This article was published in collaboration with GlobalPossibilities.org.
The U.S. government may have used a densely-populated swath of low-income housing projects in St. Louis as its radioactive chemical testing ground through the 1950s and 1960s, according to a new study.
undertaken by sociology professor Lisa Martino-Taylor, claims that the government sprayed African American sections of St. Louis with radioactive particles as part of its biological weapons program.
In 1994, the government admitted that it had in fact used St. Louis as a testing ground during the Cold War because it was architecturally similar to Soviet cities, but it said that the material sprayed was zinc cadmium sulfide, a fine powder that is not thought to be dangerous to ones health. Between 1957 and 1958, the U.S. government sprayed much of the United States with this chemical compound as part of its biological test “Operation Large Area Coverage,” which sought to better understand how biological or chemical agents were dispersed in the air.
Martino-Taylor’s study alleges, however, that the chemical compound sprayed over sections of St. Louis was actually laced with dangerous radioactive chemicals. Unlike in other sections of the country that underwent testing, the government disseminated the chemicals with sprayers placed on the top of housing projects, schools, and station wagons across the low-income sections of the city. The majority of the testing occurred on the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, which was home to 10,000 low-income people–the majority being African American children under the age of 12. In army documents, which Martino-Taylor revealed using Freedom of Information Act requests, the Army described this area as “a densely populated slum district.” The housing project was later destroyed by the city in 1972.
At the time, local government officials were told that the government was testing potential smoke screens that could be used to protect St. Louis from a Soviet aerial attack.
“They didn’t have volunteers stepping up and saying yeah, I’ll breathe zinc cadmium sulfide with radioactive particles…It was pretty shocking. The level of duplicity and secrecy. Clearly they went to great lengths to deceive people,” she said.
The government never performed follow-up studies to see if the chemicals it sprayed were, in fact, radioactive or caused adverse health reactions. Many residents, however, harbored suspicions that the hazy spray that thickened the air had made them sick.
One resident of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project named Doris Spade, for example, has had four of her siblings and her father all die from cancer. She herself also suffered from cervical cancer. She told the Associated Press
that she wonders whether the government-issued chemicals are to blame for the high incidence of cancer in her family.
After the report was released, both U.S. senators from Missouri began pressuring the Army for an explanation. Their inquiry has, as of yet, gone unanswered.