Today’s Guest Blogger: OH on Radioactive Kids

Quaker Oats have nothing to do with the Quakers, as in Society of Friends. Some time ago there was a trend to brand certain products with stereotypical characters, such as Captain Crunch, Matey, the Robertson jam golly and there was also a picture of a Native American man with a war bonnet on the side of some packet or other, possibly flour? Some of these were frankly racist – Robertson jam in particular springs to mind here – and whereas the Quaker on the porridge oats box may not represent an ethnicity, it coöpts the image of traditionalism and simplicity the real Quakers may have in the mind of the public and seems also to associate it with the likes of other groups such as the Amish and Mennonites, who are seen as eschewing modern life for a more rustic approach. However, there was never any association between the Quakers and Quaker Oats.

There are of course many Quaker companies, including for example Cadbury’s and Fry’s. I went to school with someone in the Fry family, who were very rich, but he was very down to earth and just a general all-round good bloke. I went to a party at his house once and it was enormous, and this is in rural Kent, so that gives an impression of how wealthy they really are. The situation traditional Quaker families find themselves in today reflects the similar position some Jewish families are in: because they were excluded from many of the mainstream professions such as the Church and armed forces, not being Anglicans, they made their own way in the world and often had little choice but to start their own businesses, and consequently some of them did get very rich. This is not to say that there aren’t very poor Quakers today as well, just as there are Jews, but the existence of these large companies ultimately owes itself to this exclusion. On the whole, the Quakers seem to have lost control of the undertakings, which is what usually happens when a company is floated on the stock market, and they become unethical in various ways of which I can’t imagine Quakers ever approving. This observation about wealth, though, is not meant to be a criticism of Quakers or Jews. It’s just an observation of how the history of religious persecution sometimes has unexpected positive consequences.

My own childhood was characterised more by Scott’s Porage Oats than Quaker, which possibly has stereotypical issues of its own, though maybe not. The image in that case seems to indicate that Gaels will grow up big and strong, and it’s a very masculine image in quite a positive way. There was a third popular brand of oats though which was definitely inferior. I get the impression it consists of the dust that’s swept up when the oats have been removed but I expect it’s just ground oats or something. Continuing the tradition of misspelling which seems to delight the porridge industry, this was known as Ready Brek, and marketed as “Central heating for kids”. At the time I found this off-putting because I felt the word “kid” had dismissive connotations, and in fact I still do so and I know my own “kids” did as well in the ‘nineties and ‘noughties. Anyway, it was famously advertised like this:

And famously parodied like this:

(both of these will be removed on request).

Only if you don’t know, Windscale, since conveniently renamed Sellafield, was a nuclear facility in Cumbria which almost went critical in 1970 and generally had a bad reputation.

Back to Quaker Oats. The above is an obvious joke, but unfortunately seems to be a case of art unwittingly imitating life. Shortly after the end of World War II, the company, in partnership with MIT, fed children at a “special school”, as we used to call them over here, radioactive porridge. Of course, in a sense everything is radioactive, and more so today on the surface of this planet than it used to be due to nuclear testing and other activities, so we’ve all eaten radioactive porridge, but this particular porridge was adulterated with radioactive isotopes of iron and calcium, as was the cow’s milk added to it, to demonstrate that it was absorbed more efficiently from porridge than other sources. However, this wasn’t pure research. It was done for use in advertising the product. And unsurprisingly, it did indeed show that, because it wasn’t really a proper experiment in the sense that it was breaking new ground or establishing a new discovery which wasn’t already considered probable. It was more like the kind of experiment children at school might carry out in a biology or chemistry lab, i.e. nothing really novel and conducted for different purposes. This was also done without informed consent from the children or their parents. Having said that, the maximum radiation dosage each child would’ve received from this would be about 330 millirems, which is the kind of dose one would receive from living for a few months in some inhabited parts of the planet which have somewhat radioactive rocks and minerals such as Cornwall or Aberdeen. However, this is a false equivalence because of the mode of decay involved. I’m guessing that calcium-48 was used, which exhibits beta decay as opposed to alpha. Alpha particles are easily stopped by the skin but can cause damage if the elements which produce them are inhaled, ingested or injected. Being calcium, the dose would have continued for quite some time and will still be irradiating today because it will be in the bones and teeth and if it was that isotope it has a half-life of around 64 billion aeons, which is about fifteen billion times Earth’s age. On the one hand this is good news because it won’t be as radioactive as a material with a shorter half-life, but it does also mean there would be a long-term steady source of beta particles in the bodies of these children, now adults. The risk from such a low dose is very small, but that’s not really the point.

