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US Sailors May Have Been Used to Test Hazardous Chemicals - 2002-06-12

The U.S. Defense Department recently revealed that it may have exposed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Navy sailors to hazardous chemical and biological agents during a series of tests conducted in the 1960's. Now, a U.S. senator is calling for a full investigation of the matter.

Florida Senator Bill Nelson says he was dismayed to learn that the Pentagon may have used American sailors as guinea pigs. "What has been leaking out," he said, "is that the Navy gassed sailors in an experiment. Some were told, some were not. But now, over three decades after the fact, they are being written to and asked to come in for medical check-ups. 4,300 have been identified but only 622 have been notified."

In late May, the Defense Department revealed that, from 1964 to 1968, it conducted a series of so-called "vulnerability tests" on naval ships - including four that involved nerve gases or a biological toxin. The Pentagon has long acknowledged that such tests were conducted in order to learn whether Navy ships could withstand a chemical or biological attack. Until now, however, it had been assumed that the subjects placed at risk were animals.

Health experts say the nerve agents and biological toxins used for the experiments can produce a variety of debilitating conditions in later life. Dr. Mark Brown is a toxicologist for the Veterans Administration who has investigated the effects of a variety of harmful compounds, including Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam War.

He said one of the gases employed for the Navy's vulnerability tests in the Pacific was the nerve agent, sarin. Dr. Brown continued, "If someone is severely poisoned [with sarin] where the dose they get puts them in the hospital, it leads to certain neuro-cognitive, neuro-physiological and psychological effects. It can affect a parent's IQ, it can affect a patient's ability to perform a manual dexterity test and other standardized tests."

Veterans groups have expressed consternation over the exposure of U.S. servicemen to potentially-deadly agents, and applauded the Pentagon for its release of information to date.

But the Veterans Administration, which has attempted to contact sailors who served on ships involved in the experiments, says - so far - no cases of long-term health problems that can be directly traced to the vulnerability tests conducted in the 1960's have been uncovered.

But that is little consolation to Florida Senator Bill Nelson. He said much of the information concerning the experiments remains classified. He has drafted a bill that, if approved, would require the Defense Department and Congress to fully investigate the matter.

He said any sailors whose health has been adversely affected by exposure to harmful agents would be entitled to compensation. "Where there has been exposure with the liability of the [U.S.] government in the past, the government has compensated. But before we jump to conclusions, let us find out what happened."

Senator Nelson said, as a first step, congressional hearings should be scheduled, and they could be held behind closed doors at the Pentagon's request.