Knight-Ridder Tribune
Jan 7, 1993


TOXIC GAS TESTS ON GIs CONFIRMED
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Mark Thompson and Jim Detjen - Washington Bureau

 

WASHINGTON - Confirming the suspicions of ailing veterans, a scientific panel concluded Wednesday that the government conducted secret gas-chamber tests on thousands of soldiers during World War II that continue to cause a host of devastating illnesses among survivors.

The report offers the first outside confirmation that mustard gas was tested on servicemen in this country during the 1940s and that thousands have suffered under a vow of silence since.

"What we found was evidence of betrayal and a sad legacy," said Dr. David Rall, who headed the study under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences. "They volunteered, they underwent the testing, and then they were ignored."

As a result of the findings, at least 4,000 veterans who participated in the experiments may qualify for monthly disability checks of up to $1,730 and have their medical care provided by the Veterans Affairs Department. Widows also may apply for benefits.

The men received a few days' leave in exchange for their participation in the research experiments. They tested gas masks or crawled on their bellies across contaminated fields, never realizing the long-term risks of toxic chemical exposure.

"My health problems all started after breathing those fumes," said Joseph Butash, 71, of Scranton, who has suffered from asthma, emphysema, chronic laryngitis, hypertension and double vision since participating in tests at Edgewood Arsenal, Md., in 1943.

"The government never told me I was being exposed to poison gas," he said. "For three years, I fought the enemy. For the past 47, I've been battling the Washington bureaucrats to make things right."

During the half-century since the tests were done, none of the volunteers got follow-up medical care or monitoring, the panel reported. Anthony Principi, the acting veterans affairs secretary, called this "appalling and absolutely wrong."

Many more veterans - an estimated 60,000 altogether - participated in trials exposing them to lesser amounts of mustard or Lewisite, an arsenic compound. These men, who had a drop of the agent placed on their arms, won't be eligible for the expanded benefits because scientists were unable to prove that the low-level exposure caused later health problems, VA officials said.

The mustard gas experiments were kept secret by the government until June 1991, when the VA approved payments for seven ailments believed linked to them, including asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and laryngitis. On Wednesday, 12 more were added to the list, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; leukemia; and lung, skin and larynx cancers.

Test dosages and duration are known for only the roughly 4,000 men who went Into the gas chamber at the Naval Research Laboratory from 1941 to 1945, where they were subject to repeated doses of mustard gas and Lewisite.

Unknown thousands of others also endured potentially harmful tests at Edgewood Arsenal; Bushnell, Fla.; Dugway Proving Ground, Utah; and San Jose Island in the Panama Canal Zone, the report said.

Some of the conditions reported by the soldiers who took part in the tests are: Lung disease 75%, Chronic bronchitis 63%, Heart problems 63%, Skin rashes/blisters 55%, Depression/anxiety 52%, Cataracts/eye problems 50%, Asthma 45%, and Laryngitis 25%.

 

 

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