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Army: No risk from secret St. Louis tests

Nov. 2, 2012 - 05:52PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 2, 2012 - 05:52PM  |  
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ST. LOUIS — An Army investigation into secret chemical testing in impoverished areas of St. Louis during the Cold War era has corroborated three previous studies that the testing posed no health risk to those who lived in the areas, according to a letter from a top Army official.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Army used motorized blowers atop a low-income housing high-rise, on schools and in other locations to spray zinc cadmium sulfide, a fine fluorescent powder, into the air. The testing was part of a biological weapons program and St. Louis was chosen because it bore some resemblance to Russian cities that the U.S. might attack.

Both of Missouri's U.S. senators, Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill, wrote to the Army after learning of St. Louis professor Lisa Martino-Taylor's research about the program.

Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army, said in a letter received by Blunt's office on Friday that Army investigators reviewed several assessments and studies compiled over the past nearly two decades and found no health risk from the zinc cadmium sulfide (ZnCdS) sprayed in St. Louis.

Martino-Taylor's research also raised concerns that the Army performed radiation testing by mixing radioactive particles with the zinc cadmium sulfide.

Following the letters from the senators, Army investigators looked at several studies conducted since information about the testing was declassified in 1994, including a study conducted by the Army and others conducted by the National Research Council Committee on Toxicology and the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine.

"The U.S. Army Public Health Command reconfirms that exposure to ZnCdS, under the test conditions reported, would not cause a health risk in humans," Hammack wrote. "Further, these reports contain no evidence of a radioactive component to the ZnCdS dispersion testing as has been alleged in the media."

A spokeswoman for Blunt, Amber Marchand, said in a statement that the senator "still has concerns that this testing was conducted on unsuspecting Missourians. Regardless of the effect, Senator Blunt believes it's disgraceful to test anything on anyone without their knowledge."

It wasn't clear if the Army also responded to McCaskill's letter. Messages seeking comment from a McCaskill spokesman were not immediately returned.

Martino-Taylor said the Army's response failed to satisfy her concerns. She urged a government study that includes public hearings and input from people who lived in the testing area.

"The focus of my research was on the lack of consent, secrecy, deception, organizational structure, and possible connection to a broader radiological program," Martino-Taylor wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "The Army's letter seems to be relatively silent on those issues."

About three-quarters of those who lived in the St. Louis testing area were black. Some of the residents told Martino-Taylor of serious health problems that they, their friends or family members had faced and that they worried could be related to the testing.

The secret testing was exposed to Congress in 1994, prompting a demand for a health study. A committee of the National Research Council determined in 1997 that the testing did not expose residents to harmful levels of the chemical. The Army followed up that study with a toxicological study in 1998. Hammack said in the letter that the 1998 study found no evidence of harm.

The Institute of Medicine conducted its review in 2004 and corroborated the conclusions of the earlier studies, Hammack wrote. After Martino-Taylor raised concerns again, the Army's Public Health Command reviewed the previous assessments and other documents in determining no health risks, Hammack wrote.

Martino-Taylor researched the testing for her doctoral thesis at the University of Missouri. She is now a professor of sociology at St. Louis Community College-Meramec.

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