Document Shows Horror of Utah Nerve Gas Exposure

Blackout, seizures and then paralysis -- a new document shows what one Dugway medic suffered in 1952


Lee Davidson, The Salt Lake Tribune | | Wednesday, January 9, 2013

DUGWAY, Utah -- Blackout, seizures and then paralysis. Breathing alternating from high screeches to low gurgling as froth bubbles up from the lungs. Even with medical care within seconds of exposure to nerve agent GB at Utah's Dugway Proving Ground, the man barely escaped death and was in the hospital for weeks.

A new document shows horrors that one Dugway medic suffered in 1952, and that other Utahns could have faced from open-air testing at Dugway during the Cold War.

The New Yorker magazine posted on its website Tuesday an Army document it obtained through the Freedom of Information Act for stories about chemical arms testing. It described what the Army said at the time was the worst case of nerve agent GB poisoning it saw where the victim survived.

On Nov. 7, 1952, a jet began spraying GB -- also called Sarin -- over a Dugway target site. The document says wing tanks malfunctioned, and still contained 90 pounds of GB when they were jettisoned from 2,000 feet into "an isolated area."

That spread "a high concentration of agent over an area of 38,000 square feet, " the document says. "The contaminated area could be easily identified, since the liquid was colored with a red dye."

An inspection crew was sent out. A medical officer with it -- identified only as "J.A." -- "ignored the advice of those present" to wear a gas mask. Then he walked to within 10 feet of a crater created by the tanks.

"Within 10 seconds he turned, clutched his chest and started toward the ambulance," it says. He called for a gas mask, collapsed and blacked out. Others put a gas mask on him and plunged an injection of atropine antidote into his thigh.

He had "convulsive jerks recurring at five-second intervals." His inhaling was described as "high-pitched screeching," and his exhaling was "low-pitched gargles." His mouth bubbled out so much froth and mucus that his mask had to be removed at times to clear it for his breathing.

As he was rushed to the hospital, he was given more injections of atropine. He became temporarily paralyzed. He eventually was put in an "iron lung" respirator and given more atropine every 15 minutes. "The skin was deep blue and dry."

But J.A. slowly improved. After nearly three hours, he was able to talk "in a halting manner." He still vomited any time he tried to drink for a day, was hypersensitive to light and suffered headaches. After 20 days in the hospital at Dugway, he was flown to a naval hospital in California.

Utah news media have identified through FOIA requests through the years that the military conducted at least 1,987 open-air chemical arms tests at Dugway during the Cold War that spread at least 494,700 pounds of nerve agent to the wind.

It was not always confined to the base. The most famous off-base incident was on March 13, 1968, when thousands of sheep were killed in Skull Valley and residents there would later blame a variety of ills on low-level exposure to nerve agent VX.

GB -- used in the 1952 incident -- is considered 5,000 times more potent than cyanide, and was discovered by scientists in Nazi Germany trying to develop more potent pesticides. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was accused of using it against Kurds, and officials worry Syria has developed weapons with it that it could use against rebels now.

VX -- suspected as the cause of the Skull Valley incident -- is even more lethal; a pinhead-sized drop of it can be fatal.

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