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Germ-Warfare Tests Gone Awry In Spotlight

SAN FRANCISCO -- Fifty-one years ago, Edward Nevin checked into a San Francisco hospital, complaining of chills, fever and general malaise. Three weeks later, the 75-year-old retired pipe fitter was dead, the victim of what doctors said was an infection of the bacterium Serratia marcescens.
Germ-Warfare Tests Gone Awry In Spotlight

Researchers look at a time when the Army sprayed what it thought was harmless on San Francisco and other cities.


SAN FRANCISCO -- Fifty-one years ago, Edward Nevin checked into a San Francisco hospital, complaining of chills, fever and general malaise. Three weeks later, the 75-year-old retired pipe fitter was dead, the victim of what doctors said was an infection of the bacterium Serratia marcescens.

Decades later, Mr. Nevin's family learned what they believe was the cause of the infection, linked at the time to the hospitalizations of 10 other patients.

In Senate subcommittee hearings in 1977, the Army revealed that weeks before Nevin sickened and died, the Army had staged a mock biological attack on San Francisco, secretly spraying the city with Serratia and other agents thought to be harmless.

The goal: to see what might happen in a real germ-warfare attack. The experiment, which involved blasting a bacterial fog over the 49-square-mile city from a Navy vessel offshore, was recorded with clinical nonchalance: "It was noted that a successful BW (biological warfare) attack on this area can be launched from the sea, and that effective dosages can be produced over relatively large areas," the Army wrote in its 1951 classified report on the experiment.

Now, with anthrax in the mail and fear mounting of further biological attacks, researchers are again looking back at the only other time this country faced the perils of germ warfare -- albeit self-inflicted.

In fact, much of what the Pentagon knows about the effects of bacterial attacks on cities came from those secret tests conducted on San Francisco and other American cities from the 1940s through the 1960s, experts say.

"We learned a lot about how vulnerable we are to biological attack from those tests," says Leonard Cole, adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of several books on bioterrorism.

"I'm sure that's one reason crop dusters were grounded after Sept. 11: The military knows how easy it is to disperse organisms that can affect people over huge areas."

In other tests in the 1950s, Army researchers dispersed Serratia on Panama City, Fla., and Key West, Fla., with no known illnesses resulting.

They also released fluorescent compounds over Minnesota and other Midwestern states to see how far they would spread in the atmosphere.

The particles of zinc-cadmium-sulfide -- now a known cancer-causing agent --were detected more than 1,000 miles away in New York state, the Army told the Senate hearings, though no illnesses were ever attributed to them as a result.

Another bacterium, Bacillus globigii, never shown to be harmful to people, was released in San Francisco, while still others were tested on unwitting residents in New York, Washington, D.C., and along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, among other places, according to Army reports released during the 1977 hearings.

In New York, military researchers in 1966 spread Bacillus subtilis variant Niger, also believed to be harmless, in the subway system by dropping lightbulbs filled with the bacteria onto tracks in stations in midtown Manhattan.

The bacteria were carried for miles throughout the subway system, leading Army officials to conclude in a January 1968 report: "Similar covert attacks with a pathogenic (disease-causing) agent during peak traffic periods could be expected to expose large numbers of people to infection and subsequent illness or death."

Army officials also found widespread dispersal of bacteria in a May 1965 secret release of Bacillus globigii at Washington's National Airport and its Greyhound bus terminal, according to military reports released a few years after the Senate hearings.

More than 130 passengers who had been exposed to the bacteria traveled to 39 cities in seven states in the two weeks following the mock attack.

The Army kept the biological-warfare tests secret until word of them was leaked to the press in the 1970s. Between 1949 and 1969, when President Nixon ordered the Pentagon's biological weapons destroyed, open-air tests of biological agents were conducted 239 times, according to the Army's testimony in 1977 before the Senate's subcommittee on health.

In 80 of those experiments, the Army said it used live bacteria that its researchers at the time thought were harmless, such as the Serratia that was showered on San Francisco. In the others, it used inert chemicals to simulate bacteria.

Several medical experts have since claimed that an untold number of people may have gotten sick as a result of the germ tests.

These researchers say even benign agents can mutate into unpredictable pathogens once exposed to the elements.

"The possibility cannot be ruled out that peculiarities in wind conditions or ventilation systems in buildings might concentrate organisms, exposing people to high doses of bacteria," testified Stephen Weitzman of the State University of New York, in the 1977 Senate hearings.

For its part, the Army justified its experiments by noting concerns during World War II that United States cities might come under biological attack. To prepare a response, the Army said, it had to test microbes on populated areas to learn how bacteria disperse.

"Release in and near cities, in real-world circumstances, were considered essential to the program, because the effect of a built-up area on a biological agent cloud was unknown," Edward Miller, the Army's secretary for research and development at the time, told the subcommittee.

But in at least one case -- the bacterial fogging of San Francisco --the research may have gone awry.

Between Sept. 20 and Sept. 27 of 1950, a Navy mine-laying vessel cruised the San Francisco coast, spraying an aerosol cocktail of Serratia and Bacillus microbes -- all believed to be safe -- over the famously foggy city from giant hoses on deck, according to declassified Army reports.

