Since the early 1930s, study after scientific study warned that cadmium sulfide may cause disease and violent death.
Nonetheless, in 1957 and 1958, Army germ warfare researchers from Dugway Proving Ground in Utah scattered vast clouds of cadmium sulfide over heavily populated areas in virtually all states east of the Rockies.Smaller tests would continue for years, including some over unspecified "public domain" lands in Utah near Dugway.
The Army now says its researchers simply did not realize until years later - despite all the available scientific studies - that the chemical was dangerous. A young officer in Utah finally had to risk the wrath of his superiors to make them take notice of scientific studies and admit such tests were dangerous.
Today, other scientists say that and the tests were "irresponsible," "unnecessary" and maybe "criminal."
The 34-year-old secret of how the United States dropped toxic clouds on its citizens through "Operation LAC" - LAC stands for Large Area Coverage - is now revealed in documents obtained by the Deseret News through the Freedom of Information Act. The documents were once stamped secret.
Operation LAC began as a quest to find out whether germ weapons could be dropped by airplanes into strong winds from the Arctic, which would scatter them over vast areas.
The Army still refuses to disclose some information needed to assess how dangerous the tests may have been - such as how much cadmium sulfide was found at ground monitoring stations, how much was dropped and from what altitude. The Army says release of such data would endanger national security. The Deseret News has appealed.
And while documents show the Army planned its tests with great detail and care, in more than 500 pages there never is mention or consideration of the safety of the millions of people who lived beneath chemical clouds.
Although the Army refused to release portions of documents outlining goals of the operation, Dugway spokesman Dick Whitaker said researchers were especially interested in whether such things as wheat stem rust spores could be scattered to possibly destroy an enemy's wheat crop over large areas.
So, in four tests between 1957 and 1958, the Army deemed the 1.9 million square miles in the 40 states east of the Rockies as its testing area. And it dropped vast clouds of cadmium sulfide to see how particles would travel in the wind - which carried them virtually everywhere in the area.
After the tests were completed, an Army historian wrote in 1959, "These tests 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. . . . The corps planned further tests."More tests
A report that the Army filed with Congress in 1977 lists some of those "further tests." They include dropping cadmium sulfide in Utah over undisclosed "public domain" lands from May to September 1963. Also, lists show the Army dropped it over Dugway before Operation LAC in May-June 1953 and throughout 1954.
Other atmospheric tests with cadmium sulfide after Operation LAC include some in 1959 and 1960 in "north central Texas"; in 1961 and 1962 near Vandenburg Air Force Base, Calif., and Cape Canaveral, Fla.; in 1962 in "NE Oklahoma, Corpus Christi, TX, E Washington and SW Nevada"; and in 1963-64 near St. Louis, Mo.
Also in 1964 in the Chippewa National Forest, Minn., and the Wambaw Swamp in Francis Marion National Forest, S.C.; from 1964-66 near Fort Wayne, Ind.; in 1965 and 1966 in Victoria, Texas; in 1967 in Oceanside, Calif.; in 1967-68 in Searcy, Ark.; in 1968 at the Charles Lathrop Pack Demonstration Forest of the University of Washington; and in 1969 at Cambridge, Md.
Officer voices safety concerns
L. Arthur Spomer, now a professor at the University of Illinois School of Agriculture, said cadmium sulfide was used in such tests into the early 1970s when he was a young officer stationed at the Deseret Test Center at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City working as a meteorologist. He remembers taking a trip to Dugway to observe some testing one hot summer day.
"I noticed two GIs mixing zinc sulfide and cadmium sulfide (for tests such as those in Operation LAC). They had no shirt or gloves or anything. I told them it was toxic, especially in that concentration. Their commander pooh-poohed that and called me on the carpet."
That experience started Spomer on a crusade that would finally make the Army admit use of cadmium sulfide was hazardous and to finally cease its use.
Spomer said he worried that the Army might be endangering its soldiers by using cadmium sulfide without sufficient protective gear. He decided to push the matter and searched scientific literature to see what studies showed about the toxicity of cadmium compounds.
He found more than 150 articles dating back to the early 1930s that showed cadmium and its compounds can be deadly. He made waves by showing his results, and the Army convened an inquiry.
