The US has admitted that it deliberately sprayed nerve gas on its sailors in the 1960s as part of a series of tests, and the government has begun contacting those involved to discover what damage may have been done to their health.
The tests used several of the poisons which the Americans are now most afraid may be used in a possible biological attack, including sarin, the lethal gas used in the Tokyo subway murders in 1995.
It was showered on to the deck and injected into the ventilation system of the USS George Eastman 31 years earlier, in a test with the gentle codename Flower Drum.
According to documents just released by the Pentagon, Flower Drum, together with other tests with names like Autumn Gold and Shady Grove, were part of Operation Shad (shipboard hazard and defence), which was designed to evaluate the weapons themselves, the forces’ protective gear, and decontamination procedures.
The Pentagon started releasing the previously classified information about Project Shad after being pushed by a Democrat congressman from California, Mike Thompson. More than 600 ex-servicemen have now been contacted by the government, out of about 4,300 believed to have been involved.
“We are committed to helping every veteran who took part in these tests,” the secretary of veterans’ affairs, Anthony Principi, said.
“If we find any medical problems or disabilities we can attribute to Project Shad, we’ll ensure these veterans receive the benefits they deserve.”
Project Shad lasted from 1963 to 1970. Other potential weapons involved included SEB (staphylococcal enterotoxin B), which produces classic symptoms of food poisoning, and VX, the deadly nerve agent which the Americans believed was about to be manufactured in the Sudanese factory they bombed, apparently wrongly, in 1998 and which was detected by weapons inspectors in Iraq at about the same time.
Mr Thompson said there might have been up to 113 Shad tests, and he was alarmed by what he had learned.
“We now know that our military personnel were exposed to Sarin gas and VX nerve agent, which are both lethal, and other agents that are known carcinogens.”
Monkeys were also used in the exercise so that their bodies could be examined. Details of most of the tests remain secret.
Dr Michael Kilpatrick, a medical official in the office of the assistant secretary of defence for health affairs, said it was unclear whether sailors were intentionally exposed to the germ and chemical toxins without the benefit of protective masks and gear.
It was also uncertain whether any had given their permission to become human guinea pigs in medical experiments with the deadly substances.
“When you read the over-arching plans for the testing, people were to be protected,” he told the New York Times.
“But when we get to individual reports, we do not see things like informed consent or individual protection. We don’t have the records for what, if any, protection was given to people.”
A Pentagon official said their records and the ships’ logs did not show anyone suffering serious health problems at the time, but admitted that the records were sketchy.
VX was used in a test called Fearless Johnny, also on the George Eastman. SEB was sprayed by planes over the USS Granville S Hall, five tugboats and parts of the Eniwetok Atoll, the US Pacific naval base in the Marshall Islands. SEB is unlikely to kill healthy soldiers, but could incapacitate them for up to a fortnight.