Brentwood dump contains radioactive remains from decades of animal and human tests
By Michael Collins
During the 1950s and ’60s, both UCLA and the Veterans Administration were deeply engaged in the Atomic Age, doing their part for the Cold War by performing radiation experiments on a wide variety of animal and human subjects. An unknown amount of the radioactive waste from those experiments, including animal carcasses, was buried in a dump that now lies under a popular Brentwood dog park, and may be disturbed by proposed development of the VA site [see May 18 cover story, “Real Hot Property,” at the former LACityBeat.com].
Records of these nuke studies show a vast array of experiments, and a potentially large amount of contamination. The university nuked critters ranging from rats to roosters, monkeys to mule deer. Some of the experiments involved postmortems on animals killed by a deadly dose of radiation from atomic explosions. One involved the injecting of poisonous radionuclides, like strontium-90, into pregnant Rhesus monkeys in 1961, and strontium-85 into the fetuses. Another, in 1954, involved 10 burros essentially X-rayed to death, taking three weeks to die.
Experiments on live humans were kept under wraps, but were uncovered in the 1990s and caused a huge uproar. Examples of UCLA and West L.A. VA experiments on people are chronicled in the 1996 report “The Human Radiation Experiments,” put together by an advisory committee to President Bill Clinton. One typical UCLA/VA experiment involved injecting patients with radioiodine to image their thyroids in 1951. Another, from 1962-64, saw 11 patients given radioactive calcium-47 in an “atomic cocktail” to see how well they absorbed the material.
The advisory committee’s report recognized that these human radiation experiments were morally bankrupt. “We argue here that the use of patients in nontherapeutic experiments without their consent was not only a violation of these basic moral principles but also a violation of the Hippocratic principle that was the cornerstone of professional medical ethics at that time. That principle enjoins physicians to act in the best interests of their patients and thus would seem to prohibit subjecting patients to experiments from which they could not benefit.
“[I]n some nontherapeutic tracer studies involving children, radioisotope exposures were associated with increases in the potential lifetime risk for developing cancer that would be considered unacceptable today,” the report continues. “The Advisory Committee also identified several studies in which patients died soon after receiving external radiation or radioisotope doses in the therapeutic range that were associated with acute radiation effects.”
The 1953 film The Atom and You shows a man downing one of these infamous atomic cocktails, as well as the testing of radioactive dust inhalation at UCLA. Atom in the Hospital, a 1961 film, shows UCLA research on the effects of radiation on the human body. Other UCLA human radiation experiments included the use of the radionuclides zinc-65, strontium-85, gold-198, iodine-125, cobalt-60, copper-67, manganese-54, xenon-133, and indium-113.
From 1944 to 1974, the VA conducted 2,000 human radiation experiments nationwide, funded by the Atomic Energy Commission, and a significant number took place in L.A. A 1982 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) document requested by the Los Angeles Federation of Scientists shows that, from July 1, 1958, to June 20, 1959, alone, the West L.A. VA injected 1,419 humans with radioiodine, cobalt-60, chromium-51, and iron-59. The 1,635 tests measured things like cardiac output and cerebral circulation and had nothing to do with therapeutic use.
The VA’s partner in human experimentation was UCLA. In 1967, a university experiment had 16 children shot up with radioiodine to see the differences in retention between healthy and ill kids. The healthy children ranged in age from six months to 12 years. Another experiment in 1973 was performed on 15 children with abnormal skulls, aged newborn to four years, and seven children with normal skull development, aged seven weeks to 16 years. Each subject was administered an unstated amount of radioactive fluorine-18, derived from a former UCLA nuclear reactor, and then imaged in the nuclear medicine clinic to test for mechanisms involved in the premature closing of the cranium.
Another UCLA/VA experiment in 1954 involved the liver uptake of radioiodine. This is an extremely dangerous radionuclide, with a short half-life of just over eight days, meaning that it ionizes at a ferocious rate as it decays. I-131 is one of the most deadly radioactive materials in fallout from an exploded atomic device or the meltdown of a nuclear reactor. The testing used 200 rabbits and 60 humans with normal and impaired liver function. Photos from the report show splayed rabbits and a prone female patient being measured by a radiation detector. One chilling experiment notation read, “Several patients have been tested repeatedly without detectable ill effects.”
Another ethically troubling study was conducted in the summer of 1953 by the UCLA “Tolerance Section,” and was called “Survey of Irradiation Exposure to the Gonadal Region in Man.” The report, marked “Confidential,” utilized “a large number of university students” who were subjected to 480 separate X-rays. Forty-one Atomic Energy Project personnel were also X-rayed as part of the testing. The experiment also called for the “roentgenographic [X-ray] examination of children from the newborn to the age of 12.” The X-ray doses the kids received depended on which category they were in: infants, ages 2-7 or 7-12, with the dosage basically doubling for each older age group.
The University of California was the second-largest university recipient of startup AEC funds, with $500,000 going to UCLA in the ’40s. In 1947, the head of the UCLA AEC project, medical school dean Dr. Stafford Warren, addressed the ethical dilemma of patient notification and permission, at least as far as adults go. Warren wasn’t about to be hampered by this thing called consent, according to the book Undue Risk – Secret State Experiments on Humans. AEC lawyers wanted a written patient “release” for radiation experimentation, but Warren beat back the consensual release regulations. Instead, two doctors “would certify in writing to the patient’s state of mind to the explanation furnished him and to the acceptance of the treatment.”
In a clinical report from the summer of 1961, a UCLA doctor justified radiation-induced human cancers, as long as the lab environment was safe for the scientists: “The evidence for induction of cancer by inhaled radioactive materials in experimental animals is convincing. There is no reason to think this cannot occur in man despite the lack of definitive evidence at present. Therefore, continued study of inhalation hazards is urgent, and the continuation of stringent environmental control measures is justified pending the completion of adequate studies.”
In other words, UCLA doctors and scientists knew inhaled radiation was probably cancerous for humans, but they had to do radiation tests on people to prove it. When the university got its new Total Body Counter Facility in 1961 – a bank-vault-like device that could measure radiation on the whole body of large subjects like humans or burros – one report noted: “From the beginning however, it was generally recognized that equipment to meet such emergency needs would be equally valuable in studying gamma-emitting radioisotopes intentionally [their emphasis] administered to human subjects for purposes of research or medical diagnosis.”
Given this extensive human radiation testing, what to do with bodies became a concern at the VA and UCLA. Records gleaned from the 1982 FOIA request to the VA indicate one 1964 meeting of the VA Center Radioisotope Committee that discussed “safe handling of cadavers containing radioactive isotopes.” The committee’s conclusions were blacked out by FOIA censors.
Other parts of this FOIA were blacked out but with an explanation. In a 1982 letter from the federal district counsel to the Los Angeles Federation of Scientists, which had submitted the FOIA request, the government wrote: “That information was withheld on the basis of potential employee misconduct leading to a civil and/or criminal investigation.” There is not, however, any evidence that human remains are in the dump.
This wasn’t the last time the government blackened out documents and hid information regarding the Brentwood nuclear waste site. That information may be crucial to development considerations when assessing the VA property and its forgotten dump.
Michael Collins is a frequent contributor to CityBeat. For comprehensive information, documents, and photographs on the Brentwood dump, see his website, EnviroReporter.com.