Environmental Legacy of the Cold War: The Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory's Thyroid Function Study

The Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory's Thyroid Function Study

The Use of Native Alaskans in a Radiological Experiment

Between August and September of 1955, the U.S. Air Force's Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory in initiated a research project which included residents from the Inupiaq villages of Wainwright, Point Lay, and Anaktuvik Pass, and Athabascan Indian villages of Fort Yukon and Arctic Village. The purpose of this research was to study the role of the thyriod gland in acclimatization of humans to cold. The study used Iodine 131, a radioactive medical tracer to measure thyroid activity in 121 people - 102 Alaska Natives and 19 military personnel.

In the early 1990s, serious questions were raised regarding the selection process of the participants; their understanding of the purpose of the research; and the risks involved. At the urging of the U. S. National Research Council, a Committee on Evaluation of the 1950s Air Force Human Health Testing in Alaska Using Radioactive Iodine 131 was formed in June of 1994. Its stated purpose was to address the questions raised above. Two years later the Committee's final report was published by the National Academy Press.

The complete report comprising 177 pages can be downloaded from the National Academy Press web site. The book, published in 1996, is entitled: The Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory's Thyroid Function Study: A Radiological Risk and Ethical Analysis. Contents include an Introduction; Health Effects of Iodine 131 Administration in Humans; the Ethics of Human Subjects Research; Conclusions and Recommendations.

One section of the Committee's report addresses the results of an open hearing held in Alaska in which Alaska Natives from several localities were active participants. Entitled "Common Themes from the Public Session," [pages 24-25], it is reprinted below, courtesy of the National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

Norman Chance, Convener

Common Themes from the Public Session

The public hearing and interviews were free of obvious rancor and reflected a real willingness to cooperate and share information with the Committee. All the participants, but especially the Alaskan Natives, were exceedingly generous in their attitude tow ard the Committee's mission and their willingness to be of help, even at great personal expense (financial and emotional). The advantage of such interchange was that it permitted the Committee to gain insight into what really occurred and what the partici pants thought and felt. The Committtee heard the following common themes during the public session:

Participants in the AAL [Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory] thyroid function study and the public in Alaska share a general confusion about the Iodine 131 experiment and other medical experiments conducted in the region through time as well as confusion a bout a host of Arctic contamination issues.

During the public session, it became clear that many of the speakers were concerned about experiments beyond the AAL thyroid function study - other medical experiments conducted at other times and places. Some speakers raised concerns about unrelated, but obviously important issues sudh as unresoved contamination from the military presence. Some spoke with alarm about reports of radioactivity in the Arctic Ocean from dumping waste materials such as sunken nuclear rectors from the former Soviet Union. Ques tions were posed about other radioactive elements besides Iodine 131, including strontium and cesium. For some, the public session was seen as an opportunity to air grievances that had no forum before.

Participants felt fear, anger, and uncertainity about the role of Iodine 131 and other contaminants in producing various chronic ailments and even death.

Some of the Alaska Natives who testified believed that Native people seemed healthier long ago and that health difficulties seemed linked with the rapid and somtimes dramatic changes caused by increasing domination by Western culture that began in the 194 0s. Again, this concern is not directly related to the AAL thyroid function study, but is important to our understanding of the people's feelings about the study. It is impossible to disengangle completely the people's reactions to other research that was conducted and other aspects of their contact with the incoming dominant culture and the changes caused in their traditional life style.

Participants in the public session expressed great frustration and increasing militancy about the lack of respect given Native people by the Western majority.

Throughout the public session, speakers voiced frustration that Native people repeatedly had been betrayed by white authority figures and that these betrayals frequently followed extensions of hospitality, respect, and trust by Native peoples. As evidence of disrespect, speakers cited the obvious indifference and ignorance about the Native govvernment and social structures, and about Native philosophy of life. White arrogance was characterized by a persistent presumption that whites believed that Natives "wanted to be like us." The tension between the cultures was clear when one participant asked the AAL principal investigator if he thought Natives were human.

Some speakers, and even the Committee, were chastized for being insufficiently attuned to, or carelessly informed about, how different were the needs and concerns that distinguished the Inupiat Eskimos from the Indians. Participants pointed who benefited from the research as another example of white arrogance - the experiments on Natives were preformed not to help the subjects or to help their general society, but to help the U.S. military and the general welfare of whites. When given the opportunity to v oice long-held frustrations, a theme was that the research epitomized white entitlement at the expense of Native respect and trust.

Participants doubted the willingness of the U.S. Government to share information and wondered whether even this attempt at openness was half-hearted.

With hindsight, the secrecy ethos of the Cold War did much to breed mistrust of government, not just in Alaska but throughout the citizens of the nation. The Alaska Natives' strong response to learning of the AAL thyroid function study was born out of yea rs of mistrust, a mistrust that will not be simple to rectify. To the interested parties it may have seemed peculiar that there is not a larger and clearer paper trail about the research subjects.

Participants in the public session expressed frustration at how difficult it has been for them to obtain archived information. Even this Committee was suspect -was it part of an overall "stonewalling" effort because it was unable to supply names of some i ndividuals who participated in the Iodine 131 experiments? Further, some were dissatisfied because of the short notice given about the Committee's public meeting. This problem was due to to time constraints but could be interpreted as an indication of in sensitivity. Participants were also distressed that the Committee did not visit every concerned village and that not all members had visited villages. This constraint was also due to time and financial liminations.

Over and over again, speakers voiced concern about the history of abuse the indigenous people have suffered from the dominating mainland culture. From the Natives viewpoint, their grievances have been met with at best patronizing indifference and at worst lethal disregard. Although not specfic to the AAL thyroid function study under investigation by this Committee, these concerns are reactions to the larger contest within which the study took place, a context which has implications for the nature of the c onduct of the study.

The final section of the Committee report stated that:"

"The risk analysis in this report is based on the best epideological and dosimetry available. It is, if anything, conservative; risks may actually be smaller than expressed. The Committee's position acknowledges the flaws of the AAL thyyroid function study within the context of history, while not placing blame on those who conducted the research using what they perceived to be harmless methods in pursuit of justified goals."

Back in the1920s, the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen discussed at some length the changing conditions of the North with a well known Canadian Inuit. Near the close of the discussion, the Inuit spoke quietly but firmly:

"We fear cold and the things that we do not understand. But most of all we fear the doings of the heedless ones amoung ourselves."

Additional References Pertaining to the Environmental and Social Legacy of the Cold War

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