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  • There is a facility in Maryland, mostly used for housing military members and civilian

  • workers.

  • But in the past, it was a testing ground - as people were exposed to some of the deadliest

  • substances around.

  • And the test subjects?

  • American soldiers.

  • It was the late 1940s, and the United States and its allies were still sorting through

  • the rubble after their victory in the Second World War.

  • The two World Wars had introduced a terrifying new element to warfare - chemical weapons

  • that could incapacitate, disable, or even kill soldiers simply by releasing a spray

  • or gas into the battlefield.

  • While the use of these weapons had decreased in the Second World War due to treaties, the

  • Nazis had continued developing the deadly tools of war.

  • And the United States wanted to understand them - and how to stop them.

  • The government obtained the formulas for a trio of nerve gases developed by the Nazis

  • - deadly chemical agents that could interrupt the flow of signals between the brain and

  • the body.

  • These could have long-term debilitating effects and were more dangerous than many other chemical

  • weapons, which were primarily irritants or caused respiratory distress.

  • The gases, named tabun, soman, and the soon-to-be-notorious sarin, all had the potential to be fatal.

  • At the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, the government

  • started doing tests on the gases and how to prevent and treat their effects.

  • But there would soon be a shocking twist to these early tests.

  • It was only 1948 when the government first started involving human test subjects in their

  • experiments.

  • While it doesn't seem any test subjects were exposed deliberately to these deadly

  • gases, technicians were exposed to trace amounts - and the government learned a lot from these

  • accidents.

  • While the amounts the employees were exposed to wasn't enough to be fatal, it was more

  • than enough to cause psychological distress - and that gave the government a potentially

  • risky idea.

  • What if the weapons could be refined into something less deadly - but still powerful?

  • Luther Wilson Greene, the technical director of a specialized division at Edgewood, published

  • a classified report in 1949 about the possibility of psychochemical weapons.

  • Based partially on the experiments that showed the psychoactive effects of the nerve gases

  • in small doses, Greene argued that this weapon could change war forever.

  • What if instead of creating deadlier weapons that would leave carnage in their wake, the

  • US developed chemical weapons that could cause mental incapacitation and end battles without

  • a shot being fired?

  • It wouldn't be long before the experiments took on new importance.

  • Harvard anesthesiologist Henry K. Beecher was soon recruited to work on experiments

  • at Camp King in Germany - working with many illegal drugs that could earn someone a hefty

  • prison sentence for civilian use.

  • Could LSD and mescaline have military implications?

  • The government also interviewed former Nazi physicians to learn everything they could

  • about these tools, and many in the military brass thought that these weapons could actually

  • be more humane than bombs and other traditional weapons.

  • But to find out, the government needed test subjects.

  • It was 1948 when the government first authorized what would be known as the Edgewood Arsenal

  • human experiments - a series of tests of chemical substances on human volunteers at their Aberdeen

  • facilities.

  • In total, they would experiment on around eight thousand people over close to three

  • decades, and test over two hundred and fifty chemicals.

  • Most would be midspectrum incapacitants, or drugs that cause a mental effect without much

  • in the way of long-term physical consequences.

  • For airborne gases, the government would use a wind tunnel to deliver the compound in a

  • way similar to how it would be blown by the wind on the battlefield.

  • Now, the government just needed to get volunteers.

  • While the use of human subjects in experiments on potential chemical weapons was controversial,

  • the government tried to stay above board with how they conducted it.

  • No enlisted men were ordered by their commanding officers to be part of these experiments.

  • Instead, the government conducted a series of recruitments at Army installations.

  • The soldiers would be shown a short film and given some handouts to explain the experiment,

  • and those who showed interest were given a medical and psychological screening.

  • The Army wanted men who were healthy and able to withstand the effects of the compounds,

  • but they also needed to be in the right frame of mind and know their limits.

  • Men who were too enthusiastic and wanted to see how much they could handle were usually

  • rejected, but those with an interest in science were prime recruits.

  • It was surprisingly easy to get the men they needed.

  • By the time the military had gone through ten Army bases, they would often be given

  • four to six hundred applications.

  • They would be winnowed down to no more than one hundred, and these soldiers would be brought

  • to Edgewood where they would serve one to two months as test subjects.

  • There were perks for volunteering - a small allowance, free weekends, and only light duty

  • while volunteering.

  • But it still wasn't for the faint of heart - because these test subjects would be spending

  • some very unpleasant hours being exposed to substances that could cause chaos in large

  • amounts.

  • So what substances were tested?

  • The government was particularly interested in the effects of popular drugs and if they

  • could be weaponized.

  • LSD, a psychoactive drug notorious for causing intense hallucinations and altered thoughts,

  • was thought to be a potential way to send an opposing army into a panic.

  • THC, one of the key components in marijuana, had no known lethal dose and was seen as a

  • possible tool for slowing down enemy soldiers and reducing their aggression levels.

  • The same goes for benzodiazepines, which lower brain activity and are commonly used to treat

  • anxiety and insomnia.

  • Making an entire enemy army fall asleep would certainly be an effective tool in a war.

  • But there was one drug that was considered of particular interest.

  • BZ, also known as 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate, is an odorless and stable powder that can

  • survive a lot - even being spread by hot munitions.

  • It can dissolve in most subjects, and has powerful effects - including a state of delirium.

  • Subjects exposed become confused, start to hallucinate, and find it challenging to perform

  • even basic tasks.

  • It can also cause some uncomfortable and distracting physical effects, including temporary blindness,

  • a high heart rate, overheating, dry mouth, and skin disorders.

  • But can it kill?

