Many used as unwitting lab rats

It's always painful to think about: There are doctors and scientists and businessmen and government officials who lie to people about the safety of work they're asked to do, who use men and women and children as human guinea pigs.

As I talked with 70-year-old Oscar Foger, such behavior was front and center. A former miner at the Nevada Test Site from 1959 to 1995, he said he was told it was safe to re-enter tunnels soon after underground nuclear bomb tests.

"I was lied to - thousands of us were lied to about the effects of radiation and chemicals," Foger said after a briefing last week at the Atomic Testing Museum where it was announced that former test site workers were eligible for free low-dose CT scans to detect lung cancer. "They told us beer would flush the stuff from our system."

Foger, who has already received $250,000 in compensation for medical problems in connection with his work - he's had a cancerous kidney removed - isn't alone in saying workers weren't told the truth about the dangers they faced.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., when working in 2004 to give Yucca Mountain employees the same kind of compensation benefits as former test site workers, was just as blunt: "This is no different from the 1950s and 1960s when the government lied to test site workers and told them they were safe."

What happened at the test site wasn't the first time and won't be the last time, Foger believes, that unknowing people will be put at risk, often with the notion that the "greater good" is being served.

American history certainly bears out the first part of Foger's assertion. Pray that the past isn't indicative of the future.

While the documented atrocities - ranging from surgical experiments without anesthesia to infecting children with hepatitis - are too numerous to outline here, historians use the Tuskegee syphilis study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972 as a starting point to examine unethical experimentation on Americans in the country's modern era.

In that study, the progression of untreated syphilis was examined in hundreds of poor black men in Alabama.

They weren't told they had the disease and researchers never treated patients with penicillin after the drug was found to be an effective cure.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton apologized to the few remaining survivors and their families. Wives had contracted the disease, children were born with it.

Wellesley College historian Susan Reverby discovered records that showed that from 1946 to 1948 U.S. Public Health service doctors went even further in Guatemala, deliberately infecting hundreds there with syphilis.

In 2010, President Barack Obama formally apologized to Guatemala.

In 1994, U.S. Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV, D-W.V., issued a report that confirmed what my father, a World War II veteran, warned me about before I went in the Army - the military uses personnel for dangerous experiments without their knowledge.

Rockefeller wrote:

"During the last 50 years, hundreds of thousands of military personnel have been involved in human experimentation and other intentional exposure ... often without a service member's knowledge or consent. ... Thousands of World War II veterans who originally volunteered to 'test summer clothing' ... found themselves in gas chambers testing the effects of mustard gas. ... Persian Gulf War veterans ... reported that they were ordered to take experimental vaccines during Operation Desert Shield or face prison."

For 52 pages the report details horrors - from giving men mind-bending drugs to exposing them to radiation - that smack of Nazi Germany. Interestingly, Nazi doctors on trial at Nuremberg used an American study on prisoners to defend their own actions during the Holocaust.

Though Foger said "evil" has been a part of America and believes it will continue to be, he said he loves his country.

"We try to do what other countries don't," he said. "We try to hold people accountable."

Paul Harasim is the medical reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His column appears Mondays. Harasim can be reached at or 702-387-2908.