US Secretly Sprayed Carcinogens on Canadians During Cold War
A new book explores how the United States secretly did radioactive weapons testing on ordinary citizens during the Cold War.
The experiments involved the spraying of a radioactive chemical fog filled with six kilograms of zinc cadmium sulfide. According to documents studied by Lisa Martino-taylor, a professor of sociology at St. Louis Community College, these sprays were first applied between July 9, 1953, and August 1, 1953, from U.S. Army planes flying over Winnipeg, Manitoba. The experiments were repeated in 1964, this time with the planes spraying over Suffield, Alberta, and Medicine Hat, Alberta.
In both cases, the local and provincial governments appear not to have been told what was going on. The Canadian government did secretly agree to the openair experiments under an agreement co-signed with the United Kingdom and the United States. It did not realize, however, that cadmium, a known carcinogen, would be applied along with the radioactive fog.
The purpose of the experiments is still not completely clear at this point. The tests themselves were described to some parties involved as biological and chemical. Other information in the documents Martino-taylor found suggests they were actively merged with radiological components to create weapons with several different lethal components in a single attack.
One specific aspect of the test – and why airborne spraying was used – does now seem to be better understood. It appears that part of what the army wanted to understand was how radiation from a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union might spread in wind currents. The zinc cadmium sulfide (although it also included the cadmium) was included to create a fluorescent tracer to study the movement of the radioactive fog through the clouds.
Another characteristic of the zinc cadmium sulfide particles is that scientists had determined they would likely propagate in the air in a similar way to how bacteria-laden particles might move in a potential germ-warfare attack.
The chemicals themselves were designed to be odorless and invisible to anyone without special gear designed to spot them. There were reports that in the second series of sprayings, the gas was in fact visible, but that may have been more about the tracer content than the dispersal particulates themselves.
The choice of Winnipeg as a first target was likely in part because of its relatively high local population, with 300,000 people living there as of 1950, and because it was geographically isolated enough to study what happened without concerns that the effects of the fog would extend beyond that focused target area.
As to the danger of what was sprayed, it may have been quite significant. Besides the radioactivity that was an important component of the test materials, the particles were small enough that they could have easily lodged deep inside the lungs of the unknowing victims inhaling the dust. That could have manifested in any number of highly-toxic long-term health damage to those who ingested them, but the data on that was apparently never gathered.
The cadmium itself was also highly toxic. Chemically, it is a heavy metal with high vapor volatility, which means it can readily disperse even with only minor heating or absorption of energy, such as would have been the case in these specific experiments. Besides being carcinogenic, even small amounts of cadmium can result in nausea, prolonged gastrointestinal problems and vomiting. Ingesting higher levels of the metal has been tied to bone loss and bone diseases such as osteoporosis and osteomalacia. Other studies link the accumulation of cadmium in the body – which can easily happen because of its presence in cigarettes, zinc by-products, batteries, industrial paints and even plating materials – to cataracts and the death of other cells within the eyes. In higher concentrations, cadmium can lead to catastrophic damage to the liver, kidneys and heart and cause death even if the cancerous impacts of the material are not taken into account.
In commenting about the experiments, one woman who was on the ground during similar aerial spraying in St. Louis, Missouri, did remember being coated with a fine powder after one of the applications. She has suffered from breast, thyroid, uterine and skin cancers. Another, also from St. Louis, was born in a building where the powder was spit out into the air from its rooftop. Four of her 11 siblings later died of cancer.
There may have been more lethal parts to the Canadian spray mix than even these documents disclose. The U.S. Army had also suggested doing experiments using radioactive phosphorus-32, or VX, a lethal nerve agent, in the same Suffield community. The American military was looking to produce a
radioactive nerve agent based on the combination of the two substances. There are also memos noting that the army had planned to ship 100 pounds of VX to Sheffield.
That VX nerve agent is the same one identified as having killed Kim Jong Nam, the brother of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, in February of this year.
Other information shows that the United States was also looking to evaluate using “radioactive tracer techniques in chemical weapons trials,” again as part of the same regional tests. There is also documentation about a bacterium that would be used as part of a biological warfare evaluation in the region.
The United States has a history of conducting other experiments using radioactive, chemical and biological agents, even on its own citizens, all in the interest of warfare science. Examples that Martino-Taylor cited include:
the injection of radioactive particles into hospital patients without their consent
having pregnant women drink a radioactive liquid to see how the radioactivity would be passed on to their babies
giving children radioactive oatmeal as part of a “science club” experiment, with gifts to keep them involved and participating
Prior to the nuclear age, the United States also conducted experiments on its own soldiers, who volunteered without knowing in advance what they would be exposed to. During World War II, it exposed American troops to mustard gas and other chemical agents as part of a series of tests to determine how to make the deadliest materials. There was also a horrific experiment designed to test the differences in absorption of the deadly gas based on the race of the person exposed. These experiments eventually included 60,000 enlisted men.
The U.s.-driven experiments stem from a decision made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt – faced with concerns that an enemy might develop biological weapons and use them against the United States – when he authorized the U.S. Biological Warfare Program as a counter-threat research initiative. Zinc cadmium sulfide particle dispersal was a common part of the external testing, in part because the material was inexpensive and easy to track (because of its fluorescence in the presence of ultraviolet light) and because of the reported false belief at the time that the chemical was not toxic to plants, animals and people. The U.S. test program eventually included more than 300 secret tests similar to those carried out in Canada, with exposure happening at different times of the day and under different kinds of conditions. In almost all cases, there appears to have been no notification of local authorities that their citizens were being used as guinea pigs.
Canada also conducted its own ugly military warfare experiments in World War II involving mustard gas. Like the radioactive cloud experiments discussed above, these were also based in Suffield. Those tests were conducted on more than 3,000 military volunteers.
Canada and the United States were not alone in such testing. According to a report entitled “Zinc Cadmium Sulphide Dispersion Trials” and prepared by the Academy of Medical Sciences for the United Kingdom’s chief scientific advisor, Ministry of Defense, the United Kingdom was involved in such tests from 1953 to 1964. The nature of the experiments involved the release of between 0.35 and nine kilograms of zinc cadmium sulfide from either a single point source or a moving vehicle, with the second option simulating what might happen during an active enemy attack. In all, an estimated 51 trials were conducted in the United Kingdom during the 1953-1964 period, mostly at Porton, now a U.K. government military science park located near Salisbury in Wiltshire, England. It is slightly north of Southampton and on the southern coast of the country. Other airfields in the local area were also involved.
In the United Kingdom, just as in the other cases, it appears that the local public and regional officials were not notified of any of these tests.
A question that lingers behind all these experiments is why they were so extensive, both geographically and in number. If it was simply to do simulations to determine the nature of how the toxins would be dispersed, the number of experiments involved seems much higher than would have been necessary to gather the appropriate data. If, instead, the intent of the experiments was to determine exactly what might happen to people, animals and plants in the presence of such sprays, the quantity of tests makes more sense. Either way, the nature of the testing, which took place over many places and for long periods of time, suggests a very dark approach to the way in which at least three governments – the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada – conspired to poison large groups of unsuspecting civilians, all in the supposed interest of defending their people from outside threats.