Human guinea pigs at Edgewood

February 02, 1994

"What they are waiting for is for all of us to die and forget about it," says an old man who served as a human guinea pig for chemical warfare testing by the U.S. military.

He and thousands of others who were exposed to harmful chemicals in tests at Edgewood Arsenal, Baltimore's Fort Holabird and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington during the 1940s are seeking compensation for their illnesses and disabilities that they link to war-era secret experiments.

Slowly the government has taken up their claims, after decades of denial and exculpatory studies, finally compiling a list of medical conditions connected to severe exposures to chemicals such as mustard agent and arsenic compounds during World War II testing.

But the Veterans Administration rules that would actually pay these aging warriors won't be final until late this year. Meantime, Washington focuses on new revelations of human victims of radiation testing that were also shrouded in military secrecy. Already the nation has approved treatment and payments to Vietnam veterans for a variety of medical problems related to chemical exposures. All of which makes the untoward delay in addressing claims of these older servicemen even more embarrassing for the nation.

Certainly the threats of war and of the Cold War cast yesteryear's human experimentation in a different light. The "man break" testing that measured how long it took toxic chemicals to inflict serious injury would not be acceptable today. Medical and ethical standards were different. The exigencies of military commanders directing laboratory and field human testing played a role. Soldiers in wartime were expected to obey perilous commands and to maintain silence for the national good.

Out of the human testing directed by Edgewood commands came an arsenal of protective gear and antidotes that may have forestalled use of chemicals by the enemy. Americans have not been exposed to chemical warfare agents on the battlefield since World War I. The work on defensing chemical warfare continues under the Army's chemical unit at Edgewood. Instead of human subjects, these military scientists use animals and cultures and computers and simulants to test the effects of battlefield poisons.

But the claims of military personnel who were injured for life in chemical testing in the past demand our response now -- before they are dead and their sacrifices forgotten.

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