Test victims eligible for more help Diseases are added to compensation list

January 07, 1993|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- World War II veterans used as guinea pigs in secret tests of mustard vapors and other poisons may be entitled to compensation if they suffer from any of 19 chronic illnesses, federal officials said yesterday.

Yesterday's action by the Department of Veterans Affairs coincided with the release of a study that found gassings in sealed chambers and open fields triggered a wider array of chronic illnesses than was previously believed.

Diseases such as respiratory and skin cancers, sexual dysfunction and anxiety disorders were added to a list of maladies that the department recognized two years ago as deserving compensation.

At that point, veterans became eligible for disability payments if they suffered from any of seven diseases including asthma, laryngitis, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and conjunctivitis, inflammation of the eye.

The new study, conducted by the private Institute of Medicine, was done at the request of the veterans agency.

An estimated 4,000 servicemen were exposed to high-dose poisons at the Edgewood Arsenal in Aberdeen, the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and seven other bases from Florida to Utah.

The servicemen were told they would be testing summer clothes in return for extra leave. But they were subjected to experiments to see if protective clothing, ointments and gas masks would give them any protection against mustard agents and Lewisite, a poison gas.

After interviewing 260 veterans and reviewing medical literature, 15-member panel of doctors reported that 12 additional illnesses could be linked to the gassings.

With yesterday's developments, a new wave of victims may now be eligible for disability benefits for chronic diseases that, previously, were not officially linked to the mustard and Lewisite tests. The veterans department did not say how many veterans might be eligible.

In a searing attack on military neglect, the doctors said that they could not compile a definitive list because the Armed Forces never monitored the veterans' health and ordered the servicemen to keep the experiments a secret.

"The military should have released them from this vow long ago and provided them with medical follow-up, if for no other reason than to gather data that could shed light on a host of medical problems," Dr. David Rall, chairman of the committee, said at a briefing yesterday.

"Almost to a one," he said, the servicemen kept their promises.They didn't begin to tell doctors and wives until the 1980s, when many began filing compensation claims.

The committee could not determine, he said, if any of the servicemen died in the experiments.

After questions from reporters, Dr. Rall and four other doctors heard emotional testimony from veterans who endured the experiments.

"They said if anyone asked us what happened, to tell them it was an accident, a fire at the Naval Research Laboratory," said 66-year-old Russell O'Berry of Richmond, who was severely burned during four sessions in the gas chamber. "They said we could go to Leavenworth prison."

Since the experiments, he said, he has suffered from chronic emphysema, asthma and conjunctivitis.

"You didn't talk to anyone or else they'd lock you up and throw away the key," said Lawrence Tomah, 68.

All told, more than 60,000 U.S. servicemen participated in the experiments. But most of them -- an estimated 56,000 -- received milder exposures such as drops on the skin.

But those subjected to tests in gas chambers and open-field exercises probably suffered higher exposure than was previously believed, Dr. Rall said -- "perhaps as high as battlefield exposures."

The government ordered the tests out of fear that American soldiers would be exposed to chemical weapons, as they were in World War I. German use of mustard agents caused almost 400,000 allied casualties during that war.

The United States also produced poison gases for possible use during World War II. But the weapons weren't used by either side.

The Institute of Medicine recommended that the veterans department seek out all veterans who were exposed so that they can be medically evaluated and treated for any ailments related to the gassings.

In an apparent response, the veterans agency said yesterday that it was asking the Defense Department for information on all the research subjects "for outreach purposes."

Dr. Rall estimated that two-thirds of the veterans are alive today, but admitted that the estimate was based on actuarial data rather than on any long-term tracking.

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