While soldiers in the Persian Gulf now fear germ warfare by Iraq, the U.S. Army once sprayed its own troops with such weapons in the deserts of Utah.
It dropped an aerosol of the germ Coxiella burnetii, which causes "Q fever," on troops who volunteered to participate in field tests at Dugway Proving Ground in 1955 and 1956, according to newly released Army documents."As a result of this highly important work the (U.S. Chemical) corps determined that a prototype munition which generated aerosols (of germs) could infect soldiers in the field," an Army historian wrote in a 1958 digest of corps activities.
That isn't all. Another Dugway-based experiment spread potentially toxic fluorescent particles throughout the nation east of the Rockies to test how germ weapons might spread there - which exposed the general public, not just "volunteer" troops.
That's according to documents given to the Deseret News by the watchdog group Downwinders. It said it was given the documents by Denver TV station KUSA, which obtained them in a Freedom of Information Act request for an unrelated story.
Ironically, a proposed lab at Dugway that would make aerosols from the Q-fever germ - and other more deadly germs - to test protective gear has been delayed in recent years by watchdog groups fearing accidental spread of disease away from the lab.
It turns out that the Army did that intentionally 45 years ago.
Even though the Army has revealed it conducted thousands of open-air chemical and germ tests at Dugway through the years, it was not known that field testing had been done on humans.
Documents said that the Army in 1954 decided to "study the susceptibility of man to aerosols of an infectious agent. This was the first BW (biological warfare) program."
They added, "In 1955 and 1956 volunteers were exposed to aerosols of Coxiella burnetii, the cause of Q fever, disseminated from a prototype munition in the test sphere at Fort Detrick (Maryland) and on the test field at Dugway Proving Ground."
The tests, under supervision of the surgeon general, were considered "so successful that the corps decided to continue and expand them into a more comprehensive study," the documents say.
Exact details of how the tests were conducted, how volunteers were obtained and how or whether they were protected is not included in the documents obtained.
The Deseret News requested such additional details from Dugway, but Maj. Allan R. Pearson, Dugway's command judge advocate, said its library no longer has any files on the old tests. He forwarded the Deseret News request on to other bases that may have them.
Q fever acts quickly
Q fever, to which soldiers at Dugway were exposed, has a quick onset accompanied by a high fever, headache and a form of pneumonia, according to medical dictionaries. They said it rarely results in death but may.
Q fever obtained its unusual name in Australia, where it was originally discovered. In early clinical studies there, it was called "query fever" because no one knew how it was caused.
The book "Gene Wars" by journalist Charles Piller and molecular biologist Keith R. Yamamoto, says as few as 10 organisms of Q fever germs can cause human infection. A single drop of such agent may contain billions of organisms.
Q fever is considered a likely agent for germ weapons because it can disable an enemy without necessarily killing.
In response to a Deseret News Freedom of Information Act request last year, the Department of Defense prepared a document saying that currently "there is no research being conducted using chemical or biological agents which involve human subjects."
It said some such research is allowed under federal rules, but rules require "that informed consent is obtained from each individual prior to his or her participation in a research study."
Army documents show that multitudes of Americans may have been unwittingly exposed to potentially toxic particles in another Dugway-run biological warfare experiment in the 1950s.
In "Operation LAC" - with the initials standing for "large area coverage" - the Army dropped zinc cadmium oxide particles from airplanes to see how they would drift across the nation in the winds. They are fluorescent, so they are easily traced. But some scientists say they also may be toxic.
Other writers have mentioned such tests before but mentioned only experiments done in Minneapolis and a few other Midwestern areas.
But the newly released documents say, "The test covered the United States from the Rockies to the Atlantic, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico."
It adds, "The corps wanted to learn these things: Would it be feasible to contaminate a large area by this method using, for example, BW (biological warfare) organisms, and if so, what logistics would be involved."
Particles dropped in 1957
The first test occurred in 1957 when a plane dropped particles as it flew from South Dakota to International Falls, Minn. "The test was incomplete, but it was partially successful since some stations 1,200 miles away in New York state detected the particles," documents said.
They added, "Dugway ran a second trial in February 1958." Cold air masses from Canada "continued on to the Gulf of Mexico carrying fluorescent particles with it. As the air mass moved south, the front broadened so that the line of particles 200 miles long at the aircraft's path had spread out to 600 miles at the gulf."
Dugway conducted two more test in 1958 with planes flying between Toledo, Ohio, and Abilene, Texas, and Springfield, Ill., and Goodland, Kan. Those tests also were shown to distribute particles widely.
Army documents in 1959 concluded, "These test proved the feasibility of covering large areas of a country with BW (biological warfare) agents. . . .
"While the tests were a great step forward, they did not provide the corps with nearly as much data as the corps would like to have had in order to predict the behavior of particles released in clouds. To obtain additional data, the corps planned further tests for the next fiscal year," the documents say.
A 1973 scientific paper by University of Illinois professor L. Arthur Spomer said those particles used in such quantities by the Army were long known to be dangerous. He said when they are ingested by humans, cadmium accumulates in tissues and "is known to be toxic to almost all physiological systems."
He added that no instance of poisoning from such testing by the Army has been reported. "This may be because none has occurred; however, it is more likely that such poisoning has been of a low-level chronic nature and its symptoms are less dramatic and more difficult to recognize than in the case of acute cadmium poisoning."
Pearson at Dugway said the base has two volumes with more detail on Operation LAC, but they are classified. The Deseret News has filed a formal Freedom of Information Act request to obtain releasable portions.
Steve Erickson, spokesman for Downwinders, said of the new reports, "They're scary. We need a full accounting from Dugway of these activities in the past, where potential contamination still lies on the property and what they're going to do about it."
He added, "We need assurances that there will be oversight of any testing of simulants in the future."