According to lawyers who have reviewed the reports, researchers added fluorescent particles of zinc-cadmium-sulfide to better measure the impact. Based on results from monitoring equipment at 43 locations around the city, the Army determined that San Francisco had received enough of a dose for nearly all of the city's 800,000 residents to inhale at least 5,000 of the particles.

Two weeks after the spraying, on Oct. 11, 1950, Nevin checked in to the Stanford Hospital in San Francisco with fever and other symptoms. Ten other men and women checked in to the same hospital -- which has since been relocated to Stanford University in Palo Alto -- with similar complaints.

Doctors noticed that all 11 had the same malady: a pneumonia caused by exposure to bacteria believed to be Serratia marcescens. Nevin died three weeks later. The others recovered. Doctors were so surprised by the outbreak that they reported it in a medical journal, oblivious at the time to the secret germ test.

After the Army disclosed the tests nearly three decades later, Nevin's surviving family members filed suit against the federal government, alleging negligence.

"My grandfather wouldn't have died except for that, and it left my grandmother to go broke trying to pay his medical bills," says Nevin's grandson, Edward J. Nevin III, a San Francisco attorney who filed the case in United States District Court here.

Army officials noted the pneumonia outbreak in their 1977 Senate testimony but said any link to their experiments was totally coincidental.

No other hospitals reported similar outbreaks, the Army pointed out, and all 11 victims had urinary-tract infections following medical procedures, suggesting that the source of their infections lay inside the hospital.

The Nevin family appealed the suit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to overturn lower court judgments upholding the government's immunity from lawsuits.

Today, the U.S. military is again patrolling San Francisco's coastline, guarding against someone who might try to copy the Army tests of half a century ago. Local officials say such an attack is unlikely, given the logistical problems of blasting the city without Navy ships.

Partly as a result of Nevin's death, says Lucien Canton, director of San Francisco's emergency services, "One thing we now know is that it takes an awful lot of stuff to produce casualties, especially in a place like San Francisco that always has a stiff breeze."

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More secret testing of germ warfare 28.Apr.2003 10:47

class action suit?

Secret exposure: U.S. tested chemical weapons on own citizens

Earlier this year news that the army would conduct bio-terrorism tests in central Oklahoma sent a near panic through some communities.

Clouds of clay dust and other substances were dropped to see if weather radar could detect a bio-terrorist attack. The army was up front and told those concerned what they were doing and promised there was nothing to worry about.

But it hasn't always been that way when the army was testing the atmosphere.

Oklahoma City and a local solider endured a secret exposure.

It was in the 1950s and America was in the height of the Cold War.

The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a deadly race to produce the most powerful nuclear bombs. A cartoon turtle taught the children what to do in case the Soviets attacked.

Air raid drills were staged in every classroom and city across America. Little did Americans know they were already under attack -- by America.

"The human populations didn't know, the local governments didn't know, this was a secret army project that went on for 20 years," said author Leonard Cole.

The U.S. government was preparing for germ warfare by secretly spraying biological agents on its own citizens. The tests were conducted in 239 cities, including one of Oklahoma's most prominent communities.

"Among the hundreds and hundreds of tests that the army did, Stillwater, Oklahoma was targeted," said Cole, an expert on the Army's development of biological weapons. In some cities reports indicate Americans actually died because of the testing.

Government records show florescent particles of zinc cadmium sulfide were released in Stillwater in 1962.

"Cadmium itself is known to be one of the most highly toxic materials in small amounts that a human can be exposed to," Cole said.

Could Oklahomans have been made sick by that all those years ago could they still have lingering effects from it?

"If there were concentrations of it enough to make one sick, you could have serious consequences a person over a period of time could have illnesses that could range from cancer to organ failures," Cole said.

There was no medical monitoring of the population exposed to the particles and Payne County health officials have no records to show the affect, if any, on the people in the Stillwater area.

But different secret exposure tests would forever change the lives of other 0klahomans.

Arnold Parks of Oklahoma City loves to work in his yard. But he does it on painful legs and with aching arms, not to mention a bad heart. In 1965 Arnold was in the army when he was told he was going to be a test subject for some new medications.

But when he recently was given access to his medical records from 1965 he was stunned to learn those "medications" were anything but.

"And it states right in there on this date they gave me VX, on this date they gave me Sarin, on this date they gave me LSD," Parks said. "I was angry. As a matter of fact, I came unglued."

It hasn't been medically linked yet, but Parks now believes the small doses of the nerve agents Sarin and VX have affected his arms, legs and heart over the years.

"The VX they gave, it was a pill. And I asked the guy after I took that, you know, I asked him what was that? He said, 'Thats the new pill for polio.' "

And what Parks wrote down as terrible dreams during those two months of testing he now knows were hallucinations brought on by the LSD. Some of those hallucinations involved murder.

"Some of these hallucinations got a little bit scary," he said. "I think I had about four and the only one that was OK was the one that I watched this movie, it was a love story on TV. But there was no TV in the room, so I couldn't have watched that movie on TV. So it was all an acid trip, basically it was a trip but the other three was the killing things."

Parks believes after more than 35 years it's time the army made good for what they did to him. But, he's resigned to the fact that some things won't change.

"Pay me compensation," he said. "I want that and I would like to be treated. But I don't think they can treat this."

A spokesperson for the Veteran's Administration said once there is a medical link confirming the testing is to blame for Park's ailments, then he has a case. But, they say, not until then.