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The Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, 500 Foothill Blvd., is preparing to treat former service personnel who may be suffering illness because of exposure to mustard gas and other deadly agents during World War II-era tests.

At the Army's Dugway Proving Ground, Tooele County, U.S. servicemen were exposed to high concentrations of deadly mustard gas in 1945 and 1946, according to information reported last week by the Deseret News.The VA acknowledged the exposure in the previously secret tests. A study by a consultant found that the men were called volunteers, but reports show that the recruitment "was accomplished through lies and half-truths."

Mustard agent is a suspected cause of cancer and other diseases, some of which could have developed long after the experiments.

Responding to a report that soldiers may have been exposed when protective gear failed, VA Medical Center spokesman Ted Baxter said, "I wasn't aware of that, either.

"My understanding is that certain World War II veterans were subject to high concentrations of actual mustard gas as an actual test," Baxter said Friday.

Baxter said he believes military experimenters were testing the effect of mustard gas and blister agent on human subjects.

He quoted from a VA press release, issued in early January, that said, "An estimated 4,000 were subject to high concentrations of mustard gas, in full chamber and field testing."

The 4,000 were among 60,000 servicemen who were involved in mustard gas tests.

Tests were conducted in seven locations, including Dugway and the Panama Canal Zone, according to the VA. Dugway says another test was held in the Virgin Islands.

Records available to the VA don't say how many men were exposed in which areas.

Melynda J. Petrie, public affairs officer at Dugway, said two tests were conducted at that facility.

"There was a test on June 30, 1945, and the purpose of the tests was to study, improve or develop methods for the decontamination of military materiel that had been contaminated with war gases, to include mustard."

A total of 1,568 men, volunteers, participated, she said. The purpose of that test included checking the effect of mustard agent on fabric. She does not know whether anyone was exposed to the agent.

Another test at Dugway, on April 15, 1946, was held "to assess the effects of mustard when sprayed at low altitudes from multiple aircraft," she said. Numbers of volunteers in that test are not known by Dugway, Petrie added.

"The records on the Dugway tests are maintained at Dugway's technical library, and according to our legal office here at Dugway, to their knowledge no complaints have been registered at Dugway from these tests."

Petrie said Dugway knows of another test conducted at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, on May 30, 1945, which was not under Dugway's auspices.

Baxter said that because military personnel apparently volunteered, "the VA has determined some of them may be eligible for VA compensation because of certain health effects that may have resulted from their exposure."

Recognized by the VA as linked to mustard gas exposure are ailments including respiratory cancers, such as lung cancer, skin cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and leukemia.

No roster is available of the 4,000 men exposed, he said, so the VA has launched a computer scan of its files to see if it can turn up any possible connection between veterans treated and the exposure.

"We are open to treat eligible veterans for any health conditions," if they meet the criteria, he said. But if they are ailing because of the tests of the poisons, they may also be entitled to disability payments in addition to the VA treatment.

"The press release indicates that apparently there was some vow of secrecy taken by these participants. What we're doing is releasing them from that secrecy requirement," Baxter said.

Veterans who believe they may have been exposed can call the VA regional office in the Federal Building, 524-5960; or call a toll-free national number, 1-800-827-1000.