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Nerve agents released in Md. during open-air tests in 60s
Pentagon acknowledges VX, sarin experiments

by Frank D. Roylance, Ariel Sabar and Tom Bowman, Baltimore Sun, 10 October 2002


Deadly nerve warfare agents, including VX and sarin, were released in open -- air testing conducted at the Edgewood Arsenal in Harford County in 1965 and 1969, according to information released yesterday by the Defense Department.

An undisclosed number of U.S. military personnel dressed in protective suits and masks were exposed to the nerve agents in at least some of the Maryland tests. Pentagon officials said not all of them were informed that chemical and biological agents were being used.

The disclosures appeared to be the first acknowledgement that deadly nerve agents were released in outdoor tests on U.S. personnel in Maryland.

The tests at Edgewood in the 1960s were part of a nine-year effort involving chemical and biological agents at sites in the United States, the Pacific, Canada and the United Kingdom. More than 5,000 sailors took part in shipboard tests, and 500 soldiers participated on land.

Their purpose was to study the effectiveness of equipment, procedures and tactics, "not to test the effects of dangerous agents on people," said Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

The outdoor tests ended in December 1969 when the government imposed prohibitions on open-air tests of toxic agents. Indoor tests continued until 1981, an Edgewood historian said.

At a Pentagon news conference yesterday, officials said local authorities were notified before land-based tests began. They said there is no indication that civilians were exposed to chemical agents during the testing at Edgewood.

"It was government land. ... . They were not, obviously, inhabited areas, they were open areas," said Michael Kilpatrick, director of Deployment Health Support at the Pentagon.

The Edgewood Arsenal, now part of Aberdeen Proving Ground, has been a major site for the testing of defenses against chemical and biological agents. It opened in 1917, two years after the Germans unleashed chemical weapons during World War I.

Aberdeen historian Jeffrey K. Smart said soldiers in the 1950s and 1960s were subjects in tests of LSD, marijuana and other drugs. Others tested the effectiveness of new gas masks, protective gear and decontaminants.

The Army acknowledges that some participants might not have known exactly which agents were being used in the tests. "The records seem to indicate that most people were aware of the fact that they were participating in an operational test," Winkenwerder said. "It's not clear that in every instance ... people were fully informed."

Said Smart: "Did [the soldiers] know what they were doing, or were they simply responding to specific orders? That's the debate."

Miguel L. Morales, the public affairs officer for the base, said, "In hindsight, it's easy to say, `Why did they do it?' But at the height of the Cold War, that's what the government did."

Used as guinea pigs

Bruce Elliot, a retired lieutenant colonel who spent 23 years in the Army's Chemical Corps, two of them at Edgewood, said that everyone was aware that soldiers were used as guinea pigs in tests of LSD and other hallucinogens.

But even as a staffer in the Pentagon's office of chief of the chemical corps in the 1960s, he heard nothing of tests of lethal agents on U.S. forces at home.

"You get a drop of nerve gas on your skin and you're dead in a couple of minutes," Elliot, 78, said yesterday by telephone from his home in New Hampshire. "It's one thing when they test with LSD, where you survive, but, gee, nerve gas?"

The Pentagon investigation and yesterday's disclosures were prompted by 55 veterans who filed claims asserting their illnesses resulted from their exposure while on the U.S. warships, officials said. Two congressional committees were to begin hearings today to consider the government's responsibility toward servicemen who might have been injured in the tests.

Winkenwerder said nothing in the records suggests that anyone suffered adverse health effects from the tests. The veterans' complaints are not unlike "the broad variety of medical conditions that you might find in a group of people of that age," he said.

The open-air testing sites included Edgewood; the Marshall Islands and other sites in the Pacific Ocean; Hawaii; Fort Greely, Alaska; Vieques Island, Puerto Rico; Yeehaw Junction, Fla.; southwestern Canada; and England.

Military investigators have concluded that none of the most lethal agents released during the tests drifted off the test sites into surrounding communities.

The chemical-warfare testing grew out of a broad review of the U.S. military by the Kennedy administration in 1961. Part of the Pentagon review, called Project 112, resulted in a recommendation to activate a chemical and biological warfare research and testing program. It was launched in 1962 and operated out of the Deseret Test Center, established that year at Fort Douglas, Utah.

SHAD program

One element of the project was the Shipboard Hazard and Defense (SHAD) program, under which ships and sailors were sprayed with chemical and biological agents. The testing at Edgewood and other facilities constituted the land-based part of the program.

The 1965 tests, code-named "Elk Hunt Phase II," were to determine how much VX would be picked up by the clothing or vehicles of military personnel moving through a contaminated area. The first 35 VX trials were conducted at Fort Greely, Alaska, in June and July 1965, according to the Pentagon. Five more trials were conducted by the Canadian government.

The last 11 tests were carried out at Edgewood between Oct. 27 and Dec. 17, 1965.

The Pentagon report said the VX nerve agent at Edgewood was dispersed by M23 land mines. Soldiers then moved through contaminated areas and washed down vehicles. Their protective clothing and vehicles were then tested for any nerve agent that remained.

VX, developed in England in 1952, is one of the most deadly chemicals known to man. Odorless and long-lasting, it is absorbed into the eyes, lungs or skin. It works by binding chemically to enzymes that transmit electrical impulses in the nerves and can kill within minutes when victims' hearts or breathing muscles stop working, or their lungs fill with fluid.

During the tests, soldiers wore "complete, impermeable butyl-rubber outfits and M9A1 masks," according to the Pentagon report.

Leonard Cole, who teaches science and public policy at Rutgers University, said the protective gear used then was probably bulkier, hotter and more uncomfortable than today's equipment. But, he said, "I'm going to assume that the effectiveness was equivalent 30 years ago to that used today. There is no reason it shouldn't have been."

The second set of Edgewood tests, in the spring of 1969, was part of a larger program called "Rapid Tan."

The arsenal's role was to measure the extent and duration of the hazard after an attack using VX and three other nerve agents with similar effects - called tabun, sarin and soman - under a variety of exposure and weather conditions.

Tabun, sarin and soman were developed in Germany in the 1930s, the first two as pesticides. They are somewhat less persistent than VX but kill in much the same way.

Moved to Edgewood

Originally planned for Fort Greely in Alaska, the Rapid Tan tests were moved to Edgewood for reasons that aren't explained in the report. Fifty-four trials were planned, but only three were completed before the ban on open-air toxic tests was imposed. The Pentagon fact sheet for these tests does not identify the participating military units. There are no details on how the nerve agents were dispersed or how the people involved were protected.

Military units participating in the Elk Hunt testing include selected personnel of the headquarters company, 171st Infantry Brigade; 15th Artillery Battalion; 40th Armor Battalion; 4th Battalion; 9th Infantry, 1st Battalion; 47th Infantry; and the 538th Ordnance Company (Direct Support).

Veterans who believe they took part in any of the land- or sea-based tests and seek medical evaluations can call the Veterans Affairs Helpline at 800-749-8387.

Copyright © 2002 Baltimore Sun
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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