WASHINGTON – Kent and Harford County officials said Thursday they are not concerned about long-term health risks from open-air tests of “very nasty” nerve agents at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in the 1960s.
The Department of Defense revealed this week that it used soldiers and sailors for a series of tests of chemical and biological agents in the 1960s, including tests at the Edgewood Arsenal, which is now part of Aberdeen in Harford County.
William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee Thursday that there is no way to determine if civilians were exposed during the tests and that long-term effects have not been identified.
Harford County Administrative Director John O’Neill said he has not been contacted by defense officials and does not know if airborne agents traveled off base during the tests, drifting into the county or the Chesapeake Bay. But he is not concerned.
“It was a deadly agent. If there is some around, I don’t know,” O’Neill said. “We can’t be sure, but we have a great relationship with the Army.”
State environmental officials said they have not seen evidence of any groundwater contamination in the area of the tests, but that they have asked the Army for documents on the tests and plan on conducting their own investigation.
“Yes there would be some potential concern for water and soil contamination. That’s why we’re asking for the information,” said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Department of Environment.
But he noted that, often, “states don’t get to know” what goes on at military installations within their borders.
Edgewood was one of several sites where, from 1962 to 1973, the Defense Department tested procedures for responding to chemical and biological attacks under “Project 112.” Tests were also performed at sea and in Utah, Florida, Hawaii, Alaska and parts of Canada and Great Britain.
About 5,000 servicemen participated at sea and 500 on land, Winkenwerder said.
Project 112 came to light after a veteran filed a claim for disabilities he believed were related to the tests, said Robert Epley, spokesman for the Veterans Administration.
At Edgewood, the military tested the behavior of toxic gases like VX, sarin, soman and tabun under various climate conditions.
Sarin is a volatile gas that can enter the body through inhalation, ingestion or the eyes and skin. The gas, which can take days to evaporate, can kill within minutes.
VX is considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention one of the most toxic substances ever synthesized. Death usually occurs within 10 to 15 minutes of exposure.
Two series of tests were conducted at Edgewood. In the first, called Elk Hunt, Phase II, soldiers contaminated vehicles with live VX nerve agent and then tested various methods for decontaminating the vehicles. Elk Hunt also sent soldiers through contaminated minefields in protective suits, then tested to see how much of the nerve agent they picked up.
The second series of Edgewood studies — DTC Test 69-12 — came in 1969. In those, sarin, soman, tabun and VX nerve gases were released into the air to study their rate of evaporation with various drop sizes, weather conditions and terrain.
Defense Department spokesman Austin Camacho said he was not sure if the Edgewood tests took place indoors, but added that “if someone were accidentally exposed to VX, you would know immediately.”
“In these tests, some very nasty stuff was used. That’s not something you generally survive,” Camacho said.
He did not know how many people participated in the tests at Edgewood, but that they all knew they were handling potentially fatal agents.
“We’re having a difficult time determining how many people worked on this,” Camacho said. “These tests were performed by volunteers and pinning down exactly who they were and how many is challenging. It’s not like we can say, `Everybody aboard this ship was in on it.'”
The Veterans Administration and the Defense Department are working to find Project 112 subjects to inform them about the project. The VA has also awarded a $3 million contract to determine long-term health risks associated with exposure to nerve agents.
Across the bay in Kent County, health department spokesman Ed Birkmire said he is not worried because it happened so long ago and no one has complained of health problems.
“Most people didn’t know it was going on,” he said. “But it happened 30 years ago. We might get some calls from the Department of Defense if public interest get high, but not so far.”