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Simulated "hot zone" at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Bio-agent Scare Spreads to Missouri

Oct 24, 2000
David Eberhart
Stars and Stripes Veterans Affairs Editor

Pentagon representatives have been invited to an emergency public meeting Oct. 26 at the Versailles Middle School in Versailles, Mo., following news that the DoD has quietly been testing biological agent detection gear at nearby Fort Leonard Wood since January.

"The citizens of Missouri and surrounding states are outraged to find that biological materials have been released into the open air on a regular basis at Fort Leonard Wood this past year in training exercises," said Joyce Riley, a spokesperson for the American Gulf War Veterans Association and a Missouri resident.

In Louisiana, a long-standing friendship between residents of Deridder and Leesville began to unravel in August after the Defense Department quietly announced, in the back notice pages of the Beauregard Daily News, that it planned to spray a biological agent in an "urban" test of bio-agent detection hardware.

After citizens near Fort Polk learned of the testing, which is expected to start in January, they confronted Dan Nance, the post's deputy public affairs officer, who assured them that the testing was safe--and that similar testing had been going on at Fort Leonard Wood with no adverse health effects on civilians.

Spraying Since January

Riley said she called Fort Leonard Wood at this point and was firmly told that no bio-agent detection testing had occurred or was ongoing.

But Robin Byrom, of the Chemical School Materiel and Combat Development Department at Leonard Wood, told The Stars and Stripes that "four courses" of biological integrated detection system (BIDS) training have been conducted there since January and that a fifth spraying was currently in progress.

The bacterium bacillus subtilis, also known as bacillus globigii (BG), is being used as a "simulant" because it closely resembles anthrax and can be detected by the BIDS units at Fort Leonard Wood.

"Informed consent of the general population has not been obtained in any of these releases" of the bacterium, Riley said. "Although Army officials claim that these simulants are virtually harmless, congressional records report there is no such thing as a safe biological simulant. BG is known to cause spontaneous abortions in sheep and cattle, upper respiratory infections, eye infections, and can affect those with compromised immune systems such as the elderly, the chronically ill and the very young."

"The bacteria being released can travel for hundreds of miles and the spores can remain active for decades," she said.

Respiratory Problems

"There has been an increase in upper respiratory infections in Morgan County," which adjoins Fort Leonard Wood, Riley said. She cited two Senate reports-- "Biological Testing Involving Human Subjects, 1977" and "Human Drug Testing by the CIA"--which she said "establish a clear and consistent track record by the Department of Defense of deceiving and manipulating the general public in regard to the development and use of biological and chemical agents."

The Pentagon, in its newspaper notice of the testing in Louisiana, maintained that "the simulant has been used at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, for more than 40 years and at Fort McClellan, Ala., for over six years under conditions similar to those proposed at Fort Polk. During the period of use, no environmental or health effects have been documented at those installations."

Fort Polk is the home of the 7th Chemical Co., a specialized Army unit set up to detect the presence of biological agents. Its primary equipment is the BIDS, a Humvee-mounted suite of sensors that can detect and identify the type of biological agent and its concentration in the atmosphere.

The system was developed on an expedited basis after the 1991 Persian Gulf War when U.S. officials learned the extent to which Iraq had developed and "weaponized" biological warfare agents, including anthrax.

'No Significant Impact'

On Aug. 29, Army Col. Fred P. Pickens, commander of Fort Polk and deputy commander of the Joint Readiness Training Command, ordered the 7th Chemical Company to conduct aerial releases of bacillus subtilis--a genetically engineered bacterium that the Pentagon calls "dead" and virtually harmless.

Pickens reportedly based his decision on a "Finding of No Significant Impact" and an accompanying environmental assessment, available at local libraries, that portrayed the planned Fort Polk tests as benign.

The DoD, in factsheets released to the public after the hue and cry provoked by the notice in the Beauregard Daily News, says that the simulant to be used at Fort Polk is "a dead form" bacillus subtilis, described as a "non-pathogenic bacterium commonly found in soils, water and decomposing plant residue. This substance is not considered toxic to humans, plants or animals."

The environmental assessment says:

"The release of the simulant poses virtually no risk to the public or environment. It would be released in water in an aerosol spray through an agriculture-type sprayer to allow the BIDS system operating in the vicinity to detect the simulated agent. The only effect it will have will be to trigger a response in the BIDS system.

"The spores to be used would be irradiated with gamma radiation rendering it dead before it arrived at Fort Polk. The use of gamma radiation is a common sterilization process used by the food industry to make food safer and by the medical industry for instrument sterilization. Spores will then be tested to insure that the radiation procedure was effective and that the spores are in fact dead.

"Only three areas at Fort Polk will be used for this training and it will only be conducted in weather conditions favorable to prevent off-post drift of the release. This training would occur only 12 times a year... "

"This simulant will provide a response in the BIDS unit and provide soldiers with realistic training in detecting biological hazards on the battlefield," according to the Army. "Our soldiers must be prepared to detect and defend themselves from biological attacks. The use of an aerosol simulant will provide soldiers of the 7th Chemical Company the opportunity to operate the BIDS and detect the simulant. This realistic training meets the Army's objectives to 'train as you fight.'"

The 7th Chemical Company consists of five platoons totaling approximately 180 soldiers and 35 vehicles with trailers.

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