Friday, November 19, 2010

UK gave dead children's body parts to American nuclear researchers

Sellafield nuclear reprocessing pant in Cumbria, UK, from the air
The UK Government has apologised for letting parts of the dead bodies of nuclear industry workers and thousands of children be removed for analysis without telling their families.

The events happened in hospitals and UK nuclear facilities from 1955 to 1992.

An inquiry was set up in 2007 by the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Alistair Darling. It was undertaken by Michael Redfern QC, who has just published his findings.

The Inquiry looked at the processes and practices surrounding the analysis of human tissue from many nuclear installations, not just Sellafield, including Springfields, Capenhurst, Winfrith, Dounreay and Aldermaston.

Project Sunshine

The report says that during the 1950s and 1960s the Medical Research Council oversaw research measuring levels of Strontium-90 in human bone - femurs and vertebrae - obtained at post mortem. This national survey, involving over 6000 people, most of them children, had nothing to do with nuclear workers.

Information gained was in some cases set to America, to be included in a research project named - in some kind of sick joke - Project Sunshine. This study, initiated in the US in 1953, received vertebrae taken in the UK from 43 individuals who died between 1955 and 1958.

The Inquiry found that one doctor involved, Dr Loutit, in 1959, found difficulty in obtaining adequate numbers of samples, which led him to offer a modest payment - although none was ever made. Bones were "converted to ash" for analysis. The last paper on this topic was published in 1973, describing results obtained from bone taken from people who had died in 1970.

Families’ views were not obtained as required under the Human Tissue Act 1961. The report says that "All the pathologists who gave evidence to the Inquiry had been profoundly ignorant of the law under which they had performed post mortem examinations", which "arose from deficiencies in medical education and training".

As part of Project Sunshine, 91 pregnant British women were injected with radioactive iodine in the 1960s and a further 37 women who were due to undergo medically-approved abortions had been involved in a separate series of tests to monitor the effect of radioactive iodine in the foetus.

The experiments were conducted in Aberdeen, Hammersmith and Liverpool. "In a separate series of experiments, between 1957 and 1970, body parts from an estimated 6,000 corpses had been removed for tests without the permission of the next of kin and sent for examination at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment," claimed a 1995 UK Channel 4 documentary 'True Stories: Deadly Experiments'.

Sellafield workers' body parts removed

Organs from 64 former Sellafield workers were also removed by pathologists and taken for analysis at Sellafield between 1960 and 1991.

In addition, organs taken from 12 workers at other nuclear sites were analysed at, or at the request of, Sellafield, giving a total of 76. The Inquiry also found evidence of other individuals whose organs were analysed at Sellafield.

The report highlights unacceptable working practices within the nuclear industry, NHS pathology services and the coronial service, saying "there was a lack of ethical consideration of the implications of the research work the industry was doing; that there was limited supervision undertaken; and that relationships between pathologists, coroners and the Sellafield medical officers became too close."

Investigations also found that "organs from a small number of former Ministry of Defence employees were removed for analysis".

Coroners' failures

Coroners did not communicate with families, who were left in the dark. There was no attempt to explain to them why the coroner had ordered a post mortem or what it would entail.

They often failed to read post mortem reports. As a result, when the reports indicated organs had been inappropriately removed, they remained in ignorance and took no action.

The report acknowledges that these events occurred a number of decades ago, and puts them within the context of the times and current practice.

Government Apology

Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change told Parliament: “I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt regret and to apologise to the families and relatives of those involved. I hope that the publication of today’s report goes some way toward providing the closure they deserve.

“The events described in the Inquiry should never have happened in the first place. We have learned the lessons of the past. The law on human tissue has been reviewed, and there is now a rigorous regulatory system in place, in which both the public and professionals have confidence."

A Redfern Inquiry helpline has been set up to help people who think their relative may have been involved in one of the studies covered by the Redfern Inquiry. The telephone number is 0800 555 777 and minicom number is 0800 887 777.

Huhne promised this would never happen again. He said that the Secretary of State for Justice intends to take forward several of the provisions in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 which address some of the concerns. "Although the Government is not proceeding with the role of a Chief Coroner" - due to the cuts - "we intend to transfer many of the intended leadership functions of the post to the Lord Chancellor, or possibly the senior judiciary", he said.

"The Inquiry has sought and received assurances from all of the key nuclear industry stakeholders that the practice of retaining organs or tissue at autopsy has ceased," he added.

The Results

Examination of tissues looked into the prevalence of various isotopes including those of plutonium. The Report says that a fair amount of the research was not scientifically valid, for various reasons, not all of which could have been known at the time.

If it can be believed given the notorious secrecy of the industry, the report says, "In many cases the levels of [radioactive] activity in the samples were towards or even below the lower limit of detection. Results are generally a few hundred millibecquerels: one mBq represents one single atomic decay every 1,000 seconds (16.7 minutes)."

The Report recommends that the data collected from all the research, "should be made available, anonymised, for use in appropriate research".

No comments: