“They targeted the most vulnerable in society. … They targeted children. They targeted pregnant women in Nashville. People who were ill in hospitals. They targeted wards of the state. And they targeted minority populations.”
A new examination of previously unreleased government documents, obtained by Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, has revealed that the U.S. government – in secret — sprayed, injected and fed radiation and other toxic material to “vulnerable” U.S. citizens, including pregnant women, during the Cold War. The tests are detailed in a recently released book by Dr. Lisa Martino-Taylor, a sociologist based in St. Louis, titled Behind the Fog: How the U.S. Cold War Radiological Weapons Program Exposed Innocent Americans.
In addition to records obtained by FOIA request, Martino-Taylor also reviewed public records and published articles in order to shed light on the government’s secretive Cold War testing. According to her research, the testing was carried out by a small group of relatively young researchers who worked to develop radiological, biological, and chemical weapons with the support of leading academic institutions.
Testing the vulnerable and the voiceless
“They targeted the most vulnerable in society in most cases,” Martino-Taylor told the Associated Press. “They targeted children. They targeted pregnant women in Nashville. People who were ill in hospitals. They targeted wards of the state. And they targeted minority populations.”
Though testing occurred throughout the United States as well as in parts of England and Canada, the experiments in Nashville are particularly troublesome. In the late 1940s, 820 impoverished and pregnant women living in Nashville were injected with radioactive iron during their first prenatal visit, without their knowledge or consent. Blood tests were later conducted to determine the quantity of radioactive iron the mother had absorbed and how much of that radioactivity had been transmitted to her child. Similar tests targeting pregnant women and the unborn also took place in Chicago and San Francisco.
St. Louis, where Martino-Taylor lives, was also part of the program. At the time, the municipal government was told the government was testing a “smoke screen” in the area that could help shield the city from Russian warplanes in the event of a Soviet attack. However, the spraying – which occurred over a poor neighborhood in the city – contained radioactive material. Many St. Louis residents, who were children at the time, remember the planes flying low overhead, covering residents in a fine powdery substance. Many of them have suffered from rare diseases and cancers.
Martino-Taylor has acknowledged that tracing the increased incidence of disease in tested areas back to the covert testing is difficult. However, that hasn’t dissuaded several congressmen from demanding answers and seeking to carry out surveys of their own to determine the presence of potentially adverse health effects.
One of the congressmen, Brad Sherman (R-CA) said he wants to survey those who graduated from a high school in his district, doused in radiation as part of the testing, to see whether there was a higher incidence of illness, including cancer, among former students. He, along with other congressmen, have vowed to press the Pentagon and U.S. Department of Energy for more information.
Testing secrets stay secret
Sherman and his colleagues will likely be disappointed, however. Earlier work by Martino-Taylor prompted the Army to investigate accusations of harmful after-effects caused by the spraying. The probe found that the spraying posed no health risk to the public.
Such has been the answer from the U.S. government for years when forced to respond to its sordid history of human experimentation, particularly regarding radioactive weapons testing. For instance, in the Marshall Islands, the U.S. irradiated the entire area by testing atomic devices over a 12 year period – resulting in the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs per day over that time frame. Despite the increased incidence of cancers – particularly thyroid cancer – among the Marshallese, the U.S. government has continued to argue that the cancers related to the atomic testing are negligible.
The U.S. government has not just used unwitting citizens as “guinea pigs” in its weapons experiments. U.S. soldiers have also long been used for military experimentation, often without their consent. During World War II, 60,000 soldiers of color, mainly black, were locked in gas chambers and exposed to Lewisite and Mustard gas. One of the subjects, Rollins Edwards, was told by his superiors that the experiments were conducted “to see what effect these gases would have on black skins.” Edwards, now 93, says his skin has been covered in blisters since the testing and regularly flakes off in large quantities.
Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Pentagon secretly conducted multiple chemical and biological weapons tests on an estimated 6,000 U.S. soldiers. Soldiers were exposed to nerve gases – including sarin – and bacterial toxins in order to “develop a response plan” were U.S. troops to be attacked by someone (other than their own government) with chemical or biological weapons.
Exposed veterans who suffered adverse effects have fought for years to know what they were exposed to. The Pentagon has continuously refused to declassify the details. Despite efforts to declassify the information, the House Rules Committee decided this past July that the Pentagon can keep that information secret indefinitely. Victims of the testing program exposed by Martino-Taylor are unlikely to achieve a different result.
Feature photo | Six tribesmen from remote Pacific Islands are televised at the Museum of Science and Industry exhibit where they can see themselves in Chicago on April 7, 1957. The six were exposed to radioactive fallouts from the 1954 hydrogen explosion at Bikini, and have been brought to Chicago for tests. EM | AP