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Senators ask Army to provide answers on Cold War-era experiments in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2012 - WASHINGTON – Responding to a new study of a previously reported issue, Missouri’s U.S. senators asked the Army on Thursday to provide details of the potential health impact of – and the possibility of a radioactive component to – Cold War-era particle-dispersal experiments in St. Louis.

In separate statements, U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., expressed concern about news reports – based on a Ph.D. dissertation discussed at a forum this week by sociologist Lisa Martino-Taylor – that the Army’s studies of the aerosol dispersal of fluorescent particles of zinc cadmium sulfide in St. Louis in the 1950s and '60s may have violated ethics rules and could have had unintended health effects.

The Army dispersal experiments, first revealed – and widely reported by publications – in the 1990s, had led former U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-St. Louis, and other lawmakers to press for a study by the National Research Council. In 1997, the NRC found that exposure to the Army-reported levels of zinc cadmium (part of the compound that was sprayed) would not have been expected to cause lung ailments.

The report recommended follow-up research, mainly to determine whether the chemical compound might possibly break down into toxic components that could have been absorbed in the bodies of people who were exposed. But it is unclear whether those studies were done. On Thursday, McCaskill asked Army Secretary John McHugh to explain whether this follow-up research was conducted and what the results revealed.  

"Given the nature of these experiments, it’s not surprising that Missouri citizens still have questions and concerns about what exactly occurred and if there may have been any negative health effects," McCaskill said in a statement.

"The National Research Council recommended that additional studies should be conducted and it’s my goal to find out whether or not they were."

In a statement, Blunt said, "The idea that thousands of Missourians were unwillingly exposed to harmful materials in order to determine their health effects is absolutely shocking. It should come as no surprise that these individuals and their families are demanding answers of government officials."

In his letter, Blunt asked the Army to report on the specific areas exposed to the spraying, the health impact of exposure to the chemical compounds, and whether there was indeed a radioactive component to the testing in Missouri.

The lawmakers’ concerns related to news reports this week about Martino-Taylor’s research, which she discussed Tuesday at St. Louis Community College at Meramec. Examining documents obtained from Freedom of Information requests, she found possible links between Army experts who carried out the St. Louis tests and scientists who had been involved in a covert spinoff group of the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb in the 1940s.

While she found no direct evidence that St. Louisans were exposed to radiation in the aerosol testing, Martino-Taylor’s thesis explores the ethical implications of the testing and raises the possibility of a radioactive component.

Click here to read her dissertation.

On Thursday evening, Martino-Taylor said in a statement that "any real and legitimate investigation will include public comment and participation from former residents in the affected areas. Their voices have not been heard."

Martino-Taylor added: "It would be very inappropriate for government agencies - some of which designed these tests - to conduct an investigation without availing themselves of the first-hand experiences of those residents who were directly affected."

The Army experiments in the '50s and '60s were part of a wider testing program related to the potential impact of aerosolized biological weapons – although no germs were actually released in the experiments. According to news reports, 16 of the tests were conducted in St. Louis in 1953 alone.

At the time, people who lived in the sprayed area – possibly including residents of the old Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, which has since been razed – were told that the Army was testing a smoke screen that might be deployed to protect the area in the event of an attack.

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, whose congressional district includes some of the affected parts of the city, said Thursday that "it’s time for the Army to come clean and tell us the truth."

“The Army has never revealed the full story about this outrageous and irresponsible Cold War testing in the midst of our community," Clay said in a statement to the Beacon. "It’s unclear if the recommended follow-up testing was ever conducted, and if any long-term health risks exist."

McCaskill, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked the Army to “review whether any and all pertinent information related to the Army’s Cold War-era chemical testing in St. Louis has been made public. Transparency regarding this episode is critical to providing the impacted communities final resolution.”