As a former St. Louis area resident, I first thought my friend was pulling a prank when he shared a story on Sept. 29, which was picked up by the Daily Mail tabloid in the United Kingdom and alleged my old home city was intentionally contaminated by U.S. military researchers during the Cold war. I nearly deleted the email suspecting it was spam.
It turns out it was not a prank story in the Onion. During the last week of September 2012, St. Louis’ major broadcast news stations (KMOX and KSDK) broke a news story on recently completed research of government documents that showed U.S. military researchers conducted human subjects testing, in violation of the Nuremberg Code, on poor and minority residents in St. Louis during the 1950s and 1960s. The bombshell that was dropped by St. Louis Community College-Meramec sociology professor Lisa Martino-Taylor, in her PhD thesis, was that U.S. Army’s researchers sprayed an aerosol on human subjects that allegedly was laced with a fluorescent additive, a possible radiological compound, produced by U.S. Radium Corp. The company had been linked to the deaths of workers at a watch factory decades before.
The issue of the U.S. government testing on unwilling and non-consenting persons for military and medical research during the Cold War has long been established, both in St. Louis, and also in the Inner Mountain West and in Washington State. At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, in southeastern Washington, radioactive iodine (I-131) was intentionally emitted in 1949 ( the Green Run test) to measure the impacts of exposure on human health as part of the U.S. Air Force’s efforts to better understand and track Soviet weapons testing. For its part, St. Louis was one of 33 U.S. and Canadian cities and rural areas intentionally exposed to the spray that was dispersed from airplanes, rooftops, and vehicles. A subsequent National Research Council committee, in 1997, claimed these tests did not expose residents to chemical levels considered harmful. However, promised follow-up studies may not have been conducted. Residents in St. Louis were quoted in press reports claiming planes dropped a white powder that fell on people below, which residents did not view as potentially harmful.
According to Martino-Taylor, thousands upon thousands of St. Louis residents likely inhaled the zinc cadmium sulfide spray. In St. Louis, where tests were conducted in 1953-54 and 1963-64 by the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, Martino-Taylor said, ”The powder was milled to a very, very fine particulate level. This stuff travelled for up to 40 miles. So really all of the city of St. Louis was ultimately inundated by the stuff.” The Daily Mail reported one of the compounds sprayed unknowingly on St. Louis residents was FP2266 (radium 226), which according to the U.S. Army was made by U.S. Radium Corp. The compound was the same one that was linked to the death and of former U.S. Radium Corp. workers.
According to press coverage, the U.S. Army has admitted that it added a fluorescent substance to the “harmless” compound, but the issue of whether the additive was radioactive remains classified.
The story was immediately picked up by a number of blogs, which repeated the allegations and news coverage. Almost immediately, Missouri’s two U.S. senators, Claire McCaskill (D) and Roy Blunt (R), wrote to Army Secretary John McHugh demanding answers and to ask if follow-up studies promised in 1997 by the National Research Council were ever completed. The full text of McCaskill’s letter and press release can be found here.
According to an Oct. 3, 2012, AP story, aides to Sens. McCaskill and Blunt said they have received no response. At the time of the story, the U.S. Army declined to be interviewed by the AP. The AP’s story notes that St. Louis was chosen for reserach because it resembled some Russian cities. However, one of the primary areas that was chosen for testing was the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, which was razed in the 1970s as a failed national public housing experiment–and one of St. Louis’ legacies as a decaying city. At the time of the spraying by federal researchers, the complex had 10,000 mostly African-American and low-income residents, 70 percent of whom were 12 and younger.
Martino-Taylor’s thesis (The Manhattan-Rochester Coalition, research on the health effects of radioactive materials, and tests on vulnerable populations without consent in St. Louis, 1945—1970) is worth examining first-hand, as it describes how she was tipped to the improbable and almost unbelievable tales of two women, both sharing stories of having been unwilling human subjects to military spraying and suffering health consequences from that research. Surprisingly, she knew nothing about these then allegations. Thus began her effort to request information under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act from the federal government, often in severely redacted form. A point that much of the media continues to miss is that her research focuses on the researchers as well as their victims. Her thesis statement states her work looks at how a “large number of participants inside an organization will willingly participate in organizational acts that are harmful to others, and how large numbers of outsiders, who may or may not be victims of organizational activities, are unable to determine illegal or harmful activity by an organization.”
The leaders of the studies, which she calls the Manhattan-Rochester Coalition, were the researchers who conducted the human-subjects research on nuclear weapons as part of the country’s efforts to prepare for, and win, a possible nuclear confrontation with the U.S.S.R. During the tests in St. Louis and other areas, according to Martino-Taylor, the U.S. Army violated the 1947 Nuremberg Code, the standard set after trials of Nazi doctors and war criminals, which established that “voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential” for any human-subjects testing. There was no such standard in these tests in St. Louis, Minneapolis, and elsewhere, Martino-Taylor maintains.
During the 1940s, the Nazi regime’s corrupt and criminal medical and scientific community committed horrific crimes at dozens of concentration and extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Europe, including live vivisections, gassings, cold water immersion tests, high-pressure testing, lethal injections, and intentional murder for “scientific purposes.” I in fact visited many of the rooms and buildings where these crimes against humanity occurred during my tour of the camps in the summer of 2000, so it was especially painful for me to know that my own government, in my former home city, may have been breaking established international guidelines that were codified following the defeat of the Nazis and their murderous state. (See my photo documentary here.) According to Martino-Taylor, the initial congressional investigation of the spraying program included testimony from experts that claimed the experiment team “chose to ignore Nuremberg.”
In the United States, following the Tuskegee Institute’s syphilis experiments on African-American men, reforms were passed in 1979 through the Belmont Report, which theoretically was supposed to protect human subjects from harm in research. However, even as the media report on this sensational story of testing on humans in two countries (Canada and the United States) in the 1950s and 1960s, researchers at elite universities and laboratories continue to violate the principles first set out at Nuremberg. Slate.com this year reported that “marginalized groups have frequently been coerced into studies that violate their right to consent. A recent review of the bio-ethics of human research in the U.S. offers little prospect for change.”
The Slate.com story, from Jan. 22, 2012, was gloomy in its overall assessment of the failure of safeguards to prevent unethical research on humans, particularly when large corporate interests are involved. The story said the Presidential Bioethics Commission issued a report on protecting human research subjects that trumpeted the United States’s so-called “robust” protections—rules that have repeatedly permitted and legitimized breaches of informed consent. “The failure to elicit consent is not confined to the U.S. One in every three U.S. corporate medical studies is now carried out abroad, usually in places where trials can be conducted more cheaply than in the U.S. Subjects are often unaware that the treatments are experimental.”
I am pretty sure the dust from this recent controversy will settle quickly, and even in St. Louis, the community will focus more on their beloved Cardinals’ bid for another World Series title. It is likely no one involved in these unethical if not possibly illegal studies will ever be held accountable for their actions against the civilians they may have harmed.