Workers Vanguard No. 990
11 November 2011
Baltimore: Racist Abuse Disguised as Research
Johns Hopkins Lead Poisoning Experiment on Black Kids
Ericka Grimes was one year old when researchers from Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI), a prestigious medical facility affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, knowingly exposed her to dangerous levels of lead. As part of its 1993 “Lead-Based Paint Abatement and Repair and Maintenance Study,” KKI kept her in a decrepit house encrusted with crumbling, peeling lead paint. Five months later, the lead in Ericka’s blood had tripled to a level considered “highly elevated” by medical authorities. Ericka was among scores of black children who were harmed by the KKI study, which was funded by the federal government. Children of her age who ingest lead paint chips or dust can develop learning disabilities, impaired hearing and permanent brain damage.
The stated objective of the study was to help “preserve availability of low-rent urban housing that might be abandoned by landlords if they had to pay for the expensive repairs needed to eliminate lead using standard abatement methods”—in other words, to save slumlords some cash. It was already well known that the risk of childhood lead poisoning could be practically eliminated by a thorough lead abatement, not to speak of replacing the crumbling ghetto buildings with new, lead-free housing. What the study intended to figure out was how much landlords could skimp on repairs before the children ended up with brain damage.
KKI claims that the study was ultimately beneficial to the city of Baltimore because it helped bring about a large drop in new lead-poisoning cases. To get those results, KKI acted with racist contempt for the children, using them as human guinea pigs. KKI encouraged landlords to rent to families with young children and lured unwitting parents with toys, food stamps and money. Researchers periodically took blood samples from the children and identified lead-infested hot spots in the houses but hid the danger from the parents.
The children with elevated blood lead levels did not receive any medical treatment. Indeed, treating them, which should have begun by providing the families with decent homes, would have vitiated the study, the whole point of which was to measure the rising levels of lead in the children’s blood. As noted in a class-action lawsuit filed on September 15, KKI, an internationally renowned facility specializing in childhood brain disorders, intentionally treated poor black children like “canaries in the mines.”
The lawsuit was made possible by a 2001 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that overturned previous court decisions protecting KKI from legal action. The ruling sent shock waves through the public health establishment by concluding that no child in Maryland could be included in a “non-therapeutic study that promises no medical benefit to the child.” The court decision noted that if children were involved in such a study, “any balance between risk and benefit is necessarily negative.”
The decision compared the lead-poisoning study to Nazi experiments carried out in the Buchenwald concentration camp, U.S. government radiation experiments on soldiers in the 1940s and ’50s and the infamous “Tuskegee experiment.” In the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” the U.S. Public Health Service recruited hundreds of black men with syphilis in Macon County, Alabama, and watched them die slow, agonizing, yet preventable deaths. For 40 years, the government withheld treatment from the men, even when penicillin became available as an effective treatment for syphilis. The “study” ended in 1972 only because it was exposed in the press, igniting a firestorm of public outrage over its racism and cruelty. By then, more than 100 of the men had already died of the disease and its complications.
In the case of the radiation studies cited by the court, the government sent no fewer than 200,000 American soldiers into irradiated test sites within minutes after atomic bombs were set off. The tests came on the heels of the 1945 incineration of 200,000 Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by U.S. atomic bombs. That horrendous war crime and the later studies were carried out as part of the massive effort to develop and test nuclear weapons for use against the Soviet Union (see “U.S. Irradiated Thousands in Atomic Experiments,” WV No. 594, 18 February 1994).
In fact, the radiation experiments went far beyond the exposure of soldiers to nuclear fallout. In hospitals, schools and other institutions across the U.S., unsuspecting pregnant women, children and others were exposed to massive amounts of X-rays, injected with radioactive isotopes and made to eat food laced with radioactive carcinogens. These and many other atrocities, which lasted until the 1970s, are chronicled in The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War (1999), written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eileen Welsome. Johns Hopkins was among the universities and hospitals cited by Welsome that carried out the experiments.
Medical Research and Racist Contempt
For generations, black oral history has featured “night doctors” who abduct children for gruesome experiments. These stories are not entirely irrational. The KKI experiment is not an aberration. Indeed, there is a long history of such atrocities in this capitalist society, which was founded on black chattel slavery and continues to brand black people for life by the color of their skin. From the horrors of the Middle Passage and the bartering in human flesh to the noose of the lynch rope and rampant racist cop terror, the oppression of black people in the U.S. has been marked by systematic degradation and cruelty.
In the slaveholders’ South, slaves were sometimes rented or purchased for the sole purpose of medical experimentation. Thomas Jefferson experimented with smallpox vaccine on his slaves. In the 1840s, James Marion Sims—venerated as a benefactor of women and the “father of gynecology” for pioneering fistula repair, among other contributions—performed scores of operations on the genitals of female slaves without anesthesia. Sims refused to administer the anesthetic ether, claiming that blacks felt less pain than whites—a lie long favored by slavery’s apologists.
The imprint of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the continuing oppression of black people is reflected in the race and class bias permeating the KKI study. Johns Hopkins Medicine includes a state-of-the-art hospital whose renowned doctors and medical advances attract patients and students from around the world. It also provides medical services for poor people in Baltimore—a mainly black, once heavily industrialized city whose unemployment, decay and racist police brutality were poignantly captured in the HBO TV series The Wire. Yet the lead-poisoning experiment was one of a long list of racist abuses carried out by this respected institution.
As part of a federally funded study, in 2000 Johns Hopkins researchers spread sludge fertilizer made from human and industrial waste on lawns in black neighborhoods. According to a 2008 Associated Press exposé, researchers argued that the iron and phosphates in the fertilizer could prevent lead from being absorbed by children playing in the yard who get soil in their mouths. (Proper soil abatement involves installing an impermeable barrier or replacing topsoil with uncontaminated soil. But landlords want to avoid such costly measures.) Families were assured of the safety of the sludge and were never told about the harmful effects if their kids ingested it.
An example of the disdainful treatment Johns Hopkins has meted out to its black patients is related in Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010). An impoverished black woman, Lacks was treated for cervical cancer in 1951 at the segregated “colored women” ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Without her knowledge, physicians excised tissue from her tumor and proceeded to culture cells from that sample. When Lacks died a few months later, doctors duped her family into performing an autopsy solely to secure more of her tissues for culture.
The many cultures derived from these cells, known by laboratory convention as HeLa, became an unparalleled research tool crucial to a vast amount of biomedical research, from the development of the polio vaccine to mapping the human genome, AIDS research and the development of cloning techniques. HeLa cells are featured in 60,000 scientific papers. But while Henrietta Lacks’ cells were hawked by laboratory supply companies the world over, generating billions of dollars in profit, her family was for years kept in the dark. Her daughter Deborah told Skloot that while she “can’t get mad at science” because it helped people live better lives, she wanted health insurance so she could have access to medicine that her mother’s cells probably helped make.
Deborah Lacks, who died from a heart attack in 2009, was a microcosm of the health crisis afflicting the black population. She had high blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes, depression and anxiety disorder. Life expectancy for black people in the U.S. is six years less than that of whites. At 13.3 per one thousand, the black infant mortality rate is almost double the national average and higher than that of Sri Lanka.
Wretched housing, entrenched poverty, mass unemployment, rotten health care: these conditions define life for the mass of the black population, whose segregation at the bottom of society is a fundamental feature of American capitalism. When the multiracial working class seizes power from the capitalist exploiters and establishes a workers government, it will lay the basis for building a planned economy in which all are guaranteed jobs, quality health care and integrated, quality housing and schools. It is only through the construction of an egalitarian socialist society that the chains of racial oppression can be broken once and for all.