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COLUMN ONE : Fallout From Toxic Beagle Experiments : Davis residents feel betrayed by how nuclear tests occurred at kennels. Radiation has leaked into the air and ground.

February 08, 1994|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAVIS, Calif. — The radioactive beagles are long gone, their frozen carcasses hauled off to a nuclear waste dump in Washington state along with 140 tons of radioactive dog sewage.

Their legacy, however, has jolted residents of this environmentally conscious college town, which declared itself a "nuclear free zone" a decade ago. After all, this is a community where the bicycle is king, recycling is a popular pastime and smoking is banned even on downtown sidewalks.

But on the edge of the UC Davis campus, about two miles outside the city, sits a contaminated ghost town of empty kennels, deserted research laboratories and aging landfills surrounded by barbed-wire.

The secluded Department of Energy facility--where UC scientists fed beagles radioactive chow in a 30-year study of nuclear fallout--is so toxic that it is proposed for listing as a federal Superfund site.

Revelations over the past five years that the facility has emitted radiation and contaminated ground water have left some neighbors feeling betrayed by the university and the government.

"A lot of people gave the university the benefit of the doubt, as I did in the beginning," said Julie Roth, a neighbor whose well is fouled by radioactive tritium and toxic chemicals. "I believed they, more than anyone else, would know the dangers and (take) the most steps to protect people.

"In fact, I found out it was just the opposite."

From 1956 until 1986, when the last of 1,200 beagles died, researchers at UC Davis were part of what they called the Beagle Club, a set of experiments in six states to study the effects of nuclear contamination. At the Davis Laboratory for Energy-Related Health Research, scientists fed some beagles strontium 90, injected some with radium, and irradiated others with cobalt to see how nuclear fallout might affect people.

Now, some neighbors and former workers at the site say they were alarmed to learn they may have been unknowingly exposed to radiation from a cobalt irradiator used on the beagles outdoors for 15 years without public warning. One former university student who worked with the dogs has filed a lawsuit, charging she developed cancer from the radiation.

Furthermore, radioactive and chemical wastes from the facility have poisoned wells on neighboring farms, prompting the university to provide bottled water to nearby homes. Some farm owners say they may sue over lost property values.

"We never had any idea we had the potential of being exposed," said Roth, who has lived on her farm for more than a decade.

The beagle research center is one of 4,000 Department of Energy sites contaminated by radiation or chemical waste during the Cold War rush to produce nuclear weapons and study the effects of radiation.

The department, which recently admitted conducting radiation experiments on humans without their knowledge, estimates that it will cost as much as $200 billion over 30 years to clean up the toxic mess caused by half a century of nuclear development.

The Beagle Club experiments began at a time of "Cold War hysteria," when fears of a nuclear war were widespread and some nations, including the United States and the Soviet Union, were testing atomic bombs above ground, explained Marvin Goldman, who headed the Davis research for 20 years.

The scientists experimented on beagles because they are long-lived, have greater genetic diversity than other dog species and their skeleton and bone marrow resemble that of humans.

The research was sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission, a forerunner of the Department of Energy, which contracted with UC Davis and other institutions to conduct specific studies.

At Colorado State University, researchers looked at the effect of radiating beagles inside the womb. In Albuquerque, scientists studied beagles that inhaled radioactive material. Researchers at Hanford in Washington and the University of Utah Medical School examined the effects of plutonium on beagles. And scientists at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago studied external radiation and long-term genetic damage.

At UC Davis, the scientists' primary mission was to determine the danger of strontium 90, a bone-seeking isotope that is present in nuclear fallout. Long-lasting and deadly, strontium is absorbed by crops, eaten by cattle and passed on to people through cow's milk. Even today, the atmosphere contains strontium from atomic tests during the 1950s.

From before birth to the time they reached adulthood, 300 beagles at UC Davis were fed a daily diet that included strontium 90.

"This was to simulate a contaminated world," said Goldman, a research radiobiologist. "This was to simulate people living downstream from a leaky nuclear facility."

To make a valid comparison with humans, other beagles were injected with radium to replicate the exposure early this century of women who developed bone cancer from painting radium dials on watches. A third group of beagles was not exposed to radiation.

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