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Effect of U.S. chemical dump on city unclear

Book details 1953 Cold War experiments on Winnipeg

In her book, Lisa Martino-Taylor writes about how the U.S. government secretly exposed people in Winnipeg to dangerous radiation.

JEFF ROBERSON / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

In her book, Lisa Martino-Taylor writes about how the U.S. government secretly exposed people in Winnipeg to dangerous radiation.

Winnipeg was duped into being a “guinea pig” for American chemical warfare experiments in 1953, but no one knows what effect it had on city residents, a University of Manitoba pharmacology professor emeritus says.

“It’s too late now to do anything about it or to know what health effects it had on people,” Frank LaBella said Thursday of the aerosol cloud of zinc cadmium sulphide that was sprayed in Winnipeg to test ways of distributing chemical and biological warfare agents.

The deceitful operation by the United States army came to light in 1980 and is back in the spotlight with the publication of a book by an American researcher that includes declassified information. Behind the Fog: How the U.S. Cold War Radiological Weapons Program Exposed Innocent Americans, by Lisa Martino-Taylor, details the testing carried out in cities in the U.S. and Winnipeg (which resembled target sites in the Soviet Union).

“Nobody knew what was going on,” LaBella said. In 1953, Winnipeg city council was told civil defence authorities were testing the effects of smoke over the city using “harmless fluorescent powder.”

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Winnipeg was duped into being a "guinea pig" for American chemical warfare experiments in 1953, but no one knows what effect it had on city residents, a University of Manitoba pharmacology professor emeritus says.

"It’s too late now to do anything about it or to know what health effects it had on people," Frank LaBella said Thursday of the aerosol cloud of zinc cadmium sulphide that was sprayed in Winnipeg to test ways of distributing chemical and biological warfare agents.

The deceitful operation by the United States army came to light in 1980 and is back in the spotlight with the publication of a book by an American researcher that includes declassified information. Behind the Fog: How the U.S. Cold War Radiological Weapons Program Exposed Innocent Americans, by Lisa Martino-Taylor, details the testing carried out in cities in the U.S. and Winnipeg (which resembled target sites in the Soviet Union).

"Nobody knew what was going on," LaBella said. In 1953, Winnipeg city council was told civil defence authorities were testing the effects of smoke over the city using "harmless fluorescent powder."

In 1980, Canadian officials confirmed the U.S. Army Chemical Corps had co-ordinated open-air tests in Winnipeg in 1953. They were trying to determine how radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion would be dispersed by air currents.

When the truth came out, LaBella told the Free Press, cadmium and zinc are metals and generally considered toxic and could be dangerous to the sick or those with asthma, and particularly to very young and old people.

The metals are more dangerous when used in aerosol form and there have been a number of deaths and reported cases of brain damage in individual workers dealing with cadmium sulfide, the professor noted in a Free Press article published 37 years ago.

Today, LaBella is retired but he hasn’t forgotten — or forgiven — authorities for their actions.

"It probably didn’t have much effect," he said of the experiments’ impact on public health.

"In principle, spraying an aerosol chemical mist over a populated area is criminal, to say the least," said LaBell, an neuropharmacology expert. "At the time, there were no reports of illness but, if present, they could not be distinguished from other illnesses. If there were lasting effects, we’ll never know."

The Winnipeg tests ran from July 9 to Aug. 1, 1953, and were extended into September 1953, author Martino-Taylor recently told the Free Press.

"The Winnipeg experiments were part of a larger 1953-54, three-city U.S. army Chemical Corps study that included Minneapolis and St. Louis, which were identified by the U.S. army as analog cities for their ultimate radiological weapons targets of Moscow and Leningrad," she said.

Records show there were 12 tests, with 36 releases of material from airplanes and trucks centralized 5.6 kilometres west of downtown Winnipeg, said the sociology professor at St. Louis Community College in Missouri.

The experiments were designed by Philip Leighton, the U.S. army’s top expert in open-air radiological weapons, who ran Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, a facility that tested chemical, biological, and radiological weapons.

Records show one year after the experiments occurred, Leighton stated the test material called FP2266 was "poisonous" and had "toxic effects," Martino-Taylor told the Free Press. "Leighton said, ‘Compounds of zinc and cadmium are both known to be poisonous when taken into the human system. For this reason, the No. 2266 FP material is labelled with a poison warning when shipped by the manufacturer, and in applications of the material the possibilities of toxic effects must be considered.’"

Martino-Taylor said she’s not an epidemiologist and didn’t set out to study the potential health effects of the experiments. Rather than being alarmed, people should be asking for the release of documents into the public domain related to all open-air studies conducted by Canadian or U.S. military officials.

The Department of National Defence public affairs branch did not respond to a request for comment. Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen, "has requested a history of this situation from the department," his spokeswoman said.

LaBella thinks it’s too late to do anything about it.

"There is nothing more to say except to emphasize the stupidity and criminality of the federal government to allow the Americans to use Winnipeg as a guinea pig," he said.

The attitude of the U.S. authorities then was "the area is out in the boondocks, and its citizens... what they don’t know won’t hurt them," LaBella said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Carol Sanders.

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