"It was like a trial. I explained I was concerned about people's health and was not trying to be a troublemaker," Spomer said. He said the Army flew in an official from the Public Health Service to contend cadmium sulfide posed no problems. But that fell apart when Spomer discovered some of the studies he had found were approved for publication by the same man.
Spomer later published his findings in a 1973 scientific paper in the journal Atmospheric Environment, noting that cadmium poisoning had been found through the years to cause kidney inflammation, liver degeneration, lung disease, exhaustion, shock, vomiting, diarrhea, headache and death.
It noted that no cadmium poisoning had ever been identified from Army testing. "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.
"A general ignorance of the toxicity of (test particles) and the symptoms of cadmium poisoning also contribute to the failure to recognize (test particle) poisoning," the paper said.
Spomer said he feels objections he raised helped kill another proposed gigantic drop of cadmium sulfide under consideration in the early '70s. "It would have used something like three years' production of the material in one test. It was for a high-altitude release of so much that it would be detectable on its third pass around the Earth."
Spomer said studies he found show that amounts of cadmium so small they are invisible to the eye can be toxic and even fatal over time. He doubts individual tests presented much danger to people beneath them but says they present much more risk to soldiers who worked around it with no protection.
No question it was `irresponsible'
Spomer is not alone in his worries about the Army's use of cadmium sulfide. When the American Chemical Society - the world's largest scientific society - was asked to name an authority on cadmium poisoning, it suggested Jay A. Young. He was appalled at descriptions of Operation LAC.
"That's pretty damn gross," said Young, a private consultant living in Silver Spring, Md., who has written extensively on matters of chemical safety and health.
"I would have to say that by 1950, the published literature on cadmium was sufficiently authoritative and voluminous that from that date forward it would be irresponsible to put a cadmium compound of any kind into the air to be dispersed by wind and weather."
Young added, "I might even go a bit further than to call it irresponsible and call it downright criminal. This stuff causes cancer, and the Army should have known that."
But Dugway's Whitaker said the Army did not realize the chemical was dangerous until roughly the time that Spomer pointed it out. He said the Army has not used it in tests since then.
`Little danger to people'
Because the Army refuses to release city-by-city data of how much cadmium sulfide was found, the exact danger it posed to people on the ground cannot be determined.
"The amounts and altitudes are still classified," Whitaker said. "If you looked at the total amounts dropped, you might think it was terrible. But this was dropped from high altitude over very large areas. So, little danger was posed to people."
The Army did release a few maps, however, that listed how many particles were counted in some cities in some tests. The highest count of the few released was 1,105 particles at the Kansas City airport on Feb. 7-8, 1958.
"That's pretty small," Young said. "But with the wind and weather, you might get local areas of much higher concentration."
No information about the separate tests in Utah is available. Young said he feels that even tests conducted on the remote Dugway base could have scattered cadmium sulfide great distances in Utah and posed risks to residents.
"It doesn't matter if they dropped it over unpopulated areas. The wind could take it to populated areas," he said.
Other chemicals could be used
Young said he feels the use of cadmium sulfide also was unnecessary. He said more elaborate experiments could have been designed with less dangerous chemicals. "They used cadmium sulfide because it's easy. Someone was just plain lazy."
Whitaker said the Army was not alone in using cadmium sulfide.
"A lot of other agencies used it - including NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the Department of Agriculture," he said.
William J. Brennan, spokesman for NOAA's environmental research laboratories, said his agency used cadmium sulfide in one test in the 1950s conducted by a contractor for it and the Department of Energy to research movement of particles in air.
He said that NOAA's Air Resources Laboratory in Idaho Falls reports that NOAA has since used a food coloring dye in experiments.
"It has the same fluorescent qualities as zinc/cadmium sulfide, but is safer," Brennan said.
Spokesmen for the Department of Agriculture said they are also researching at the Deseret News' request whether their agency may have performed similar tests.
Young said reports of Operation LAC simply make him wonder why government scientists didn't do their homework more on what dangers they might have been posing.
"We were not dumb back then. It's only 34 years ago, which isn't a long time for chemistry. You have to think someone had to ask questions about this stuff, which makes you wonder if they just ignored the dangers," he said.