Lawsuit Charges Government Secretly Sprayed Chemicals on Poor Residents of St. Louis during Cold War
November 23, 2012
Jennifer Mann / St. Louis Post-Dispatch & Bill Lambrecht / St. Louis Post-Dispatch
St. Louis was among several test cities chosen for a biological weapons program that involved exposing low-income residents of housing projects to chemical agents. Discovery of the secret program, conducted in the 1950s and '60s, has spawned a lawsuit that leaves open the potential for future litigation related to other controversial aspects of the government's work -- including more sinister experiments involving radiation and the chemical giant Monsanto.
Suit Filed over Government
Test-spraying in St. Louis during Cold War
Jennifer Mann / St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS (November 21, 2012) -- A doctoral dissertation that renewed public interest in the military-sponsored chemical spraying of impoverished areas of St. Louis in the 1950s and '60s has spawned a lawsuit. It leaves open the potential for litigation related to more controversial aspects of Lisa Martino-Taylor's work -- questions of more sinister government experiments on human test subjects.
Undisputed is that St. Louis was among several test cities chosen decades ago by government contractors for the spraying of zinc cadmium sulfide, a chemical powder mixed with fluorescent particles to allow tracking of dispersal patterns.
The spraying was part of a biological weapons program, the government conceded in 1994, and St. Louis was chosen because its topography was similar to some of the Russian cities the military thought it might have to attack.
When Martino-Taylor's research hit the news earlier this fall, it triggered a memory for Benjamin Phillips, currently the sole plaintiff in what his attorney seeks to turn into a class action in St. Louis Circuit Court.
Phillips, a former city marshal, spent part of his childhood in the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. He suddenly remembered men in protective suits on roofs with machines spewing what seemed like a thick fog of bug spray, according to his attorney, Elkin Kistner. Residents were told it was testing "a smoke screen" for protection in enemy attack.
Martino-Taylor's research highlighted studies showing chronic lung and respiratory problems borne from exposure to zinc cadmium sulfide. The Army said earlier this month that no health consequences had been found in St. Louis.
Martino-Taylor also raised the possibility of radioactive material's being used. She pointed to links between participants in the St. Louis program and scientists who took part in wartime efforts to build the atomic bomb. The Army has denied such speculation.
Phillips' suit generally describes the spraying of "cadmium, including potentially radioactive cadmium, without the knowledge or consent of those residents."
It names as defendants the Parsons Company, a government contractor known to have conducted the tests, and two others that Martino-Taylor named as potential players based on government records: SRI International, which supposedly designed an air-sampling unit to be used in the aerosol studies, and Monsanto, which allegedly knew of plans and offered the government use of its St. Louis plant.
The suit asks over $50,000 in actual damages on claims of a public nuisance, strict liability, emotional distress and battery. It also seeks unspecified punitive damages.
SRI International, through a spokesperson, said it had not found any evidence that the company was involved. It intends to seek dismissal from the lawsuit. Monsanto issued a statement saying that the suit "does not contain any facts about the alleged conspiracy occurring 50 years ago or more, or Monsanto's supposed involvement." Parsons declined comment.
Kistner said Phillips had an ear tumor that may or may not be linked to the exposure. Other potential class members have contacted him, he said, including a woman whose family members had cancer. He said more would be learned through the discovery process, but, "In my view, these people are at least entitled to nominal damages."
He added, "You can't go spraying stuff on a bunch of people without their consent."
Jennifer Mann covers state courts and the criminal justice system. .
Missouri Senators Demand Details
On Military Testing in 50s and 60s
Bill Lambrecht / St. Louis Post-Dispatch
WASHINGTON, DC (September 28, 2012) -- Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt want the U.S. Army to produce more information on testing in St. Louis in the 1950s and 1960s in a secret biological weapons program during the Cold War.
In separate requests Thursday, McCaskill (D), and Blunt (R), expressed concerns about new research raising questions about the chemical components in aerosol spraying that often took place in neighborhoods with largely African American populations.
Renewed attention to the testing was triggered by coverage of this week of research by Lisa Martino-Taylor, a sociology professor at St. Louis Community College, who presented her findings locally for the first time.
Building on research by the Post-Dispatch, Martino-Taylor completed a doctoral thesis last year in which relied on government documents to draw connections between radiological testing during that era and the spraying in St. Louis.
St. Louis was among several cities where the aerosol testing took place in the 1950s and 1960s using zinc cadmium sulfide, a chemical powder combined with fluorescent particles produced by a company known for manufacturing glow-in-the-dark paint.
Local officials were told back then that the government was testing a smoke screen that could shield the city from aerial observation. At least part of the truth became known in the 1990s when the government conceded that the tests were part of a biological weapons program and that St. Louis was chosen because it resembled Russian cities that the United States might attack.
In 1997, the National Research Council minimized health concerns but recommended further studies. McCaskill, in her letter to Army Secretary John McHugh, inquired about the fate of that recommendation and said outside experts should be involved.
"I share and understand the renewed anxiety of members of the St. Louis communities that were exposed to the spraying of (the chemicals) as part of Army tests during the Cold War," she wrote. "The impacted communities were not informed of the tests at the time and are reasonably anxious about the long term health impacts the tests may have had on those exposed to the airborne chemicals."
Blunt said in his letter to McHugh that he is "deeply troubled" by the recent disclosures. He asked for details about the spraying and questioned whether radioactive materials were involved. "The idea that thousands of Missourians were unwillingly exposed to harmful materials in order to determine their health effects is absolutely shocking. It should come as no surprise that these individuals and their families are demanding answers of government officials," Blunt wrote.
Martino-Taylor noted that she had not been contacted by senators. Public hearings need to be held, she said. "The Senate and House had investigations back in the 1990s but nothing ever came of it. Nobody has ever talked to the people who were exposed," she said.
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