Date: Jan. 30, 1996
Contacts: Craig Hicks, Media Relations Officer
Mark Parsons, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; Internet <>


WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government should acknowledge responsibility for "wrongs done" during thyroid research conducted on humans in Alaska during the 1950s, even though the subjects were not physically harmed, concludes a new report* from a committee of the National Research Council. Alaska Natives and U.S. servicemen who took part in the Air Force study were given a radioactive medical tracer, iodine-131, to determine whether the thyroid gland helps humans adapt to the arctic climate.

"Our calculations indicate that the doses of radiation used in the study were not enough to pose health risks," said committee member Kenneth L. Mossman, professor of health physics at Arizona State University, Tempe. "Even so, we believe that the informed consent process was flawed."

The committee based its conclusion about the ethics of the study on the Nuremberg Code, a 10-point list of principles issued in 1947 that defined limits for morally and legally permissible human experimentation. "It's clear that many medical scientists of the time apparently believed that the Nuremberg Code was intended only to apply to overly hazardous research lacking scientifically reasonable goals," said Mossman. "We believe, however, that it should have applied to all research involving human subjects."

The committee's report was requested by Congress because of recent interest in radiation experiments conducted during the 1950s and 1960s. In contrast to some other experiments, the Air Force study used relatively small amounts of radioactive material and was not intended as an assessment of the health effects from radiation exposure.

None of the subjects, neither the Alaska Natives nor the military personnel, were informed that they were taking a radioactive tracer, the committee said. In the case of Alaska Native subjects, the researchers relied on elders or other intermediaries without medical or scientific training to obtain volunteers and explain the research. Minors were used without adequate parental consent. Few of the Alaska Native subjects understood that they were participating in research; most thought they were receiving medical treatment.

Despite the negligible risk of cancer and other health problems resulting from the experiments, the Air Force should provide medical follow-up to participants who were under age 20 at the time of the study, to assure that they suffered no long-term ill effects, the committee said. The Air Force also should attempt to contact all living subjects or their immediate families and give them records of the iodine-131 experiments.

The committee added that in the process of contacting subjects and their families, the Air Force should give available information on human experiments conducted by its Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory to appropriate health care providers, tribal governments, and other key figures in affected Alaskan villages.

U.S. government and Alaska state health organizations could complement the efforts of the Air Force by conducting public health education programs led by Alaska Native experts to convey both information about patients' rights in therapeutic or research situations and facts about exposure to radiation. Such a process will enable these experts, clinics, and physicians to provide accurate information to their communities and ease fears.

If Congress considers legislation to redress any wrong or harm done to human subjects of government radiation research where informed consent was not obtained, it should consider including the subjects of the Alaska thyroid function study, the committee said.

The thyroid study's research subjects included 102 Alaska Native men, women, and children from a number of villages in northern and central Alaska as well as 19 U.S. Air Force and Army servicemen. In the research, capsules of radioisotope iodine-131 were administered and the radioiodide uptake in each subject's thyroid, blood, urine, and saliva was measured.

Overall, the research project lasted from August 1955 to February 1957. Sixty-eight research subjects received one dose of about 50 microcuries (as was standard for iodine-131 tracer studies at the time). Forty-one subjects received two doses, and 12 received three. Based on the study results, the researchers determined that the thyroid did not play a significant role in human acclimatization to extreme cold.

The United States first established a significant military presence in Alaska in 1942 after the Japanese bombed and occupied islands in the Aleutians. U.S. military presence in the arctic grew following World War II based on Alaska's proximity to the Soviet mainland. With the Cold War looming, military planners conducted various studies of nutrition, physiology, and survival to learn more about how to keep fighting forces fit and capable in extreme cold.

The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. The study was funded by the United States Air Force. A committee roster follows.
*The report, The Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory's Thyroid Function Study: A Radiological Risk and Ethical Analysis, is available from the National Academy Press at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. The cost of the report is $34.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.00 for the first copy and $.50 for each additional copy. Reporters may obtain copies from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

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Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources
Polar Research Board

Committee on Evaluation of 1950s Air Force Human Health Testing
in Alaska Using Radioactive Iodine131

in cooperation with

Board on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention

Commission on Life Sciences
Board on Radiation Effects Research