  • Unlike many other chemical weapons, it has a very high lethal dose - with people needing

  • to ingest around 450 milligrams to die from it, although testing is inconclusive.

  • This makes it very different from other powerful chemical weapons, which could wipe out an

  • army or kill a scientist with a minor spill.

  • BZ had the potential to change the face of warfare, letting armies win battles by rendering

  • the opposing sideMad as a hatter, red as a beet, dry as a bone, and blind as a bat”,

  • as a famous mnemonic put it.

  • But this wasn't a drug invented for combat.

  • BZ had actually been developed by a Swiss pharmaceutical company as an attempt to treat

  • gastrointestinal ailments and ulcers, but was repeatedly ruled out due to its severe

  • host of non-lethal but highly unpleasant side effects.

  • While it was quickly dropped as a drug, it was soon picked up by the US military for

  • potential weaponization and was extensively tested on the Edgewood subjects.

  • It even became the first chemical authorized for military use and was weaponized to be

  • released by cluster bombs - but these plans would never be realized as the bombs were

  • destroyed in 1989 when the government downsized the program.

  • But BZ wouldn't be the only substance that the government would test on the Edgewood

  • volunteers.

  • Not all documents relating to the experiments are public, but the government did keep a

  • detailed list of the time the volunteers spent on different subjects.

  • Almost a third of volunteer hours were spent on incapacitating compounds, but another fourteen

  • percent were spent on riot control techniques.

  • This likely became much more prominent in the 1960s, as protests swept the nation.

  • Sometimes typical crowd control methods didn't work, but the government didn't want to

  • resort to lethal force.

  • They needed to find compounds like pepper spray and tear gas that are non-lethal in

  • most cases but can cause pain and discomfort - and usually send large groups running for

  • cover and a place to wash their eyes out.

  • Not all experiments involved direct exposure to chemicals.

  • Sometimes the goal was to see how to avoid this exposure.

  • Some volunteers tried out new protective equipment and clothing.

  • Others were subject to sleep deprivation to determine how well they could function under

  • different circumstances.

  • Some of these tests may have been combined - as the government was likely interested

  • to see how the presence of drugs like BZ could impact mental performance on tests.

  • The government even tested alcohol and caffeine's effects on soldiers.

  • But for 14.5% of the hours at Edgewood, the tests took on a darker note.

  • The roster is simply listed aslethal compounds”, but it's believed that this involved some

  • of the deadliest weapons ever created for war.

  • This includes some of the deadly nerve agents like Sarin that created the project, as well

  • as the notorious mustard gas that burned the soldiers of the First World War.

  • Industrial-strength pesticides were also tested - but the US had no apparent intention of

  • re-introducing any of them to the battlefield.

  • So why did they introduce them in testing?

  • Many of the tests involved nerve agent antidotes and reactivators, indicating that the US Army

  • may have been trying to figure out how to best prepare for these substances if they

  • were introduced in combat by an enemy.

  • By testing them in small amounts and seeing how to bring soldiers back from the brink

  • if they were poisoned, the government could equip its soldiers to survive a sudden chemical

  • attack.

  • But the government's secret testing ground would eventually come to an end.

  • It was the 1970s when the government began investigating the program after more reports

  • of long-term side effects of exposure began to surface.

  • In 1975, the program was terminated and all the current volunteers were removed.

  • The founder of the program, Dr. Van Murray Sim, had the run of the place for decades

  • - but soon he had been hauled before Congress to testify before lawmakers enraged that the

  • government had been experimenting on soldiers.

  • The Army defended themselves, claiming that there were no serious injuries or deaths associated

  • with the program.

  • However, top brass did admit that their recruitment process may have taken advantage of the soldiers.

  • But future investigations of the program's documents would tell a different story.

  • Once all the documents were unsealed, the government took action to help the soldiers

  • who had been exposed.

  • Many had not even been told what substance they were being exposed to during the tests,

  • simply being placed in a wind tunnel as a substance was blown towards them.

  • It would have been difficult if not impossible for them to address any side effects they

  • had from the chemical agents in the years after their testing - but for the first time

  • they had information and could seek help.

  • While most of the tests were of irritant agents only without side effects, the percentage

  • who had been exposed to nerve agents or other lethal compounds were given extra attention.

  • But for some, it might have been too late.

  • The government would continue to investigate the experiments through 2004, and uncover

  • the classified secrets.

  • In the 1993 report, it was authorized to grant restitution to the families of test subjects

  • who may have died of causes related to the experiments.

  • But while over seven thousand test subjects were identified, the full number may never

  • be known - and with decades past since the tests, there is no way to investigate those

  • who had died since for links to the experiments.

  • But debates continue over the program's legacy.

  • In the 1990s, lawsuits were filed over the program by veterans' rights organizations,

  • but they were initially dismissed.

  • In 2013, a judge ordered the government to provide the test subjects with all information

  • related to their well-being, but denied other claims of liability against the government.

  • Psychiatrist Col. James Ketchum, who worked with many of the subjects, denied most of

  • the claims against the government - saying that any who died during their test periods

  • likely died of unrelated causes.

  • Ketchum claimed that Edgewood was probably the safest military location in the world

  • to spend two months.

  • But for the soldiers staring into the wind tunnel as the unknown and potentially deadly

  • came towards them, they might have a different perspective.

  • For more on the deadliest weapons of war, check outWeapons Even the Military Made

  • Illegal”, or tryWhy Life of a WWI Soldier in the Trenches SUCKEDfor an in-depth

  • look at the era of chemical warfare.

There is a facility in Maryland, mostly used for housing military members and civilian

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Chemical Weapons Experiments on US Soldiers

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    Summer posted on 2021/08/15
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