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Nerve gas tests

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Military Used Nerve Gas in '60s Tests
Thu May 23, 6:32 PM ET
By MATT KELLEY, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. military used two kinds of nerve gas and a biological toxin in tests on Navy ships in the 1960s, the Pentagon (news - web sites) acknowledged for the first time Thursday. Officials said veterans harmed by exposure to the agents could be eligible for health benefits.

The four tests in the Pacific from 1964 to 1968 used either the deadly nerve agent sarin, the nerve gas known as VX, or a biological toxin that causes flu-like symptoms, Defense Department statements said.

The tests, conducted on barges, tugs, destroyers and other ships, were to test the weapons themselves, protective gear and decontamination procedures.

Sketchy records of the tests and ships' logs do not indicate any of those involved in the tests suffered serious health problems at the time, said Dr. Michael E. Kilpatrick, a Defense Department health official.

"It may not be the best, but we believe if anything catastrophic happened or if there were large numbers of ill people, it would be in the log," said Kilpatrick, who was involved in reviewing the records. "There's no indication on any of these tests that that had occurred."

The Department of Veterans Affairs (news - web sites) has mailed letters to about 600 veterans who may have taken part in the tests, VA Secretary Anthony Principi said Thursday. Any who were harmed by the chemicals could be eligible for VA benefits.

"There's always been a question whether veterans and active-duty service members became ill as a result of that testing," Principi said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's been controversial, so we were sending out letters to veterans to ask them to take a physical and to see if they are entitled to any benefits."

The Pentagon released details about six tests from a 1960s program to evaluate chemical and biological weapons and defenses against them. The Defense Department had agreed two years ago to begin releasing details about the tests and contacting participants after pressure from Rep. Mike Thompson (news, bio, voting record), D-Calif., and veterans who participated.

"I'm somewhat alarmed by it," Thompson said. "It seems to me enough time has passed that someone over there should have known who was involved and what was going on."

The tests also used chemicals and bacteria meant to simulate weapons, as well as fluorescent or radioactive chemicals used as tracers, the Defense Department said. One type of bacteria used to simulate germ weapons was later found to cause infections, and a separate test where that germ was sprayed on San Francisco is believed to have caused an infection that killed a man.

The tests were among 113 conducted as part of a project called SHAD, or Shipboard Hazard and Defense. The Pentagon has acknowledged using chemical and biological simulants before, but has not admitted using the actual weapons agents themselves.

Sarin, the deadly nerve gas used by a cult to kill a dozen people in a Tokyo subway in 1995, was used in a 1964 test code-named Flower Drum Phase I off the coast of Hawaii. Both sarin and a chemical simulant were sprayed onto the USS George Eastman from a turbine on the ship's bow and injected into the ship's ventilation system, the Pentagon statement said.

Crew members wore gas masks during the tests, and those who worked most directly with the sarin wore chemical protection suits, the statement said.

Monkeys were used as test subjects during the exercises using nerve gas and were later "sacrificed" to determine whether they were exposed to the weapons, Kilpatrick said. Although records do not say how potent the sarin was, the fact that participants used protective gear indicates it was in a harmful or deadly form, Kilpatrick said.

Tests in 1964 and 1965 used VX, another deadly nerve gas. For the "Fearless Johnny" tests in 1965, the George Eastman was sprayed with VX and a simulant to test decontamination procedures. In the Flower Drum Phase II tests, VX gas tagged with radioactive phosphorus was sprayed on a barge to test decontamination procedures.

That second test used a compound that was 90 percent VX "the most lethal nerve agent" and one that can linger for weeks, Kilpatrick said. But there is no evidence any people were on the barge sprayed with VX, which was towed nearly a half-mile behind a tugboat, he said.

A 1968 test used staphylococcal enterotoxin Type B a poison produced by bacteria that causes flu-like symptoms such as fever, muscle aches, cough, vomiting and diarrhea.

During that test, the toxin was sprayed from tanks on airplanes over five tugboats, the USS Granville S. Hall and some parts of the Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific. The test was to evaluate how the toxin meant to incapacitate soldiers for up to two weeks without killing them could be spread from the air.

The Granville S. Hall also acted as a support vessel for the tests using nerve gas.

On the Net:

Descriptions of the tests are available at:

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