Scientists are searching for a group of women who were fed radioactive chapatis in the 1960s as part of a ‘deeply troubling’ medical experiment into the absorption of iron.
The disturbing story of a 1969 study that saw 21 Indian-origin women from Coventry given bread laced with Iron-59 – an iron isotope with a gamma-beta emitter – recently resurfaced after Coventry MP Taiwo Owatemi demanded an investigation into the decades-old medical research.
Ms Owatemi’s calls sparked a wave of viral posts on TikTok and X, formerly known as Twitter, with users branding the experiment ‘shocking’, ‘disgusting’, and ‘deeply, deeply unethical’.
Many of the women exposed to radioactive substances had gone to their GP for help with minor health issues, such as migraines. This sparked concern about widespread anaemia in the UK’s South Asian community.
Medical professionals suspected traditional South Asian diets were to blame for the deficiency, and decided to deliver flatbreads laced with Iron-59 to participants’ homes.
After consuming the bread, the women were taken to have their radiation levels measured at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell in Oxfordshire, to determine how much iron had been absorbed.
The study concluded that ‘Asian women should take extra iron because the iron in the flour was insoluble’.
But there have long been concerns that the women tested, many of whom are believed to have been immigrants with limited English, were not provided with enough information to give informed consent.
These issues came to light in 1995 Channel 4 documentary Deadly Experiments which sparked an independent inquiry into the experiment funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC).
The report was published in 1998 and ‘recognised that research practice, ethics and regulation had moved on significantly since the experiments were originally undertaken’.
‘The inquiry directly resulted in new guidance and additional improvements have been made since then,’ the MRC said in a statement on Wednesday.
A historian has revived public interest in the story, after her X thread on what happened attracted more than 6.6 million views.
She said no one had followed up with the women who were experimented on to see if they had become sick.
Coventry North West MP Taiwo Owatemi said the discussion ‘deeply concerned’ her and promised to call for a debate about it when Parliament returns in September.
‘This is horrifying and I am deeply disturbed that a community here in Coventry was targeted for research without them being able to give informed consent.’
I know that people across Coventry â and especially in the cityâs South Asian community â are very concerned at reports of a research study that took place in Coventry in the 1960s, where 21 South Asian women were fed chapatis containing radioactive iron salts.
My statement: pic.twitter.com/CRoE7z5sTW
Coventry South MP Zarah Sultana said: ‘I understand that in the intervening years, the women have still not been identified, meaning that errors of the past have still not been addressed.
‘I am shocked that in spite of having been exposed decades ago, the South Asian community in Coventry has still not had a full explanation of what happened.
‘I therefore support calls for a statutory inquiry into this study and the way these women were treated, ensuring that the community gets answers to what happened.’
The MRC’s full response:
MRC position statement on radioisotope use in 1950s and 1960s studies
Public and patient involvement, ethical practice and trust is critical to the work of the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the whole medical research community. That includes both public and patient involvement in our research but also transparency, accountability and public challenge to what we do and how we do it.
The issue of radioisotopes (radioactive tracers) within studies funded by MRC in the 1950s and 1960s was raised by a Channel 4 television documentary in 1995 and has recently been the subject of renewed discussion on X (formerly Twitter). This included a clinical study on absorption of iron from chapatti made of wheat flour.
The issues were considered following the broadcast of the documentary in 1995 and an independent inquiry was established at that time to examine the questions raised.
The inquiry, chaired by Rabbi Julia Neuberger, then Chief Executive of the King’s Fund, London, published its report in May 1998 (and it has remained publicly available ever since at the British Library). The report did recognise that research practice, ethics and regulation had moved on significantly since the experiments were originally undertaken and made a series of recommendations. The inquiry directly resulted in new guidance and additional improvements have been made since then.
It is also important to note that work by the MRC, and across the sector, has and continues to strengthen approaches to public and patient involvement, ethics and regulation.
MRC remains committed to the highest standards of integrity in the way individuals are involved in research and in the way research areas are identified, including a commitment to engagement, openness and transparency.
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