“We are all downwinders.” – Langdon Harrison, US Air Force Pilot, veteran of atomic bomb testing

In 2012, I bought the kindle version of Eileen Welsome’s The Plutonium Files. Recently, someone on social media was asking for some information from this book because she said it was quite difficult to obtain from her location. I offered to help her, but I also asked why she couldn’t just get the ebook version. Then she told me it was unavailable, and she was surprised that I had a kindle version. I checked and found she was right. It is no longer available in digital format. Furthermore, the hardcover and paperback editions are very expensive now, which means the books is out of print but in demand.

People who are familiar with the book know that it contained shocking and embarrassing revelations about US government radiation experiments on uninformed and non-consenting patients. The disappearance of the book raises the question of whether government agencies pressured the publisher to make this book more difficult to obtain. And there is the fact that in 2013, Amazon got a $600 million deal to do work for the CIA. What The Plutonium Files revealed can never be completely hidden again, but the government does have ways to make sure that such embarrassing exposés get pushed further to the margins and become more difficult to access.

There is a history of such disappearances of valuable published material. Sometimes publishers give a contract to a writer of film producer, but after publication or release of the film, they realize the material is too radical for the corporate image, or they come under pressure from outside agencies to make the product disappear. The book goes out of print, or the film gets a short run in cinemas with no promotion. In the 1970s, the original publishing contract for Chomsky and Herman’s book The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism was cancelled under outside pressure, but it was eventually published by South End Press. With the films Queimada (1969) and Idiocracy (2006), the studios that owned them gave them the bare minimum of promotion and decided they preferred to lose money on them. It would be interesting to hear from Eileen Welsome to know if she can explain why the digital edition of her book has disappeared.

About The Plutonium Files

A review posted on Amazon:

In a Massachusetts school, seventy-three disabled children were spoon fed radioactive isotopes along with their morning oatmeal….In an upstate New York hospital, an eighteen-year-old woman, believing she was being treated for a pituitary disorder, was injected with plutonium by Manhattan Project doctors….At a Tennessee prenatal clinic, 829 pregnant women were served “vitamin cocktails”–in truth, drinks containing radioactive iron–as part of their prenatal treatment….

In 1945, the seismic power of atomic energy was already well known to researchers, but the effects of radiation on human beings were not. Fearful that plutonium would cause a cancer epidemic among workers, Manhattan Project doctors embarked on a human experiment that was as chilling as it was closely guarded: the systematic injection of unsuspecting Americans with radioactive plutonium. In this shocking exposé, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Eileen Welsome reveals the unspeakable scientific trials that reduced thousands of American men, women, and even children to nameless specimens with silvery radioactive metal circulating in their veins. Spanning the 1930s to the 1990s, filled with hundreds of newly declassified documents and firsthand interviews, The Plutonium Files traces the behind-the-scenes story of an extraordinary fifty-year cover-up. It illuminates a shadowy chapter in this country’s history and gives eloquent voice to the men and women who paid for our atomic energy discoveries with their health—and sometimes their lives.

A few memorable aspects of the book

If the world had never got a chance to see the declassified documents, we might have had a sense that something icky was going on if we came across government studies with titles like this one, cited in The Plutonium Files:

K. Scott and J.G. Hamilton, “A Comparison of the Metabolism of Plutonium (Pu-238) in Man and the Rat,” Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science and Technical Information, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1946.

In other cases, single words appearing in the cited documents highlight how much the doctors involved subtly dehumanized their patients. They were often insistent on moving beyond animal testing and knowing how plutonium affects “the human” as opposed to “the beagle.” One document described the ideal patient as the desired type of “material” that should preferably be “moribund.” It is notable that these doctors were not just following the acceptable norms of their time. The Nazi war crimes trials were very recent events, and government agencies had adopted ethics codes for research. The plutonium researchers knew they were acting against professional ethics. One of the doctors wrote of the need to keep “dogooders” out of the way. They also went out of their way to find research subjects who were disempowered and lacking in the social connections that could have raised objections. The doctors never sought the usual research subjects such as university students or their own families and communities.

