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Lawsuit filed over decades-old military-sponsored test spraying in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS — A doctoral dissertation that renewed public interest in the military-sponsored chemical spraying of impoverished areas of St. Louis in the 1950s and ’60s has spawned a lawsuit.

It leaves open the potential for litigation related to more controversial aspects of Lisa Martino-Taylor’s work — questions of more sinister government experiments on human test subjects.

Undisputed is that St. Louis was among several test cities chosen decades ago by government contractors for the spraying of zinc cadmium sulfide, a chemical powder mixed with fluorescent particles to allow tracking of dispersal patterns.

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The spraying was part of a biological weapons program, the government conceded in 1994, and St. Louis was chosen because its topography was similar to some of the Russian cities the military thought it might have to attack.

When Martino-Taylor’s research hit the news earlier this fall, it triggered a memory for Benjamin Phillips, currently the sole plaintiff in what his attorney seeks to turn into a class action in St. Louis Circuit Court.

Phillips, a former city marshal, spent part of his childhood in the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. He suddenly remembered men in protective suits on roofs with machines spewing what seemed like a thick fog of bug spray, according to his attorney, Elkin Kistner.

Residents were told it was testing “a smoke screen” for protection in enemy attack.

Martino-Taylor’s research highlighted studies showing chronic lung and respiratory problems borne from exposure to zinc cadmium sulfide. The Army said earlier this month that no health consequences had been found in St. Louis.

Martino-Taylor also raised the possibility of radioactive material’s being used. She pointed to links between participants in the St. Louis program and scientists who took part in wartime efforts to build the atomic bomb. The Army has denied such speculation.

Phillips’ suit generally describes the spraying of “cadmium, including potentially radioactive cadmium, without the knowledge or consent of those residents.”

It names as defendants the Parsons Company, a government contractor known to have conducted the tests, and two others that Martino-Taylor named as potential players based on government records: SRI International, which supposedly designed an air-sampling unit to be used in the aerosol studies, and Monsanto, which allegedly knew of plans and offered the government use of its St. Louis plant.

The suit asks over $50,000 in actual damages on claims of a public nuisance, strict liability, emotional distress and battery. It also seeks unspecified punitive damages.

SRI International, through a spokesperson, said it had not found any evidence that the company was involved. It intends to seek dismissal from the lawsuit.

Monsanto issued a statement saying that the suit “does not contain any facts about the alleged conspiracy occurring 50 years ago or more, or Monsanto’s supposed involvement.”

Parsons declined comment.

Kistner said Phillips had an ear tumor that may or may not be linked to the exposure. Other potential class members have contacted him, he said, including a woman whose family members had cancer. He said more would be learned through the discovery process, but, “In my view, these people are at least entitled to nominal damages.”

He added, “You can’t go spraying stuff on a bunch of people without their consent.”
 

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