Revelations that the U.S. Army sprayed a carcinogen throughout St. Louis’ predominantly Black Pruitt-Igoe housing development as part of an early Cold War-era program to study what would happen in a biological warfare attack may be shocking to some people, but the details aren’t new to those aware of this country’s history of secret, unethical and often racist medical experimentation.
Within about 4,000 government-documented human radiation experiments conducted between 1944 and 1974, there’s proof the U.S. government and military and the health care system targeted Black Americans.
Within about 4,000 government-documented human radiation experiments conducted between 1944 and 1974, there’s proof that the U.S. government and military and the health care system targeted Black Americans. But there’s a history of Black people being targeted in experiments with radiation and chemicals that goes back to at least 1904. Therefore, what happened in St. Louis in the 1950s and 60s is part of a much bigger story of Black people in the United States being unwittingly subjected to experimentation.
Ben Phillips, a 73-year-old Black man who grew up in the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St. Louis, told The Associated Press that he remembers seeing, when he was a child, men in hazmat suits moving around the tops of tall buildings before releasing what we know now was zinc cadmium sulfide. “I remember the mist,” he said. “I remember what we thought was smoke rising out of the chimneys. Then there were machines on top of the buildings that were spewing this mist.”
As an ongoing collaboration between the Missouri Independent, the nonprofit newsroom MuckRock and The Associated Press has shown, St. Louis was key to the U.S. effort to build a nuclear bomb that was eventually set off in New Mexico. And according to documents the AP says it has reviewed, “The federal government and companies responsible for nuclear bomb production and atomic waste storage sites in the St. Louis area in the mid-20th century were aware of health risks, spills, improperly stored contaminants and other problems but often ignored them.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has promised legislation to address the problem caused by such waste in and around St. Louis. While the U.S. government releasing a carcinogenic chemical in a biological exposure is not the same as leaving behind radioactive waste, people in the neighborhood that was targeted by zinc cadmium sulfide and who believe those experiments played a role in the illnesses and premature deaths of people in their neighborhood, are right to demand that they be compensated, too.
“We were experimented on,” Phillips said. “That was a plan. And it wasn’t an accident.”
They were, but there’s currently no plan to compensate those who lived in the Pruitt-Igoe development. The reason offered by the Army for excluding African American victims isn’t convincing. In an emailed statement to MSNBC, an Army spokesperson said that between 1994 and 2004, the Army conducted a health assessment and a peer-reviewed toxicological study regarding zinc cadmium sulfide exposure and the National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine conducted independent studies. That spokesperson said, "None of the reports contained evidence of a radioactive component to the zinc cadmium sulfide dispersion tests."
That National Research Council report (published in 1997) acknowledges that, in some situations, “repeated exposures to zinc cadmium sulfide could cause kidney and bone toxicity and lung cancer,” but says "the Army’s zinc cadmium sulfide tests involved small amounts for short duration; therefore, such effects are highly unlikely."
Duration and even volume of exposure do not always correlate with toxicity. There may not be a threshold for carcinogenicity. So the Army's self-serving disclaimer cannot be unquestionably accepted.
“We were experimented on. That was a plan. And it wasn’t an accident.
As I write in my book “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present,” a 1904 headline in The New York Telegraph predicted, “All Coons to Look White: College Professors Have Scheme to Solve Race Problem,” while The Boston Globe declared, “Radium Light Turns Negro’s Skin White.” Those headlines were in response to doctors who had begun ‘treating” Black patients’ skin with high radiation doses in ill-fated attempts not to cure them of any disease, but to efface their race. Those doctors likely anticipated a brisk business in bleaching the skins of Black people with radiation, but the resultant cancers and horrific side effects squelched their interest.
Between 1949 and 1960, the Medical College of Virginia was home to a secret metabolic laboratory focused on the Army’s preparation for massive nuclear casualties using Black patients. The college's researchers deliberately caused third-degree radiation burns to the skins of patients at Dooley, a charity hospital for Black children, and at St. Philip, its sister hospital for Black adults. As many as 100 Black subjects a year between the ages of 6 months and 90 years were made to endure the pain in similar MCV burn experiments. Doctors used radiation emitted at graduated levels to measure the precise amount of energy necessary to induce speciﬁc levels of ﬁrst- to third-degree burns.
