Biological and Chemical Weapons: Poisonous Cauldrons

By Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg | 1989-12-01 12:00:00

Poisonous cauldrons of brew are bubbling around the world. I first became aware of the issues surrounding chemical and biological weapons when I was living in the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Like many other people with children, my ideas were changed by living in that society during the sixties. We came to realize that the world could not be a healthy place for our children unless it was also a healthy place for all children. Yet at that time, the National Institute of Health was cutting research grants for physicians by just the amount that was being added to the budget of Fort Dietrich, Maryland - the centre for chemical and biological weapons in the United States. Ursula Franklin calls this "public health in reverse."

The Politics of Knitting

When I returned to Montreal, I discovered the Voice of Women, who further educated me about these issues. For example, VOW had a knitting project for the embattled Vietnamese people. We learned not to use synthetic wool for knitting afghans or sweaters, since the U.S. was dropping napalm bombs in Vietnam, and the napalm would burn through synthetics right down to the flesh. Hence, we had to confine our knitting to yarn made of natural wool.

This led to boycotts of consumer products made by the North American corporations that were manufacturing chemical weapons - especially Union Carbide and Dow Chemical. I suppose hundreds of people must still be unwilling to buy Saran Wrap, recalling the boycotts of twenty-odd years ago. At about the same time, the Voice of Women invited to Canada a group of Vietnamese women who, as America's "enemies," could not enter the United States. From West to East, along the border, American women crossed into Canada to meet with them. The visitors informed us about the biological warfare against their country by the U.S. military. They talked about illnesses, deaths, miscarriages, deformed children, destruction of agricultural lands, defoliation, the killing of wildlife, the contamination of their food chain and water systems.

In recent years Vietnam veterans have been suing the government for their lingering health problems caused by such chemical and biological agents as Agent Orange 245T, but at that time the existence of such substances was a secret. The full impact of the use of these deadly weapons may remain a mystery for many generations to come. The greatest part of Vietnam's story remains untold. It used to be a food-exporting country, and now it has high levels of starvation and malnutrition.

In the late '60s, the Voice of Women held an annual general meeting in Calgary. Afterwards, some of the members - including Muriel Duckworth, Ursula Franklin, Therese Casgrain, and Ann Gertler - went to Suffield, Alberta, to talk to officials at DRES - the Defence Research Establishment Suffield. Suffield is a 1000-square mile army base northwest of Medicine Hat, which owns some of the chemical and biological substances that are known to be useful as weapons of mass destruction. Today DRES has a budget of $13 million. Established in 1941, it began as a chemical weapons school and has been used for field tests by Britain and the U.S. for most of its history. DRES officials say that the chemicals that are kept there today are used for the research and development of antidotes and protective gear, not an offensive capability.

On their initial visit to Suffield, the Voice of Women asked about the activities that had been going on in the base and who was responsible for them; they wanted to know what happens when a democratic country, such as Canada, becomes entangled in bilateral and multinational research activities on chemical and biological weapons. Who, they asked, can say "stop!" when a legal or moral boundary is reached?

The women were appalled: There was no one to accept responsibility for what was happening in Suffield. The buck never stopped at anyone there. Consequently, VOW organized a campaign which focused public attention on the problem for a time. Eventually, however, other issues replaced that controversy, and DRES was ignored for a number of years.

Women Make Connections

Again it was women who revived the public discussion. About three years ago, a conference called "Making Connections" was held in Edmonton. When speakers mentioned DRES, they found that the local people knew nothing about what went on there. Diana Chown, an Alberta feminist, and Marie Lang (now a Member of Parliament), became interested; they carried out research and put out packages of information to show what DRES was about.

Through this new wave of publicity, it became known that poisonous chemicals had been dispersed into the atmosphere at Suffield. The Ministry of National Defence admitted that 1.4 kg of Tadun, 1.4 kgs of Sarin, and 1.5 kg of Soman - all dangerous nerve gases - had been released in 1987, as well as 1.2 kg of mustard gas.

In December of 1988, The "Barton Report" was released by the Department of National Defence. Unfortunately, William Barton, who had conducted this investigation, had not been mandated to consult with critics of DRES. It is high time for a full public enquiry on all aspects of biological and chemical warfare.

The Calgary Disarmament Coalition has met with Bill McKnight, Canada's Minister of Defence, to pose such questions as these: How much of Canada's tax revenue is currently spent on the development and manufacturing of these weapons? Where can copies be found of Canada's agreements with other countries concerning the research and development of biological and chemical weapons? What studies have been conducted to determine the safety of animals, plants, and people living downwind? Since a $6 million containment facility in the U.S. was found unsafe, will the proposed $10 million facility in Suffield be safe enough? Will an environmental impact assessment be conducted before the facility is constructed? If so, will the public have any input in the assessment?

The University of Alberta and the University of Calgary are doing research for DRES and many local people are employed by the base. Other Canadian universities and certain Canadian corporations are also implicated. For example, the University of Saskatchewan and McGill have both tested HI-6, a nerve gas.

Tests on Human Beings ?

A study at the University of Alberta found out that tests posed health risks both for the area and beyond. There is no systematic monitoring of the effects of the tests on the community in the area. Recent requests by the ministry of National Defence to use humans in the tests of HI-6 were declined by the Ministry of National Health and Welfare. Similar experiments have been severely injurious to test animals, producing serious birth defects.

There are indications that human beings were used in some of these tests as early as the '40s. One veteran has already been compensated for damages sustained due to exposure to some of these chemicals. Another veteran was until recently denied compensation, although he is the victim of a chemical gas at the base 46 years ago. Add to this the fact that in a four-month period ending last January, 130 more applications for compensation were submitted.

Today opportunities are increasing for citizens to block these weapons; in Utah, for example, testing has been stopped by environmentalists' pressure. We can now expect that a Chemical Weapons Convention will be established in a year or so. It will be followed by the third review of the Biological Weapons Convention, which can take place no later than 1991. There is a clear need for greater participation by scientists in such reviews. As Australia's Ambassador Richard Baker has pointed out, scientists' opposition to weapons development has often been called "political" up to now, whereas their work on weapons has been called "patriotic." The perversity of such values is - at last - evident to the whole world.

Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg lectures on peace, feminism, and energy. She works in Ottawa with the Canadian Council for International Cooperation.

Peace Magazine Dec 1989-Jan 1990

Peace Magazine Dec 1989-Jan 1990, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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