A high level of criminal radioactivity

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


A high level of criminal radioactivity. The U.S. government’s recently admitted role in radiation experiments on humans from the 1940s to the 1970s was questioned 13 years ago in these pages. In “Informed Consent” (Sept./Oct. 1981), Howard Rosenberg revealed that in the mid-1960s, cancer patients at the Institute of Nuclear Studies in Oak Ridge, Tenn., were used as guinea pigs when NASA needed data on human sensitivity to radiation.

Government scientists administered huge doses of radiation to at least 89 patients, among them six-year-old leukemia patient Dwayne Sexton, without regard to what was considered appropriate therapy. Concerned with the high levels of radiation astronauts were likely to encounter in space, researchers wanted to find out how much exposure would induce the vomiting and nausea associated with radiation sickness. The Sexton family was not fully informed of the risks these tests posed to Dwayne; he died of leukemia-related complications in 1968.

Now, Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary has called for compensation for those who were harmed. The White House is investigating the extent of the experimentation, which may have involved several other government agencies. But for the Sextons and other victims, money in exchange for “the Buchenwald touch” (as one physician involved in radiation experiments wrote in a 1950 memo to the Atomic Energy Commission) is little consolation.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest