Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Internet Source: The Online Magazine of the Pacific News Service, October 17, 2000
Did Amazonian Indians Die From Measles Vaccine?
A firestorm of controversy is moving through the world of anthropology in response to charges that members of the profession conducted human experiments which took the lives of hundreds of unknowing Indians. But this may only be the beginning of a very distressing story. PNS commentator Geoffrey Sea, a historian and an expert on human radiation experiments, is executive director of the U.S.-Kazakhstan International Foundation on Radiation, Ecology and Health. This is a revised version of Geoffrey Sea's original article of the same title.
Anthropologists have expressed surprise and distress at charges that hundreds of Yanomami Indians in the Amazon may have died as a result of "human experiments" conducted by American scientists in 1968.
The charges appear in a book by Patrick Tierney, "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon," to be published in mid-November when the American Anthropological Association will hold a special session on the book's claims at its annual meeting in San Francisco.
According to an adaptation published in The New Yorker magazine the Indians were given a measles vaccine, and there has been much debate about whether the vaccine itself was the cause of the deaths. Questions were also raised about the methodology of the geneticists and anthropologists involved, and about the impact of American "scientific imperialism" on indigenous peoples.
There has been little comment on the fact that the research was funded by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Why was the AEC, of all agencies, conducting potentially dangerous experiments in South America? And why didn't we hear about them in the government's "full disclosure" about human radiation experiments at the end of the first Clinton administration?
In late 1993, then-Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary acknowledged a widespread program of cold war human experimentation. She joined others in Congress and the Administration in decrying the abuse of "U.S. citizens." The tests included injecting plutonium into 18 medical patients, intentionally exposing Navajo uranium miners to radon, whole-body irradiation of "mentally enfeebled" people, and feeding radioactive iron to pregnant women and mentally retarded boys.
President Clinton chartered the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments and directed all federal agencies to turn over documents related to the experiments, including those classified as secret.
The Committee worked for two years. Its final report was touted as the last word on America's cold war crimes. The President issued a public apology, a few families received compensation, and the Administration claimed that the matter "could now be put behind us." This announcement was made at the very moment the jury verdict was delivered in the OJ Simpson criminal trial -- a timing that ensured minimal media coverage.
The final report did not recommend prosecution of any perpetrator and the Justice Dept. did not even initiate any criminal investigations. The committee looked only at the direct administration of ionizing radiation or radioactive substances, omitting known experiments involving microwaves, electromagnetic fields or so-called "beam weapons."
This strict definition of "radiation experiment" also excluded the unethical collection of blood, bodies and tissue samples -- including blood and bones from the Yanomami -- so there was no mention of returning such material (much of it still maintained in gruesome "archives") or compensating the non-consenting donors.
The Committee was aware of this work. I testified that some of the most unethical and lethal tests involved chemical or pharmaceutical agents or surgical techniques thought to have potential for dealing with radiation injury, or used to explore basic biological mechanisms.
Ernest Garcia, a veteran of a secret US Army/CIA unit, removed his shirt before the Advisory Committee to reveal mustard gas burns that he received while doing lethal tests of chemical and perhaps radiological weapons on Amazonian Indians. In the late 1950's, according to Tierney's account, these very same Indians were subjected to experiments involving radioactive iodine and iron, and then a dangerous measles vaccine.
All such testimony was deemed outside the scope of the Committee, as was any inquiry into the largest human radiation "experiment" of all -- the scientific studies of survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Thus the committee did not examine the work of eugenicist James V. Neel, who headed the genetic studies of A-bomb survivors and later led the AEC-funded research on the Yanomami. Neel, who died last February, amassed large collections of blood and tissue from non-consenting Japanese, Marshallese and Yanomami.
Evidently Neel and the AEC were attracted to the Yanomami because they had not been exposed to radiation, and their rate of genetic mutation could be used as a baseline to compare with an exposed population.
In general, the Committee gave short shrift to experiments conducted abroad or on foreign nationals. Perhaps the emphasis on wrongs against "US citizens" -- as if crimes against humanity should be graded according to citizenship -- led agencies such as the CIA and the Army to conclude that they need not reveal activities involving non-Americans.
Or it may be that the worst atrocities were never documented, or that the documentation was destroyed. Tragically, we do not yet know the extent of secret unethical experiments conducted on unsuspecting populations around the globe by American (and Soviet) scientists bent on obtaining some Cold War advantage, or who were just plain bent.
The first Congressional hearings on human radiation experiments were called in 1981, by a young congressman from Tennessee named Albert Gore, Jr. Whoever wins this November, the next President owes the world a full accounting of America's Cold War experimentation program. If America cannot hold its own war criminals accountable, what right have we to pursue and prosecute others?
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