In the 1950s and 1960s, the Army sprayed chemicals around the Pruitt-Igoe housing development as part of secret Cold War-era testing. Chester Deanes, left, and Ben Phillips lived in the development and say the chemicals, which the Army maintains were nontoxic, have made people sick. (Jim Salter/AP)
Edited bt Jake Maxwell
Former residents of the Pruitt-Igoe Projects, a low-income, majority-Black housing development in St. Louis, Missouri, are now seeking restitution from the United States Army over a Cold War-era testing program, which the residents say made them ill.
Ben Phillips was a five-year-old boy when he and his family moved into Pruitt-Igoe Housing Development. Phillips, now 73, told CNN he had fond memories of his decade spent growing up in the high rise.
“There were two separate developments. Igoe for Whites and Pruitt was for Blacks,” he said. He added that despite the overt segregation “it was a very wonderful, tranquil area, a brand-new high rise.”
But Phillips also recalls a chemical mist being sprayed from vehicles and from the nearby rooftops of several buildings within the housing development. At the time, he said residents thought the mist was just a pesticide.
“The majority of it was done at night. So, you know, you’re at home, it’s a summer evening, you got your windows opened up on the seventh floor because you don’t have air conditioning. And it’s spewing this stuff off the roofs.”
As he got older, Phillips’ perception of the chemicals he inhaled as a child began to change.
The Infamous Army Dispersion Tests
According to government records, the nuclear arms race of the 1950s and 60s fostered an environment of fear and loathing in the United States. The US military had also warned the populace of possible enemy attack using biological weapons.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the US Army conducted experiments in 33 different locations and cities across the country, including Greater St. Louis. They tested the way an aerosol-distributed biological agent might disperse in different environments.
According to government records, the Army sprayed zinc cadmium sulfide in these dispersion tests (cadmium sulfide is an inorganic compound composed of zinc, cadmium, and sulfur that glows bright yellow under ultraviolet light).
At the time, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) asserted that the compound was thought to be harmless to humans, animals and plants; to this day, the Army still maintains that the substance was non-toxic.
In a statement released to CNN, Army spokesperson Ellen Lovett stated that five examinations of the Army’s use of zinc cadmium sulfide in the aerosol dispersion tests have all shown the mist was non-toxic. “None of the reports contained evidence of a radioactive component to the zinc cadmium sulfide dispersion tests,” Lovett said in the statement.
But for Phillips, the military’s assurances were not enough.
In the decades since the testing, Phillips said many people he knew who were exposed to the mist have developed unexplained illnesses — including various forms of cancer. “I just feel that there was a cover-up,” he said.
In 2013, Phillips filed a lawsuit seeking restitution for those impacted in the Army’s dispersion program. A federal judge later dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the actions of the Army and its contractors were indemnified by the government.
Phillips described how the judge’s ruling felt to him and his fellow former residents. “The door was just shut, slammed in our face”.
In response, Phillips and several other former residents formed the non-profit organization, Pruitt-Igoe Historical Accounting, Compensation, and Truth Seeking (PHACTS).
Phillips said the organization is fighting to add former Pruitt-Igoe residents to a list of neighborhoods under consideration for compensation by the federal government because of separate radiological testing in St. Louis.
“The people of St. Louis have borne the burden of [the Manhattan Project] — and now it’s time for their government to make it right,” said Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri bin a press release announcing the legislation last July.
“The federal government needs to pay the medical bills for any St. Louis resident who has contracted cancer or an autoimmune virus or a genetic disorder because of exposure to radioactive contamination,” Hawley added.
What Is ‘Behind the Fog’
Recently retired sociology professor Lisa Martino-Taylor at of Southern Illinois University, has studied the Army’s program for decades.
After filing multiple requests under the Freedom of Information Act, Martino-Taylor said she spent years sorting through declassified government documents about the dispersion program, detailing her findings in a book entitled, “Behind the Fog”. Her research uncovered army maps that place Pruitt-Igoe well within the army’s testing area.
She told CNN she believes the stories told by former residents of Pruitt-Igoe that the mist they inhaled made them sick. “They were developing this stuff as a weapon, and they knew it could harm people,” she said.
The NIH recommends further testing to determine the toxicity of zinc cadmium sulfide, but classifies cadmium sulfide as a hazardous substance that may cause cancer and damage to internal organs as a result of prolonged or repeated exposure.
According to the NIH, chronic zinc sulfide exposure can cause anemia, lethargy, a decrease in good cholesterol, and damage to the pancreatic and reproductive systems. It can also cause ataxia, an illness where people lose control of muscles in their arms and legs, according to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Phillips said his family has experienced similar side effects. “I had a little sister who was having convulsions when she was about a year and a half old. It went on for about two and a half years, and then stopped”. Phillips told CNN that he believes his sister’s illness is connected to the testing because the convulsions ended once the family moved away from Pruitt-Igoe.
Other former residents of Pruitt-Igoe told their stories to filmmaker Damien Smith for his documentary, “Target St. Louis: Volume 1.”
Smith told CNN he heard some of the most shocking claims about Pruitt-Igoe from his grandmother, who lived in St. Louis. “I started doing some more research about it and it infuriated me that they can test on a population that they deemed to be basically sub-human,” he said. “Definitely stripped them of any constitutional rights.”
Smith told CNN after talking with former residents for his documentary, the most common illness they cited was cancer. The housing complex was demolished in 1972, remaining vacant since then.
For Phillips, restitution isn’t just about giving money to individuals; he said it’s also about making sure Americans are educated and aware of the harms of the past. “This happens so often to marginalized communities – African American communities – because they’re easier to prey upon.”
Because at least back then, they hardly had a voice,” he said.
Justin Gamble of CNN.com wrote the original version of this story.