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June 23, 2015

Military conducted race-based experiments during WWII


The U.S. tested the effects of highly toxic mustard gas on troops in nonconsensual, race-based experiments during World War II, according to a new NPR investigation.

Mustard gas is a toxic agent that causes severe damage to skin and mucous membranes; it has been linked to long-term health issues like respiratory infections, burns, cancer and blindness. The experiments involved 60,000 men and at least nine of those experiments specifically tested men of color to see if their skin would react differently to the gas.

The U.S. had already admitted to the experiments, but not that some of them had been based on race. Researchers thought at the time that men of color would be more resistant to the gas, according to Susan Smith, a professor at the University of Alberta, Canada.

“The expectation was that white soldiers would have one kind of response, but African-Americans might be more resistant, Japanese Americans as well, and Puerto Ricans too, that there would be racial differences they could identify,” Smith said.

The U.S. conducted the experiments anticipating the use of chemicals in WWII, Smith said. Historical records list all participants as “volunteers,” but that is not necessarily accurate. Some men were unaware of the nature of the experiment and were simply ordered to participate, Caitlin Dickerson, who led the investigation, said.

The Nuremberg Code, a set of ethical guidelines for human research, was created in 1947 shortly after WWII ended. It states that researchers must gain informed consent from participants that are aware of the potential effects of research. Research should avoid “unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.”

Today, the Department of Defense does not conduct chemical experiments on humans, a spokesperson told NPR.

Warm up questions
  1. What is mustard gas?
  2. What does the phrase “chemical war” mean?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Why did scientists want to test the effects of mustard gas?
  2. What should the U.S. government and Veterans Administration do to compensate the veterans who participated in these experiments?
  3. Would you participate in medical tests if there was a chance it could adversely affect you, but help other people? What kind of information would help you make that decision?
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