Pollution pill experiment raises ethical questions

Associated Press

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Volunteers in a drinking water study are being paid $1,000 each to take pills containing an industrial pollutant found in rocket fuel. It is believed to be the first large-scale study to use human volunteers to test a water pollutant.

The experiment, designed to determine whether a pollutant called perchlorate interferes with thyroid glands, will develop data that could influence the setting of national and state drinking-water standards, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday. Perchlorate is frequently found in drinking water.

But the experiment at Loma Linda Medical Center, funded by Lockheed Martin, has also raised questions about whether scientists should allow people to ingest chemicals or pesticides to help researchers learn about the dangers of environmental contaminants.

"These tests are inherently unethical," said Richard Wiles, research director of the Environmental Working Group, an environmental group that opposes such studies on humans.

Scientists in the Loma Linda study argue that perchlorate is not just a pollutant but a drug used to treat hyperthyroidism.

Of the 100 volunteers involved in the six-month experiment, which began in August, half of them ingest the pollutant and the others get a placebo.

Those taking the perchlorate are swallowing 83 times more than a person would get from drinking water containing the amount allowed by California’s Department of Health Services, according to the Los Angeles Times.

At high doses, perchlorate can inhibit production of thyroid hormones, research shows. Normal thyroid function is critical for regulating the growth of fetuses and young children and the metabolism of adults.

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