US opens its ghoulish Cold War closet: Nation shocked by revelations of secret radiation experiments on vulnerable people - including pregnant women

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SITTING in the front room of her tiny bungalow, Emma Craft loses her composure only once. 'Nobody knows what a baby she was. She was special, special to this family. She taught herself to play the piano. And I've still got a card or two where she drew for me . . .' For a few moments, she cannot speak.

Pictures of Mrs Craft's youngest daughter, Carolyn, surround us. One stands on the television, another on the sideboard. One hangs on the wall. Actually, it is just one picture, reprinted several times. 'That's my baby,' she declares. In a neat party frock, a fair-haired nine-year-old smiles demurely into the camera.

But there is another photograph of Carolyn, that Mrs Craft keeps in an envelope in her bedroom. Halfway through the interview, she fetches it. It shows her daughter, two years later in 1956, laid out in her funeral casket. Her face, peaceful in death, is grossly disfigured by cancerous lumps. 'You see how she was? She only weighed 40 pounds.' Nearly four decades on, Mrs Craft, 72, is grieving all over again.

She is also struggling to comprehend a truth she never before suspected: that her loss was almost certainly the consequence of a risky medical experiment conducted on her, without her knowledge, she says, at the Vanderbilt University Hospital, Nashville, Tennessee, when she was pregnant with Carolyn. In 1946, she and more than 700 other pregnant women were given iron solutions to drink, laced with radioactive isotopes, in a study of the absorption of iron into the body.

Mrs Craft's story is one of hundreds now coming to light as the Clinton administration seeks to lift the veil from a sinister, hitherto largely unexplored, side of America's scientific supremacy during the Cold War.

What is emerging is the stuff of the most ghoulish Boris Karloff movies of the same era: a society whose most brilliant scientists, abetted by a secrecy-obsessed government, apparently discarded normal standards of medical ethics in their pursuit of knowledge about nuclear radiation and its potential in warfare.

The uncovering process was started by the Energy Secretary, Hazel O'Leary, who shortly before Christmas made an unprecedented acknowlegement that her department, and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, may have been responsible for using up to 800 people as human guinea-pigs in radiation experiments from the 1940s until the 1970s, apparently without their informed consent. She opened a Pandora's Box.

A Human Experimentation Hot-Line set up by Mrs O'Leary for those concerned that they may have been involved has been besieged, with as many as 500 calls an hour. Other government agencies, notably the Defense Department and Nasa, are discovering that they too are implicated in such experiments.

The White House has been forced to convene an investigative panel, and congressional hearings are to begin on Capitol Hill this week. Also under consideration are previously classified incidents involving terrifying releases of radiation into the air, accidental and deliberate, from federal laboratories around the country.

Some of the stories have, in fact, been available to the public for some years, notably in a largely ignored congressional report in 1986. The renewed interest was spurred initially by an investigative series published by the Albuquerque Tribune last November. And the difference now is the willingness of this administration to dig out those secrets that remain and possibly offer compensation.

For President Clinton, it is an exercise with minimal political risk. All the experiments, as far as we know, took place under previous administrations, albeit some of them Democratic ones.

The list of offending incidents grows longer daily. One disturbing common factor is that the subjects of the experiments were invariably drawn from the most vulnerable corners of society: they were often black, very poor, of low IQ or incarcerated in federal prisons.

One case uncovered in Massachussetts, involved a group of retarded children in a state-run home. Told that they were joining an elite 'Science Club', they were fed breakfast cereal supplemented with radioactive isotopes to determine the role of minerals in the cereals in child nutrition.

That project, as well the one involving Mrs Craft, seems to have been motivated by non-military medical research. More outrageous were those experiments funded directly by Washington, linked to the Cold War effort.

The government wanted above all to learn what effects exposure to radiation might have on US soldiers in a nuclear conflict. Some experiments were carried out on servicemen, but many involved civilians. And it seems clear that full, informed consent for their participation was rarely secured.

The case highlighted by the Albuquerque Tribune involved the deliberate injection, between 1945 and 1947, of plutonium into 18 supposedly terminally ill civilian patients, to study their tolerance to the poisoning. In another case, six hospital patients were injected with uranium to monitor the damage to their kidneys. In Memphis, Tennessee, newborn boys were injected with plutonium in a study of thyroid glands. And in Washington State and Oregon, male prison inmates, as late as 1971, had their testicles dangled in radioactive water to study the relationship between radiation exposure and sterility.

That there were moral concerns almost from the start seems evident. A memo sent in 1950 by Joseph Hamilton, one of the researchers involved, to the government warned that critics might conclude that the experiments had 'a little of the Buchenwald touch', a reference to Nazi experimentation on inmates of concentration camps.

Some experts, however, are coming to the defence of those involved, pointing to the intensity of concern in that era about the nuclear threat and the relative ignorance about the long-term risks of exposure. It was a time, for instance, when shoe shops were using X-ray machines to measure the size of children's feet.

'We have to take seriously the lack of information at the time about low-dose radiation exposure,' Dr Mark Siegler, director of the Center for Clinical Ethics at the University of Chicago, said last week. 'We have to take seriously the lack of foreseeablility about harm and risks. And we have to pay attention to the different standards of voluntary consent that operated at that time.'

Such qualifications will hardly satisfy Mrs Craft, who has been invited to Washington this week to testify. Her overwhelming feeling is anger.

'I'd love to come face to face with whoever did this and tell them how I feel,' she says. 'I'd like to slap them and tell them what they'd done to me and my family.' But she does express gratitude to the government for taking up the issue. 'That's my prayer: that they can get to the bottom of it and find out who it was who did this, and why they did it to children.'

(Photographs omitted)