“The Plutonium Files” by Eileen Welsome documents how, after World War II, doctors secretly injected the bodies of unwitting Americans with “fiendishly toxic” plutonium isotopes. Approximately one-third were Black.
Between 1960 and 1971, the Defense Department funded total body irradiation experiments mostly inflicted on unwitting Black cancer patients. These include Dr. Eugene Saenger’s radiation experiments on about 90 cancer patients, most of them Black, with inoperable tumors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. The Pentagon was using their bodies to determine the effects of high levels of radiation on the human body in anticipation of soldiers experiencing radiation exposure in warfare. To maintain secrecy and for fear of lawsuits, doctors referred to them only by their initials on the medical reports.
As The Boston Globe reported in 1994, the Atomic Energy Commission also sponsored 15 other radiation studies on 300 Black patients at New Orleans Charity Hospital, including dispensing radioactive mercury. As the newspaper wrote then, “For more than a decade, mostly black female patients swallowed or were injected with the radiation equivalent of up to 100 chest X-rays as researchers studied how quickly the human body could process radioactivity.”
The Atomic Energy Commission also sponsored 15 other radiation studies on 300 Black patients at New Orleans Charity Hospital, including dispensing radioactive mercury.
Researchers’ claims that those mostly Black women patients volunteered for the experiments after being told what it involved aren’t documented and shouldn’t be readily believed. After all, there was a common sentiment among researchers then that patients receiving free or low-cost medical care owed their participation in such research.
Also in the 1950s, Fort Detrick’s Army Chemical Corps laboratory bred mosquitoes so the Army could test if mosquitoes could be used as biological weapons. Such mosquitoes were released near Savannah’s all-Black Carver Village in Georgia in 1956 and in Avon Park, Florida, in 1958. Government documents say they only used “uninfected mosquitoes,” but in 2021, Chatham County, Georgia, Commission Chairman Chester Ellis told the Savannah Morning News that he didn’t believe that. “They didn’t tell anybody, and it happened,” he said of the release of mosquitoes. “And I know some people will say, ‘Well, there were mosquitoes, but they weren’t infected.’ But they were.”
By 1960, residents were plagued by a rash of deaths and mysterious illnesses. As I wrote in “Medical Apartheid,” American Citizens for Honesty in Government, a group formed by the Church of Scientology, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents from Fort Detrick’s Army Chemical Corps laboratory and found that “signed, itemized receipts were issued for such items as cultures of Hemophilus pertussis—a whooping cough pathogen—in January 1955, the year that Florida whooping cough cases tripled. The documents also include physicians’ bills for attention to injuries suffered by laboratory workers who handled bacteria, as well as receipts for formaldehyde and lime for burying dead lab animals.”
We cannot trust the self-serving claims of perpetrators that their acts harmed no one. Especially in light of the pains that perpetrators have taken to hide them. Doctors using plutonium on patients hid the identities of those patients referring to them only by initials and they banned the use of the word “plutonium,” referring to it only as “49,” an inversion of its actual atomic number. Records were often conveniently “lost” or destroyed.
We cannot trust the self-serving claims of perpetrators that their acts harmed no one.
However, the surviving records include researchers’ interviews that were collected in the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments — Final Report. These records portray a series of meticulously orchestrated conspiracies by our government, military and medical institutions against African American subjects, who were sometimes referred to using the N-word.
Some people attempt to minimize these racially targeted abuses by claiming there was no racist intent. That’s because “intent” is a much higher hurdle than racially disparate impact. Intent can sometimes be impossible to prove.
The illogic in this contention becomes clear when we realize that by the mid-1960s, St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe housing development was almost all Black. Perpetrators of such unethical experimentation may say they had no malice, but they cannot deny the clearly predictable results of which people would be harmed. If the government compensates St. Louisans made sick by atomic waste but doesn’t compensate those from a Pruitt-Igoe housing development that was sprayed with zinc cadmium sulfide, it will be another sin of omission that perpetuates the racial crimes of the past.