In one instance, Eileen Welsome failed to comment on another bit of language, this time on the irony of the name Hanford Jang, one of the unwitting experimental subjects who was injected with radioactive americium. He was a teenage Chinese immigrant suffering from bone cancer, and patients like him were chosen because they were both still physiologically normal in many ways but sure to die in a short time anyway. Chinese parents immigrating to the West often choose to anglicize their children’s names with posh sounding names like “Bentley.”  The name “Hanford,” likewise, does have a noble ring to it, but in this case, Hanford’s poison was likely made at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.

The most bizarre segment of the book describes the work of a Dr. Carl Heller who spent several years doing research on male prisoners in Oregon. All of the government sponsored radiation experimenters wanted to find the “holy grail” of radiation research, which was to discover a biological dosimeter—a biological marker that would determine how much radiation an individual had been exposed to. After subjecting testicles of “the human” to various forms of radiation (internal, gamma, x-ray and even neutrons), Dr. Heller confidently announced to colleagues that he could tell from a biopsied testicle exactly how much radiation a man had been exposed to. His peers seemed to agree that he had found the holy grail, but there were, admittedly, practical obstacles to scaling this painful biopsy up to the kind of testing that would be needed on the nuclear battlefield or after a nuclear emergency. And there was no biological dosimeter, alas, for “the human female” or “the human fetus.”

Finally, this slice of nuclear history must strike everyone as personally relevant. We all have to wonder about the compound effects of chemicals and radiation and how they have contributed to chronic diseases, which themselves have contributed to the population’s vulnerability to a new cold virus. And now we have to wonder whether the new mRNA vaccines really are as safe as “the science” says they are. There are always the unknown unknowns to wonder about, and usually vaccines are tested for several years so that the unexpected consequences can be discovered before millions of people have been exposed.

Welsome also covers the military personnel who were exposed during atomic bomb tests. One of these soldiers, a pilot who was ordered to fly through mushroom clouds over Nevada to gather fallout samples, stressed that everyone was a victim, even beyond the borders of United States:

The cloud samplers continued to swoop in and out of the mushroom clouds until 1962. Like the ground troops, many of the pilots developed cancer or other diseases that they feel were caused by their radiation exposure. Langdon Harrison, who contracted prostate and bladder cancer, believes wholeheartedly that he received more than the 8.5 roentgens [.085 Sieverts] listed on his official reports. He said often he was ordered to circle in the dirty-looking clouds for up to fifteen minutes while trying to fill his tanks with radioactive gases. All the while he watched as the numbers on his radiation monitors climbed.

Harrison said he would never have volunteered for the sampling missions had he been informed of the risks. “The whole thing was fraught with peril and danger and they knew it was, and this I resent quite readily,” he told one interviewer. “There isn’t anybody in the United States who isn’t a downwinder, either. When we followed the clouds, we went all over the United States from east to west and covering a broad spectrum of Mexico and Canada. Where are you going to draw the line? Everyone is a downwinder. It circles the earth, round and round, what comes around goes around.” (p. 284)

Sources

D.E.H Cleveland and A.H. Pirie, “The Treatment of Chronic Acne by X-Ray.” Canadian Medical Association Journal, November 1938; 39(5): 499–500.

Lawrence E. Lamb. “X-Ray No Acne Cure.” The Victoria Advocate. Victoria, Texas, June 9, 1977.

Arjun Makhijani, “A Readiness to Harm: The Health Effects of Nuclear Weapons Complexes,” Arms Control Association, August 29, 2008.

S. Preston-Martin. “Prior X-ray Therapy for Acne Related to Tumors of the Parotid Gland.” Archives of Dermatology, July 1989;125(7):921-4.

Steven Simon, André Bouville, and Charles Land, “Prior Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Tests and Cancer Risks.” American Scientist. January-February 2006, Volume 94, Number 1. Page 48.DOI: 10.1511/2006.1.48.

Eileen Welsome, The Plutonium Files (Dell Publishing, 1999).