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Court approves Fernald settlement

The US District Court of Massachusetts has approved a class-action settlement of all claims against MIT and its employees and researchers relating to nutrition studies conducted during the late 1940s and early 1950s at the Fernald School, a state institution in Waltham. Notice of the settlement was published in newspapers across the state during the last week of December.

MIT issued a statement on December 30 that MIT was pleased with the court's action, which is to be made final in April. The statement went on to say:

"The Fernald School studies were conducted to gain an understanding of how iron and calcium are absorbed in the human digestive systems. The studies used minute amounts (less than one-billionth of an ounce) of radioactive iron and calcium tracers to chart the absorption of calcium and iron in the body from eating oatmeal and farina cereals. The exposures to radiation were approximately equal to the amount of natural background radiation we all receive from the environment each year.

"Both a Commonwealth of Massachusetts and a federal investigation of the studies found no discernible effects on health of the study participants.

"When information regarding these studies was published in early 1994, MIT President Charles M. Vest expressed his concern and regret over the apparent lack of informed consent of the parents of the children at the Fernald School. MIT has had in place for more than two decades numerous safeguards and approval processes that assure informed consent of human subjects of any research.

"MIT believes that its researchers acted properly under then-existing standards and denies any charges of wrongdoing. Nonetheless, MIT has agreed to the settlement in order to avoid the substantial expense and diversion of continued litigation and to bring this matter to a final conclusion.

"Under the terms of the proposed settlement, a fund of $1.85 million will be established for the benefit of the class. It will be funded primarily by MIT and, to a lesser degree, by Quaker Oats Co., which provided a grant to fund the nutrition research," the statement said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 7, 1998.

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