British government put radioactive salt on chapati that they fed to Punjabi mothers in Oxfordshire in the 1970s

What in the fuck

[Image ID: A series of tweets from Dr Louise Raw @LouiseRawAuthor. The tweets read, ‘You can’t believe how kind the British are. Every morning, a van pulls up outside your house in Coventry. A friendly man brings you a freshly-baked flatbread to eat. It’s just for you, not anyone else in your family. Every afternoon he comes back to make sure you’ve eaten it.

It’s to improve your health, because you went to your GP with migraines. He said it could be anaemia, & these special chapatis will help you. You’re grateful: you haven’t been here long, & really appreciate your new country looking after you. Eventually another van comes.

It takes you, young Punjabi mum Pritam Kour, to what you’re told is a hospital, supposedly to see if this new health food is helping. They never tell you the strange building is actually the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, Oxfordshire. There they put you in a machine ‘like a box’. You hear a clicking noise. Then they take you home. You don’t speak much English but you express your gratitude again. All this just to help you. It’s wonderful. That was in 1969. In the 1990s, local reporter Sukhbender Singh, gets wind of a story.

Filmmaker @John Brownlow can’t believe what he uncovers. It has to be exposed. Pritam & 20 other Punjabi women had been fed RADIOACTIVE SALTS in those chapatis: never told, let alone asked. The illegal experiment was conducted by the MEDICAL RESEARCH COUNCIL (MRC).’ Four images are included: a picture of chapatis, a picture of a woman who is presumably Pritam Kour, a black and white picture of three scientists using some sort of equipment, and an illustration of a hand reaching towards a chapati. /End ID]

requested by anonymous:


Firstly, a quick assessment of the sources available here. The article above is from India Today, which is rated as Mixed for factual reporting according to MBFC due to multiple failed fact checks. Furthermore, the India Today article mostly cites a documentary (Deadly Experiments), which you can watch here on youtube.

Documentaries are not a reliable source, as there is no code of ethics, and they are not obligated to keep things factual.

Source: ‘It’s not just that the definition of “documentary” itself is mutable: unlike other journalistic and quasi-journalistic forms, no code of ethics has ever been agreed upon by practitioners of the art, and what rules of thumb there are tend to be temporary, controversial and broken as soon as they are made.’

As this research happened in 1969 (according to the India Times article and the documentary – the caption to the tweets claim the 1970’s), it has not been easy to find a lot of reliable information on this. However, after much searching, I did find the published paper in question!

The paper is entitled Absorption of Iron from Chapatti Made from Wheat Flour. It is not about the study of radiation, as implied by the tweets, but in fact was studying anaemia and whether supplementing food with iron salts could help iron absorption in South-Asian diets.

Source: ‘In many countries in which iron deficiency is a serious problem, cereals are eaten as foods such as chapatti or tortillas, which are made from an unfermented dough. The following study was conducted, therefore, to estimate the availability of naturally occurring wheat iron and of an iron salt added as a supplement to flour from chapatti made from white flour, and from chapatti made from wholemeal flour.’

The chapatis were supplemented with small amounts of iron salt (ferric ammonium citrate), to see whether this could help with low blood iron levels/iron deficiency anaemia. Radioactive isotopes were used – however, this is not as alarming as the tweets suggest. It is common practice to use radioactive isotopes in medicine as a tracer, and this practice is not considered harmful or dangerous.

Source: ‘Nuclear medicine uses radioactive isotopes in a variety of ways. One of the more common uses is as a tracer in which a radioisotope, such as technetium-99m, is taken orally or is injected or is inhaled into the body. The radioisotope then circulates through the body or is taken up only by certain tissues. Its distribution can be tracked according to the radiation it gives off. […] Radioisotopes typically have short half-lives and typically decay before their emitted radioactivity can cause damage to the patient’s body.’

Whether the participants of the study gave informed consent is not something I am able to fully assess. One of the participants, Pritam Kaur, claimed that she was not told about the iron salts/radioactive tracer, whilst a spokesperson for the MRC has denied this, and claimed that a translator was always present to ensure informed consent was given.

Overall, it does not seem that this research was definitely ‘illegal’ as the tweets claim. The major concern is whether the study was properly explained to the participants, allowing them to give informed consent.

The actual methodology and purpose of the study are common and considered to meet ethics standards, unlike other historical medical experiments. (For example, the British Military of Defence’s unethical testing of nerve gas, or the infamous Tuskegee Syphillis Study, which secretly prevented African American men with syphillis from accessing treatment so that they could study untreated syphillis.)

In summary, the tweets do not accurately portray the study. Whilst there is a real concern regarding whether the participants fully understood what they were consenting to, and therefore able to give informed consent, the study was researching iron absorption, not the effects of radioactivity. Radioactive isotopes are not considered dangerous when used as tracers. Whilst unethical and harmful experimentation on racial minorities has historically occurred, this specific instance was not likely to have caused the participants any physical harm.

I Love you, @is-the-post-reliable.

I doubt Dr Louise Raw cares about the accuracy of her claims, given she’s just regurgitating the documentary and doesn’t seem to have done any further investigations.

There were responses in the BMJ, by the way, to claims made in the documentary. They are free to read. ‘“Deadly Experiments”: UK’s programme was open and ethical’ (1995) and ‘no evidence of harm from tracer studies’ (literally the next letter on the page) This is important contextual information. I simply can’t imagine why Raw would neglect to mention it.

Thank you so much for adding this, @aristoteliancomplacency – I didn’t see this during my research, and it adds some excellent context, including a clear explanation of how the documentary was misleading.