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U.S. Admits Germ Warfare Tests During Cold War: Some In Vieques May Have Been Exposed

October 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002 REUTERS. All rights reserved. 

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States acknowledged on Wednesday it carried out a sweeping Cold War-era test program of chemical and germ warfare agents on American soil and in Britain and Canada.

An unknown number of civilians were exposed at the time to ``simulants,'' or what were then thought to be harmless agents meant to stand in for deadlier ones, the Defense Department said. Some of those were later discovered to be dangerous.

``We do know that some civilians were exposed in tests that occurred in Hawaii, possibly in Alaska and possibly in Florida,'' said William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

Also exposed or possibly exposed were civilians in or around Vieques, Puerto Rico, and an unknown number of U.S. service personnel, said Michael Kilpatrick of the Pentagon's Deployment Health Support Directorate.

[In Vieques, the test was conducted in May 1969. Both an amphibious unit of Marines, as well as the U.S.S. Fort Snelling, were sprayed with trioctyl phosphate, a nontoxic substitute for the much more sinister VX, a nerve agent.

According to Pentagon documents, trioctyl phosphate can irritate the eyes, skin and respiratory tract on contact. It can cause cancer in some kinds of animals, but has shown no longterm effect on humans.

Many on Vieques remain convinced -- albeit without scientific evidence -- that military maneuvers that have been carried out on the island over the years are to blame for a perceived cancer epidemic.]

As many as 5,500 members of the U.S. armed forces were involved, including 5,000 who took part in previously disclosed ship-board experiments in the Pacific in the 1960s, the Pentagon said.

So far, more than 50 veterans have filed claims related to symptoms they associate with exposure to the tests, the Department of Veterans Affairs said.

The tests of such nerve agents as Sarin, Soman, Tabun and VX were carried out from 1962 to 1973 both on land and at sea ``out of concern for our ability to protect and defend against these potential threats,'' a Pentagon statement said. The tests were coordinated by an outfit called the Deseret Test Center at Fort Douglas, Utah.

The reports amounted to an acknowledgment of much wider Cold War testing of toxic arms involving U.S. forces than earlier admitted by the Pentagon.

``During this period there were serious and legitimate concerns about the Soviet Union's chemical and biological warfare program,'' Winkenwerder added at a Pentagon news briefing.

But the tests also had applications to the offensive chemical and biological weapons stocks then maintained by the United States, he said. President Richard Nixon ordered an end to U.S. offensive chemical and biological weapons programs in 1970.

Britain and Canada joined the United States in a series of tests on their military proving grounds from July 1967 to September 1968, a document released by the Pentagon said.

These joint exercises, known as Rapid Tan 1, 2 and 3, were designed to investigate ``the extent and duration of hazard'' following a Tabun, Soman or other nerve agent attack, a fact sheet said. These agents, along with VX, were sprayed in both open grassland and wooded terrain at Britain's Chemical Defense Establishment in Porton Down, England, the document said.

Similar tests took place at the Suffield Defense Research Establishment in Ralston, Canada, the Pentagon said.

``The weapons systems germane to this test were explosive munitions (Soman-filled), aircraft spray, rain-type munitions (using both Tabun and Soman), and massive bombs (Tabun- and Soman-filled), the fact sheet said.


Both Canada and Britain made public information about these tests years ago, Kilpatrick said, citing word received from their governments as part of the process of coordinating the U.S. release of information.

But in Ottawa, Canadian Defense Minister John McCallum told reporters he had just learned of the experiments.

``My understanding is that this was ... for the purposes of defense against biological or chemical weapons ... My understanding also is that no human beings were deliberately exposed to any of these agents.'' he said.

The department said it had contracted with the Institute of Medicine, a private group with ties to the National Academy of Sciences, to carry out a three-year, $3 million study of potential long-term health effects of the tests conducted aboard U.S. Navy ships.

The reports on the U.S. land tests in Alaska, Hawaii, Maryland and Florida did not all involve deadly agents and were used to learn how climate and a battle environment would affect the use of such arms, the Pentagon said.

The information was released amid U.S. charges that Iraq has continued building weapons of mass destruction despite disarmament requirements at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

Iraq flatly denies having such weapons programs.

Within minutes, Sarin can trigger symptoms including difficult breathing, nausea, jerking, staggering, loss of bladder-bowel control and death.

Extremely lethal VX is an oily liquid that is tasteless and odorless and considered one of the most deadly agents ever made by man. With severe exposure to the skin or lungs, death usually occurs within 10 to 15 minutes.

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