By the time these “experiments” were carried out, 1946-53, the initial honeymoon period ionising radiation had enjoyed shortly after its discovery had been over for decades, and we were firmly in the era of global fear of the A-bomb, although it was also almost the era of the Ford Nucleon, a nuclear-powered car which never reached the market, and there did seem to be more trust in nuclear power at least, as opposed to nuclear weapons, at that time. Nonetheless I wonder if that fear was the reason for the lack of information to the parents. The issue is not so much of real risk as lack of informed consent, and the fact that the “studies” were conducted on children with learning difficulties. That seems much more incriminating than the mere fact that it was done, because if the real risk is that low and it could be sold easily to parents, there seems to be no reason why this shouldn’t have been done in a mainstream boarding school, for example. It’s a similar argument to the one against the fluoridation of drinking water – it isn’t about the real health risk so much as about civil liberties. I’m not going into the issue of fluoridation here though.

But this raises a difficult issue. There are plenty of procedures which carry risks unknown to the general public. In terms of radiation, one of the biggest of these is actually a barium enema, which uses unusually high doses of X-ray radiation because the image has to be obtained through the very thick and mineral-rich pelvis. There is no mention of this in the information given to patients who undergo this investigation as far as I know. There certainly wasn’t in the late ’90s when I had it done. There are of course plenty of other risks, usually covered in consent forms which people don’t read. Besides this, there are a couple of other cases which I had personally always taken for granted but to which other people seemed to take exception. One of these was the scandal at Alder Hey when children’s organs were routinely retained post mortem. Up until this came up, I had always assumed this was common knowledge – that this is what hospitals did. I’m not saying it wasn’t wrong, but this has created a problem for research. The other odd, child-related scandal that springs to mind is the practice by undercover police officers to adopt identities based on documents derived from people who had died as children and had a date of birth close to their own. Again, this has upset the families of many people who did die young (and that category includes me) but until the reaction I didn’t realise that this, too, wasn’t common knowledge. I suppose one normalises things and values change, although this, as usual, makes me wonder how much of what I now perceive to be acceptable would turn out not to be if I thought about it in a particular way.

Informed consent, however, is a problem with a public which is poorly-informed in other ways. If there were more general scientific literacy, and in fact it extends further than this because the identity adoption issue above is not a scientific one, this kind of deception would be harder to excuse. Not that there is an excuse now, but I would expect the mental process with Quaker Oats was that if the parents of non-disabled children had been asked, they wouldn’t’ve given consent, and the question then arises of why this would be. It also raises another spectre: what attitude did these parents actually have towards their children? It took me a while to pick up on this implication, but I suspect Walter White’s attitude towards his son in ‘Breaking Bad’ is not based on unconditional acceptance of his son, disabled or not, and I just wonder whether the parents in this non-fictional situation might have likewise have given consent had they known, not because they weren’t worried about the effects of the radiation but because, and I’m sure this isn’t usually true, they actually loved their children less because they had learning difficulties. Of course I don’t know this, but I have in mind two things here. Firstly, it’s bafflingly common for fundamentalist parents to disown queer children, which strikes me as connected to the idea of an idealised image of how they wanted their children and grandchildren to be rather than loving their children directly. I can only think this is connected to an authoritarian parenting style, but I’ll listen to anyone who disagrees with me on this. Secondly, there’s the attitude, which sadly charities like Autism Speaks seem to encourage, that children on the autistic spectrum are less than ideal, put a strain on the parents’ relationship and need to be “cured”. This seems to be coming from the same kind of place.

Quaker Oats don’t seem to come out of this very well. Not only have they used the image of a Quaker to generate some kind of folksy artificially wholesome aura around their product, but they have also acted historically with remarkable disregard for the wishes of the general public. Having said that, I would also hope that the public takes it upon itself to keep abreast of accurate information and assessing its quality. This has led to such problems denial of anthropogenic climate change and the various issues with the Covid-19 pandemic. And the other thing, which surely hardly needs saying to most people, is that you really are supposed to love people for themselves and not for your image of them, but I would hope this is a small contingency, at least nowadays.