Survey left out many sailors involved in chemical weapons tests, group says
by Chris Amos
Left, Veterans who served on the USS Power recite the Pledge of Allegiance before a meeting Aug. 20, 2002, in Annapolis, Md. A group of Navy veterans says that findings from a study of the health effects of at-sea biological and chemical weapons testing on thousands of sailors 40 years ago are flawed because the study ignored those with the highest levels of exposure. From left are, Ernest Blanks; Homer Tack; and Jim Brocklebank.
A group of Navy veterans says that findings from a study of the health effects of at-sea biological and chemical weapons testing on thousands of sailors 40 years ago are flawed because the study ignored those with the highest levels of exposure.
The $3 million study, paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs but conducted by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy, took four years to complete. It was commissioned after years of complaints from veterans that the tests made them sick…
The Institute of Medicine is a private organization created by the federal government to perform medical tests.
Findings from a medical records survey and questionnaire mailed to more than 6,000 sailors who were aboard 22 Navy ships and Army tugs during the tests cast doubt on claims that exposure to the tests led to severe medical problems in ensuing years.
The findings, released last month, found that participants had higher death rates from cardiovascular disease and had higher self-reported rates of memory loss, attention problems and neurodegenerative disorders than a group of sailors who did not participate in Project SHAD, or Shipboard Hazard and Defense.
But scientists were unable to point to medical links between these problems and the real and simulated chemical and biological weapons used during the tests.
Moreover, since participants also reported higher rates of medically insignificant symptoms such as earlobe pain, scientists questioned whether some of the discrepancies were caused by participants’ belief that something was wrong with them.
But retired Cmdr. John Alderson, who served as a commanding officer of the five Army light tugs — numbered 2080, 2081, 2085, 2086 and 2087 — that were a central part of the tests, said the study was incomplete because it failed to include many of the sailors who served on the tugs, at a test laboratory on Johnston Island — a small island about 700 miles west of Pearl Harbor — and at a base near Pearl Harbor where the weapons were mixed.
The study’s director confirmed Alderson’s claims but said he could not be sure what effect the omission had on the findings because he did not know how many people were excluded or the severity of the illnesses they reported.
“We got as many people on the light tugs as possible from the Defense Department,” study director William Page said. “They didn’t have complete rosters. We would have loved to have included the light tug personnel, but we just couldn’t find [all of] them.”
Alderson estimated that more than 500 sailors served on the tugs during the experiments. Neither he nor Page could say how many were included in the study, but Page admitted that the majority of tug sailors were never contacted.
John Olsen, who served on the tugs as an electronics technician second class in 1965, said the ships’ 13-man crews — and sometimes three monkeys kept above deck — were exposed to a variety of chemical and biological agents on a daily basis over three-month periods, while sailors on larger Navy ships included in the study had much less frequent levels of exposure, sometimes only once or twice overall, and were exposed to simulated chemical and biological agents.
The IOM report says tug crew members were exposed to a nerve agent, staph bacteria and bacterial agents that could cause rabbit fever and Q fever.
Alderson said tug crew members were exposed to at least four other biological weapons not mentioned in the findings, but he said he could not name them because they are still classified.
A second veteran confirmed Alderson’s account, but asked not to be identified.
Although the tugs’ crews were required to stay inside during the tests, and state-of-the-art paper filters and specially designed air conditioning systems were used to protect the crews, the filters sometimes failed after they were soaked with sea water. Sensors in the boats’ interior spaces periodically detected trace amounts of biological and chemical agents, Olsen said.
After each test, the crews sprayed the tugs’ exterior surfaces with a decontaminant, that, while thought to be safe at the time, has since been found to be toxic, he said.
Another veteran said the study was flawed even among the crews of larger Navy ships such as the destroyer Herbert J. Thomas and the dock landing ship Fort Snelling.
Retired Cmdr. Norm LaChappelle, who served as technical project director for Project SHAD, said the study failed to do aggressive outreach to participants. He also said it did not distinguish between exposures to crew members who were at different places on the ship.
“They didn’t differentiate between whether you were a deck hand or in an engine room,” he said. “If you were on a ship, you were a participant,” he said.
The SHAD tests, which were classified until a few years ago, were conducted between 1962 and 1973 to determine whether Navy crews could be protected from chemical or biological attacks, Navy officials have said. Alderson said he thinks the study had a more nefarious purpose: to determine how effective American chemical and biological weapons could be against enemy navies.
The five tugs were sent to sail in a line formation that could be as long as 100 miles. Two Marine A-4 Skyhawks would then drop substances close to the first ship. Scientists would measure readings on each ship to determine how far weapons clouds would travel before they dispersed to levels that were ineffective.
The larger ships had simulants blown aft from their bows by giant fans or had them dropped from passing aircraft.
But even these simulants, such as E. coli and bacillus globigii, were later found to be toxic.
Participants aboard the light tugs say they had clandestine meetings with officers in San Francisco restaurants, were given hotel suites isolated from other sailors, wore civilian clothes, served on tugs with no Navy markings and were threatened with imprisonment if they talked about the tests with anyone after they were completed.
That is one reason they say it took so long to notice problems, they said.
“Most of my skippers are dead from cancer or respiratory illnesses,” Alderson said, before adding that since no study has been done on illness and mortality rates of the group, he can only offer anecdotal evidence of medical problems caused by the program. But he said that he developed severe allergies within days after the first test. Since then, he said he has suffered from prostate cancer and several skin cancers.
Olsen said he has also had health problems.
“I am one of the few survivors of something called massive malignant hypertension,” Olsen said. “It is extremely rare. For white males, it is 1 in 10 million. My blood pressure went up over 300, top and bottom. I was in my early 40s.”
LaChappelle says he has no health problems that he believes are directly traceable to the experiment, but he says he has received many phone calls from participants who say the project ruined their health.
Bernard Edelman, deputy director for policy and government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America, said sailors were given inoculations but that they were not entered on the sailor’s medical records, meaning the sailors don’t know what they received.
“We’re still trying to uncover the facts,” Edelman said. “As Yogi Berra said, ‘It ain’t over ’til it’s over.’”
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