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New book says amount of mustard gas exposure in World War II may be higher than acknowledged by government

New book says amount of mustard gas exposure in World War II may be higher than acknowledged by government

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WASHINGTON • One hundred years ago next month, on July 12, 1917, the Germans dispensed mustard gas for the first time on Belgian battlefields during World War I. Mustard was not used on the battlefields of World War II, but Allied armies, gearing for its possible use or other chemical warfare, conducted mustard gas experiments on their own soldiers during that war.

And, possibly, to a degree much larger than already disclosed, according to a new book, “Toxic Exposures,” by Susan L. Smith, a history professor at Canada’s University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Quoting recent public estimates of experiments conducted on more than 2,500 Canadians, 2,500 Australians, 7,000 Britons and 60,000 Americans, Smith writes: “These are all likely low estimates due to incomplete records and government restrictions on still-classified military records.”

The book, published by Rutgers University Press, comes at a poignant time. World War II veterans are fading away, and the number of Americans exposed and still alive may be 400 or fewer, according to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

She is sponsoring a bill, the Arla Wayne Harrell Act, which would lower the high barriers of proof for veterans who claim they were exposed to the mustard gas experiments but have had claims denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The claimants have had trouble proving their cases because the government for decades kept the mustard and other chemical gas experiments secret and threatened the veterans with prison if they talked about it. Then, a fire at a military records center in St. Louis in 1973 destroyed documents that may have helped some prove their cases.

Harrell, 90, of Macon, Mo., says he was twice exposed at Camp Crowder in Missouri in 1945, once on his skin, and once inhaled in a gas chamber on the military installation, which no longer exists. His family says that beyond the VA health-care help, Harrell is most interested in hearing his government finally saying it believes him after continuously denying his claims over many years.

In a breakthrough for Harrell and others trying to make their case, VA Secretary David Shulkin said last week that he believed Harrell.

Smith’s book does not mention Harrell, but she does tell the stories of other alleged victims in Allied nations. 

“Americans engaged in poisoning themselves in the name of saving lives,” she writes. Smith characterizes the mustard gas experiments as part of a “transnational program of scientific research on chemical weapons led by the United States and the United Kingdom.”

Smith concludes that “this medical history of mustard gas reveals the costs of military research and weapons development for servicemen, racialized science, the field of medicine, and the environment.”

The concern over chemical and biological weapons is not consigned to history, Smith writes. The use of chemical agents in the Syrian civil war has rocked the region and international politics, and the anthrax attack on politicians and others, shortly after 9/11 raised the specter of terrorism and chemical and biological warfare.

“Surely the history of the mustard gas experiments during World War II provides a powerful lesson in why such medical experimentation necessitates public scrutiny and public debate,” Smith writes.

On the web:

• VA Secretary Shulkin says he believes veterans’ mustard claims.

• Post-Dispatch original story on Arla Harrell’s claims.

By the numbers:

$10 million • Amount McCaskill’s bill would appropriate over the next 10 years to cover the dwindling number of World War II vets who claim they were exposed to mustard gas.

They said it: “World War II veterans in the mustard gas experiments made history; first, as research subjects in hundreds of human experiments, and later, by telling about their individual experiences in this secret military medical research.” — Susan L. Smith, in her new book, “Toxic Exposures.”

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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