Research on U.K. Nuke Plant Workers Ignored Consent Law

The British government has apologized for 40 years of postmortem research done on nuclear plant workers—and other individuals—without proper consent. A report released yesterday blames British pathologists "profoundly ignorant of the law" for ethical lapses in scores of research projects in which pathologists and coroners obtained and provided tissues to scientists interested in measuring radiation exposures and their impact on the body.

The Inquiry into Human Tissue Analysis in U.K. Nuclear Facilities was launched in 2007 and led by lawyer Michael Redfern. The final report notes that the investigated research projects, which involved taking tissue from more than 6000 people from the 1950s to the early 1990s, produced significant data published in peer-review journals. But the report concludes that many pathologists violated the Human Tissue Act of 1961 that demanded a family's consent to remove tissue for reasons other than determining the cause of death. The government's public apology was issued by Chris Huhne, the U.K. Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

Some of the unauthorized research, the Redfern report notes, helped revise a formula for calculating exposure to plutonium by analyzing a person's urine. Other work was intended to examine the link between radiation exposure and disease by measuring tissue levels of strontium-90 and other elements; one strontium-90 project, for example, examined bones taken from more than 3000 people between 1955 and 1973.

Although all the organs and tissues removed have been destroyed, the Redfern Inquiry concluded that much of the data should remain available for research so long as those from whom the tissues were taken could not be identified. The inquiry notes that there were several futile efforts to set up a national registry in which U.K. nuclear facility workers could volunteer for postmortem studies. "A unique opportunity to investigate the effects of relatively high historic exposures to radiation and to put such post mortem work on a legitimate footing was missed," the report states.