December 29

1945–1947: Vanderbilt “Nutrition Study” Exposed 820 pregnant women to radioactive iron

An exceptionally large-scale radiation exposure experiment at Vanderbilt University was funded by the U.S. Public Health Service and involved 820 poor pregnant Caucasian women who were given tracer doses of radioactive iron in a “cocktail” drink. The researchers worked with the Tennessee State Department of Health and they did not inform the women what was in the drink, nor were they informed that they were part of an experiment. The radiation portion of the experiment was designed study the absorption of iron during pregnancy under the direction of Dr. Paul Hahn. Vanderbilt researchers who re-examined the data in 1963–1964, claimed no significant difference in malignancy rates between exposed and non-exposed mothers. However,

a higher number of malignancies among the exposed offspring (four cases in the exposed group: acute lymphatic leukemia, synovial sarcoma, lymphosarcoma, and primary liver carcinoma, which was discounted as a rare, familial form of cancer). No cases were found in a control group of similar size…This led the researchers to conclude that the data suggested a causal relationship between the prenatal exposure to Fe-59 and the cancer. The investigators also concluded that Dr. Hahn’s estimate of fetal exposure was an underestimation of the fetal-absorbed dose. (ACHRE Report Chapter 7)

The Advisory Committee found that at least 27 experiments exposed pregnant or nursing mothers and their babies in nontherapeutic research between 1944–1974.


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