In 1953 the British army began sending promising science, graduates to Harwell to work on human irradiation.

At the Churchill Hospital in Oxford in 1956, 17 patients suffering from "incurable malignant disease but in good condition" were given whole-body irradiation and the radiation sickness some suffered was monitored. One of the doctors carrying out the research told Channel 4 that they had some links with Harwell, mainly sharing equipment.

Dr Adrian Jones, radiotherapy consultant at the Churchill, says there is no doubt the research would have been of interest to nuclear research establishments. "Governments everywhere wanted to know what the effects of radiation were but there is no evidence that the patients were hard in anyway by. these experiments.

According to Jones, research institutes like Harwell continued to fund scientists to research radiation effects. "I know some of those who took part but they insisted that they would only take the funding if the work was made public in the journals and it was clear to their peers what they were doing".

He felt sure that scientific work on radiation "on the outside" would not be carried out at the expense of the patient.

Between 1960 and 1971, 88 cancer patients in Cincinnati were treated with the same technique used at the Churchill. The programme was run by Doctor Eugene L Saenger, who also worked for the Defence Atomic Support Agency. It is impossible to verity whether there were direct links between the British and American research programmes, as the US authorities have an agreement that information on British research carried out in conjunction with them will be classified.

Not all the radiation research carried out between 1950 and 1972 in Britain was of direct interest to the military. In documents passed to the Guardian through interviews, a disturbing picture emerges of British scientists experimenting with radiation on, among other groups, pregnant women, Asian women and psychiatric patients.

KATHLEEN MORRISON, 62, is the former headmistress of a primary school near Aberdeen. She is measured thoughtful and reasonable. She is also worried. Worried about a radioactive experiment she took part in 33 years ago when pregnant with her first child.

The experiment used tiny particles of radioactivity to find out what the thyroid gland in the neck of pregnant women did during pregnancy. She does not claim that the radioactive iodine that went into her neck had anything to do with the thyroid cancer she found on her throat seven years ago, but she is still concerned about the effect of the experiment carried out on 91 females at the Obstetric Medicine Research Unit in Aberdeen.

They did tell us that they using radioactivity in the tests but nobody knew what that it was then. It was only when we started hearing about nuclear fallout that we stated worrying. I would like to know that they are interested enough to see what happened to the 91 children in north-east Scotland whose mothers underwent these tests."

Dr Alice Stewart, of Birmingham University Medical School, has carried out extensive studies into the effects of radiation over the last 20 years. "We have evidence that probably the the commonest cause of childhood cancer is natural background radiation. So if you add anything to that you are adding to what is already a perceptible risk."

Yet in Liverpool, in 1953, more than 40 unborn babies were exposed when doctors injected their mothers with radioactive sodium solutions in a study of the placenta. Similar experiments took place at London's Hammersmith Hospital in 1952 when 270 women had radioactive sodium injected directly into their placenta before they gave birth using a specially designed syringe.

In the medical papers that accompany these experiments, the scientists note almost casually that they have found a new tracer that is much less radioactive than the one they used in the last batch of pregnant women to be experimented on.

For years the medical community has been divided about the effects of small dosages of radioactivity on the body but, a report in 1992 by the Medical Research Council at Didcot in Oxfordshire found that even the lowest possible doses of lowest energy nuclear radiation can cause abnormalities in some cells.

Dr Stewart says: It is something that always has to be watched, but things are much stricter now. The real benchmark was Nuremburg, when physicians began asking themselves questions about what they were doing. There are ethical committees today that would not allow the use of radioactive tracers. The foetus is extremely vulnerable and there is no doubt that exposure to radiation, even low doses, increases the risk of cancer."

In Nashville Tennessee, in the late forties, scientists gave radioactive iron to 800 pregnant women in a similar study of the placenta. Now the subjects of the experiments, who claim they were never told, are suing Vanderbilt University for millions of dollars. A follow up study at Vanderbilt found a four-fold increase in the cancer among exposed children. No follow-up studies have been carried out in Britain. Women like Kathleen Morrison were told in Aberdeen that the tests would use radioactivity. "I was 29. We were intelligent, well-educated women who wanted the best for our children and we agreed to the tests because we never even thought that a doctor would put us at risk."

But in 1972, 21 Punjabi women in Coventry, many of whom did not speak English, were secretly involved in tests using radioactive iodine. The women had gone to their doctor with ailments that ranged from arthritic knees to migraine. They ended up as part of a nutrition experiment which involved eating radioactive chapattis delivered to their door.

THE MOTHER of Sasha Kumar, a research fellow at Essex University, was one of those women. "Most of the women lived on Churchill Avenue in Coventry. My mother had bad arthritis in her left knee and she went to a doctor. He said he was putting her on a special diet. These chapattis would arrive to the houses by car, every second day and she would eat them. Then one day Dr Shah told her she had to go to a special hospital for blood tests. We took a coach and then a taxi for about half an hour. We knew how to get there because other women on Churchill Avenue had been sent. When we got there I remember everything was white, even their shoes were covered in white."

The "hospital" the Punjabi women were sent to was the Government's nuclear laboratory in Harwell, where tests on iron absorption from wheat flour were being carried out.

Dr David Evered, who now heads the Medical Research Unit which carried out the tests, defends the experiments and says his information is that the women were consulted: "These were part of a legitimate and valuable experiment to measure iron deficiencies in certain ethnic groups. Where there were language difficulties an informed consent was obtained in the presence of and with the assistance of a family member who is fluent in English."

Kumar says none of the Churchill Avenue women knew they were taking part in an experiment. "They were suffering from all sorts of things: migraine, arthritis, old age they were completely trusting of the doctor and ate what they were told."

After spending a year on his documentary, Deadly Experiments, which will be shown tonight on Channel 4, John Brownlow says his main worry is that the journey he started in the vaults of the Public Records Office in Kew was only a peep at the real story. "Harwell has thousands of listings and references about things that have gone on there over the last 40 years, but even there many of these documents are classified as secret. But at Aldermaston, the military's research centre, almost everything they have been doing is secret and, given what we now know about what was happening in the States, it is worrying. Britain has always been right up there when it comes to nuclear research."

It is a sentiment echoed by CND chair Janet Bloomfield: "Considering the long history of co-operation between the US and UK governments, our government should open the files on nuclear testing so that we can learn about Britain's role, if any, in experiments on human beings. The US revelations are a direct challenge to John Major's commitment to open government."