African Americans living in St. Louis housing projects may have been subjected to radiation-laced spraying by the U.S. military during the Cold War.
In an effort to study how biological and chemical agents might spread, the U.S. Army conducted “Operation Large Area Coverage.” The project consisted of spraying zinc cadmium sulfide, which was not considered harmful, across various parts of the country.
But in the housing projects of St. Louis, which the Army considered a “slum district,” the spraying included radioactive particles, according to sociology professor Lisa Martino-Taylor. The spraying took place from February 1953 to January 1954 and 1963-1965.
Martino-Taylor uncovered the information while working on her doctor of philosophy dissertation for the University of Missouri-Columbia, which studied how “ethical lapses” can allow members of a large organization to ignore the harm they are doing to innocent and unwitting people. In the course of her research, she obtained Army documents through the Freedom of Information Act.
The government admitted in 1994 that it used St. Louis as a testing ground because its architecture and climate were similar to cities in the Soviet Union. But it never revealed anything publicly about irradiated materials. Instead the Army claimed that the tests had been experiments to see if smoke clouds could be created to hide American cities from Soviet attacks. In reality, the military was testing offensive measures, not defensive. The tests, among other goals, were meant to discover “the penetration of the aerosol cloud into residences at various distances from the aerosol disperser, and to determine whether there is any residual background or lingering effect of the cloud within buildings.”
The experiments were meant to begin in Minneapolis, but met with resistance from residents. When the program moved on to St. Louis, they chose a low-income area because, according to historian Leonard Cole, “poor people were less likely to object to strange happenings in their neighborhood, and if they did, the police would be there to control them.”
In 2009, researchers in St. Louis discovered cardboard boxes filled with 85,000 individually labeled baby teeth that had been collected in the late 1950s and early 1960s to study the effects of radioactive fallout. Children born in St. Louis in 1964 had about 50 times the amount of strontium-90 in their baby teeth as those who were born in 1950.
Missouri’s U.S. senators, Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt, have asked the Army to produce more information on the testing in St. Louis.
-David Wallechinsky, Noel Brinkerhoff
To Learn More:
Sick: Government Sprayed Radioactive Chemicals on Poor People in Science Experiment, Study Claims (by Laura Gottesdiener, AlterNet)
Missouri Senators Demand Details on Military Testing in 50s and 60s (by Bill Lambrecht, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
The Manhattan-Rochester Coalition, Research on the Health Effects of Radioactive Materials, and Tests on Vulnerable Populations without Consent in St. Louis, 1945-1970. (by Lisa Martino Taylor, University of Missouri-Columbia) (pdf)