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Mustard Gas Studies on U.S. Soldiers Race-Based


  • Published: 2009-01-11 (Revised/Updated 2013-07-12) : Author: University of Alberta
  • Synopsis: American scientists used mustard gas on soldiers for race based experiments during the Second World War.

American scientists used mustard gas on their soldiers for race-based experiments during the Second World War, a study by a University of Alberta professor has shown.

At least nine separate studies were conducted on African American, Japanese American, Puerto Rican and Caucasian soldiers. The U.S. government funded the tests in preparation for potential chemical warfare, found the study.

"The scientists who conducted the race-based studies suspected that non-whites would have a different response than whites to mustard gas," said researcher Susan L. Smith.

"Scientists likely performed race-based human experimentation to better protect white American soldiers, rather than to develop better protective gear for non-white soldiers," she said.

Smith, the first scholar to investigate these experiments, said her research demonstrates how scientists "easily slipped into investigating racial differences without questioning what they were actually measuring when they tested subjects by race."

The experiments were conducted at several leading research facilities, including Cornell University Medical College, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York and the University of Chicago Toxicity Laboratory.

Reference: The study was recently published in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics.

On Monday, Jan. 12, Smith will discuss "Race and Medicine: American Race-Based Human Experimentation and the Science of War" as part of the University of Alberta's Race, Anti-racism and Knowledge for Social Justice series. The presentation begins at noon at the Tory Building, Room 10-4.

About Mustard Gas: The sulfur mustards, of which mustard gas is a member, are a class of related cytotoxic, vesicant chemical warfare agents with the ability to form large blisters on exposed skin. In spite of the name, technically they are not actually gases, but a liquid chemical which turns into vapor.

Mustard gas has extremely powerful vesicant effects on its victims. Additionally, it is strongly mutagenic and carcinogenic, due to its alkylating properties. It is also lipophilic. Because people exposed to mustard gas rarely suffer immediate symptoms, and mustard-contaminated areas may appear completely normal, victims can unknowingly receive high dosages. However, within 6 to 24 hours of exposure to mustard agent, victims experience intense itching and skin irritation which gradually turns into large blisters filled with yellow fluid wherever the mustard agent contacted the skin.

Mustard gas burns can vary between first and second degree burns, though they can also be every bit as severe, disfiguring and dangerous as third degree burns. Severe mustard gas burns are often fatal.

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