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Sunday, 17 June, 2001, 18:02 GMT 19:02 UK
Radiation tests on baby bones
Yorkhill children's hospital
The research was carried out at Yorkhill hospital
Government agencies have admitted bones were secretly removed from the bodies of hundreds of dead babies in Scotland in the 1960s for testing.

The bones were tested for radioactivity as part of a study to establish the dangers of nuclear weapons trials.

One leading scientist involved has defended their work.

The research was carried out at Yorkhill Children's Hospital in Glasgow between 1959 and 1970.


This work was absolutely vital, we did it to establish whether these nuclear tests were poisoning or potentially damaging children.

Professor Gavin Arneil
The thigh bones of more than 2,000 children were reduced to ashes and subjected to tests for radioactive contamination.

Every year, between 100 and 200 thigh bones of children who died in west central Scotland were removed or sampled in post mortem examinations at Yorkhill.

A handful came from Perthshire, Orkney, and Ross and Cromarty and Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands.

The scientists were trying to establish what effect the fallout from nuclear tests being carried out around the world was having on health.

Doctors feared that because it was contaminating milk, it could be building up to dangerous levels in children's bones.

Atmospheric nuclear tests

Operators of the Dounreay nuclear plant in Caithness, the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which initiated the research, and the Medical Research Council, which oversaw it, have admitted parents were not asked for their consent.

More than half the children who had femur samples removed were still-born and most others died before they reached the age of five.

After being incinerated, the femurs were analysed for the radioactive isotope strontium-90.

The only permission ever requested from the bereaved parents in the 12 years of analysing bones was for routine post-mortem examinations.

Damaging children

Professor Gavin Arneil, paediatrician at the Yorkhill children's hospital, said he was not involved in removing the bones but he did carry out tests.

"This work was absolutely vital, we did it to establish whether these nuclear tests were poisoning or potentially damaging children.

"I regret that this news has come out now. There will be many parents who clearly will be upset at this development, and I regret that.

"But I would stress that the work was justified.

"The ethics of the time were different and parents were asked to give permission for post-mortem examinations.

"Whether other questions were asked or not I do not know."

Futher investigation

Health minister Susan Deacon said later that the findings were very disturbing and merited further investigation.

She will ask the independent review group set up after the Alder Hey scandal in Liverpool to look at the findings.

"While these events took place some time ago, they will still be very disturbing to the families concerned," she said.

"I have made it clear that the paternalism of the past has no place in a 21st-century health service and parents must be kept involved in any decision affecting their children."

She believed the findings would strengthen the review group's determination to make sure such things never happened again.

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