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Defense Dept: Mustard gas experiments done on WWII soldiers

Exposure of soldiers to chemical, biological and radiological agents or devices during a war has always been a concern, not just in the U.S., but with other countries.

During WWI, the most notable substance used was mustard gas, and later, in Vietnam, the U.S. used Agent orange, a defoliant that has since been attributed to numerous illnesses, many of them with long-term effects.

It could be said that WWII was one war where dangerous chemicals were seldom used on the battlefield. But, it has now been revealed that 60,000 U.S. military personnel were exposed to mustard gas, and not at the hands of the enemy.

A total of 60,000 enlisted men were part of a secret government program that wasn’t declassified until 1993 that tested mustard gas and other chemical agents on U.S. troops during WWII.

Veteran’s Administration says Volunteer soldiers and sailors were participants
The Defense Department admits it used African-American, Puerto Rican, and Japanese-Americans in tests to determine if darker-skinned people had different reactions to mustard gas than did white-skinned people. White troops were used as controls.

On the Veteran’s Administration website, it says, “that ‘volunteer’ soldiers and sailors were participants in Department of War experiments during the war. The experiments were for purposes of testing clothing, skin ointments and other protective apparatus to determine their efficacy in the event of enemy mustard gas attacks. More than 60,000 servicemen were affected, some seriously.”

Nothing is said about testing these chemicals to see if different races were affected to different degrees. but one man, 93-year-old Rollin Edwards, told NPR that he and a dozen other men were put into a wooden chamber and the door was locked. A mixture of mustard gas and another chemical, Lewisite was piped it.

Lewisite smells like geraniums but is an extremely toxic, arsenic-containing blister agent (vesicant) that affects the lungs and causes systemic effects. It was manufactured in the U.S., Germany and Japan. In WWII, the U.S. made up 20,000 tons of this chemical, keeping it on-hand “just in case.”

“They said we were being tested to see what effect these gases would have on black skins,” Mr Edwards told the NPR broadcaster. “It felt like you were on fire.”

Harvey Denton, 28, Mr.Edwards’ grandson told the Independent, “It looks like burns on his arms, even though it happened 75 years ago.”

Army Col Steve Warren, director of press operations at the Pentagon, confirmed the NPR’s finding, but insisted that what happened 75 years ago is not the way the military is today. “The first thing to be very clear about is that the Department of Defence does not conduct chemical weapons testing any longer,” he said.

The secret race experiments were discovered by a Canadian researcher, Susan Smith, who in 2008 published an article in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics.

Smith explains in her paper that after conducting nine different projects, the researchers concluded that race matters were less significant than they had anticipated. She also points out that during WWII, Australia, Great Britain, Canada and the U.S. all did research on the effects of mustard gas, out of fear the chemical would be used by the enemy against their soldiers.

Experiments kept a secret by the participants
Almost to a man, every one of the 60,000 participants kept his mouth shut about what had gone on in the secret projects. Then, in the late 1980s, those who had been affected more severely sought compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for health problems that they believed were caused by their exposures to mustard agents or Lewisite.

But interestingly, it was discovered that poor recordkeeping of the experiments and little documentation or follow-up of the participants had been done. In other words, veterans were forced to provide proof they had been a participant and had to prove their illness was because of the testing. It took until 1991 before the VA announced guidelines for the handling of these cases. This including the loosening of normal requirements for documenting individual participation in the experiments, and the identification of seven diseases to be considered as caused by mustard agents or Lewisite.

Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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