WASHINGTON • At 11:05 on a February night in 1953, a worker employed by the U.S. Army opened a valve on a motorized blower and for five minutes dispersed a mysterious fluffy powder into downtown St. Louis.
So began military-sponsored tests in St. Louis that remained secret for four decades and, to this day, raise questions about what the government was up to in the Cold War operation.
No private citizen has explored these questions more fully than Lisa Martino-Taylor, who reached troubling conclusions while completing a doctoral thesis last year at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Martino-Taylor, a sociology professor at St. Louis Community College, is writing a book on the covert operation and on Tuesday afternoon will present her findings locally for the first time at a colloquium at St. Louis Community College at Meramec.
St. Louis was among several cities where the aerosol testing took place in the 1950s and 1960s with zinc cadmium sulfide, a chemical powder mixed with fluorescent particles so that dispersal patterns could be traced.
After the project became known in Congress in 1994, the Post-Dispatch was among newspapers that combed through newly released documents for details. The documents showed that in 1953 alone, the military conducted 16 tests involving 35 separate releases of zinc cadmium sulfide in St. Louis, many in an area described at the time as "a densely populated slum district."
St. Louisans were told that the government was testing a 'smoke screen" that might protect the city from aerial observation during enemy attack.
If that sounds far-fetched, it was: The Army conceded later that the tests were part of a biological weapons program and that St. Louis was chosen because it roughly matched the population and terrain of Russian cities that the United States might attack.
In 1997, the National Research Council — an arm of the National Academy of Sciences — minimized the health impacts of the chemical tests but concluded that more analysis was needed. The team of scientists did not consider ethical questions but observed that people were "outraged" at being subjected to chemical testing without their consent.
Martino-Taylor was a skilled researcher before working toward her doctorate, investigating cases of contamination for a St. Louis law firm. The facts she assembled on the military project and conclusions she reached go well beyond anything published earlier.
Relying heavily on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Martino-Taylor identifies connections between participants in the St. Louis testing and scientists who took part in wartime efforts to build the atomic bomb.
Noting postwar efforts to test radioactive materials on Americans, she raises suspicions that the St. Louis testing involved not just materials called harmless by the Army but possibly radioactive isotopes.
Martino-Taylor found in her research that the aerosol particles were milled so as to be easily absorbed into lungs.
She wrote in her thesis: "Under the sparkling stars and clear bright moon, as children, their parents, and grandparents, slept on their porches or beneath an open window to escape the blazing heat of a St. Louis summer, toxins drifted silently inside through open windows and settled into their lungs. The particulates were designed to be optimal size for deep inhalation by the sleeping, unsuspecting victims. It was the Cold War, and this was America."
In an interview, Martino-Taylor acknowledged that she had uncovered no proof that St. Louisans were subject to radiological testing. But, she noted, "There's an awful lot of evidence that there were radiological components to the study."
Martino-Taylor approaches the testing from a sociological standpoint, noting that national and international codes of conduct prohibited testing on humans without their consent.
"There has to be a sense of betrayal here, of people being deceived and targeted by their own government," she said.
"Even if there are laws in place which appear to protect people, without transparency, governments may be able to violate rights without their victims even knowing it. This case is an example of that."
ST. LOUIS COMMUNITY COLLEGE BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES COLLOQUIUM
What • Lisa Martino-Taylor speaks on "Behind the Fog of the Cold War — Military tests on vulnerable populations without consent in St. Louis."
When • 3:30 p.m. Tuesday Sept. 25.
Where • St. Louis Community College at Meramec
Cost • Free
ST. LOUIS • 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.”