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The Goods | CYBURBIA

It Just Seems Like Science Fiction

July 09, 1996|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Welcome to the Office of Human Radiation Experiments, where breakfast at a boys' school is laced with radioactive iron, radiation experiments are performed on the genitals of prison inmates and nuclear bomb explosions are observed by soldiers ordered to watch without benefit of eye protection.

This is not a lost episode of "The X-Files." It's something far more frightening: the U.S. government's official report on radiation experiments conducted on human subjects for three decades, beginning in 1944. The detailed report, which suggests that some of these experiments were conducted without the subjects' knowledge or consent, can be found at a Department of Energy site on the Internet.

The report made headlines across the country last year. As sensational as this information was, who among us actually obtained the 937-page basic report--on sale for $44--not to mention supplemental volumes? But when a report like this is on the World Wide Web, it's much more likely we'll peruse it and gain a more rounded understanding of its findings.

The home page is at http://www.ohre.doe.gov, and from there you can click to the report or to current press releases, recently declassified documents and a group of historical photographs that give the site an "X-Files" flavor.

My favorite pictures are of "plastic man," a predecessor of the crash test dummy, used to simulate human radiation exposures at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. One shot, which must have gotten a lot of laughs around the lab, shows "plastic man" shaking hands with the director.

One of the most frightening parts of the report concerns a 1952 test in Nevada during which 16 soldiers observed a bomb blast from a trailer about 10 miles away. "Each of the human observers placed his face in a hood; half wore protective goggles, while the other half had both eyes exposed. A fraction of a second before the explosion, a shutter opened, exposing the left eye to the flash. Two subjects incurred retinal burns. . . ."

Most of the report, however, is given over to thoughtful discussions of Cold War mind-sets that made these kinds of experiments seem at the time not only necessary, but patriotic.

But some of the text is absolutely chilling, especially concerning children and prisoners, who were considered by some doctors "ideal subjects" because their environments could be controlled. Some of the experiments were conducted at a dilapidated state school for boys in Massachusetts. Parents were notified, but not told the "nutritional" studies involved radiation. The boys, who were starved for attention, were in some cases urged to participate as members of a "science club."

The next time someone tells you they don't see value in the Internet, you can tell them about this site and quote George Santayana's warning that, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

* Cyburbia's e-mail address is david.colker @latimes.com.

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