“My foremost concern is for the women"
Researchers are searching for South Asian women living in Coventry who were fed radioactive chapatis. But why?
Around 21 women identified through a GP in the city were given chapatis containing Iron-59, an iron isotope with a gamma-beta emitter.
This was part of a 1969 research trial into iron deficiency in Coventry’s South Asian population.
The women were reportedly seeking medical help for minor ailments.
Chapatis containing the isotope were sent to participants’ homes.
In order to determine how much iron had been absorbed, their radiation levels were evaluated at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, Oxfordshire.
Not only did the women not speak much English but they did not provide informed consent and did not know isotopes were being given by them.
The study was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and was led by Cardiff University’s Professor Peter Elwood.
It was initially investigated in the 1995 Channel 4 documentary Deadly Experiments, prompting a probe by the MRC in 1998.
The MRC claimed the study showed “Asian women should take extra iron because the iron in the flour was insoluble”.
According to the investigation, the health risks to the participants “were very low” and their radiation exposure was comparable to “about an additional three months of background radiation (or) one chest X-ray taken at that time”.
In a statement, the MRC said it was still dedicated to upholding the highest standards, including “commitment to engagement, openness, and transparency”.
The statement read: “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 study was reportedly conducted because researchers were concerned about the high rate of anaemia among South Asian women and thought the problem might be related to traditional South Asian diets.
Coventry North West MP Taiwo Owatemi is “deeply concerned” for the women and families impacted by the study.
She tweeted: “My foremost concern is for the women and the families of those who were experimented on in this study.
“I will be calling for a debate on this as soon as possible after Parliament returns in September followed by a full Statutory Inquiry into how this was allowed to happen, and why the recommendation of the MRC (Medical Research Council) report to identify the women was never followed up so that they can share their stories, receive any support needed, and so that lessons are learnt.”
Coventry South MP Zarah Sultana called for an investigation.
She said: “I am shocked that this study was allowed to happen in the way that it did, and that in spite of it 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.”
Ms Owatemi said she is collaborating with University of Warwick scholars who were looking for the research’s female participants.
A team representative said: “Our plan is to try to identify the women and work with them to advise them about what happened and give them a voice.
“But we’re trying to design a research methodology to find them in a way that wouldn’t cause panic in the community.”
“Academic practices are so different now and they are constantly being updated but unfortunately for these 21 women, it was a case that the consent probably wasn’t informed.”
Ms Owatemi said that the women should be named so “they can share their stories, receive any support needed, and so that lessons are learned”.
She added: “I will be calling for a debate on this as soon as possible after parliament returns in September followed by a full statutory inquiry into how this was allowed to happen.”