May 31, 2020

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Editorial

We were Cold War guinea pigs

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/10/2017 (961 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Which of these events is most surprising about Winnipeg in 1953? Radios were tuned to Perry Como crooning Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes. Black and white televisions showed I Love Lucy and Dragnet. U.S. army planes secretly dumped a carcinogen on unsuspecting Winnipeggers to test weapons involving radioactive components meant to attack the Soviet Union.

The revelation that, from July 9, 1953 to Aug 1, 1953, six kilograms of zinc cadmium sulfide were sprayed on Winnipeg is contained in a new book Behind the Fog: How the U.S. Cold War Radiological Weapons Program Exposed Innocent Americans. Unfortunately, the book can’t be categorized as fiction. Author Lisa Martino-Taylor, an American sociology professor, uncovered that information when she accessed American military documents that were previously classified.

An aerial view of the Winnipeg Stadium in 1953.

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES

An aerial view of the Winnipeg Stadium in 1953.

The news that this city was used as an experimental laboratory will likely concern many Winnipeggers, particularly if they, or their relatives, lived in Winnipeg at the time. It prompts pressing questions.

Why would our elected officials allow this? Officials north of border didn’t know, according to documents cited in the book. The U.S. military purposely misled governments in Canada. Although Canada agreed to participate in open-air experiments as part of an agreement with the U.S. and England, this country was never informed the U.S. would spray a carcinogen on Winnipeg.

Was the health of Winnipeggers harmed? A critical question, given that the three weeks during which Winnipeg received its secret carcinogenic shower were in July, a time when many Winnipeggers were outdoors with bare skin exposed, backyard gardens were growing vegetables that were later consumed, and the chemicals would have landed in swimming pools frequented by swimmers.

The answer seems to be that it’s likely, but not certain, the health of Winnipeggers was not seriously affected by the dusting of zinc cadmium sulfide.

There’s been extensive research on the possible health effects of the tests because Winnipeg was only one of 33 areas in Canada and the U.S. chosen as a target for the experiment. In the late 1990s, the effect on humans of the tests was thoroughly studied in the U.S. by a committee of the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit organization. It’s not connected to the U.S. military.

"After an exhaustive, independent review requested by Congress we have found no evidence that exposure to zinc cadmium sulfide at these levels could cause people to become sick," committee chair Rogene Henderson said when the report came out in 1997.

But the committee also noted it was unable to perform follow-up studies to track the health status of those exposed because it would be extremely difficult to identify the people who were affected and to determine their past exposures to zinc cadmium sulfide. Even if they were found, there is a lack of data on their health before, during and after exposure. And it would take a huge sample of exposed residents to detect even a small increase in health problems.

Copies of the complete report are available online under the title "Toxicological Assessment of the Army’s Zinc Cadmium Sulfide Dispersion Tests."

While Winnipeggers may be relieved that the 1953 tests likely didn’t physically harm them or their relatives, we’re left with the unnerving realization that the U.S. military felt entitled to spray chemicals secretly on Winnipeg. One can only hope such secrecy is a relic of the Cold War, and future tests would be conducted only with fully informed consent of the allied countries.

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