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LIKE SHEEP TO THE SLAUGHTER?

Ray Peck remembers the wintry morning of March 14, 1968, in Skull Valley as crisp and beautiful. "It was so pretty, I couldn't resist eating a handful of the new snow."

Then he saw the dead birds. In the distance, a dying rabbit struggled. "It was weird, but I just went to work," Peck says. He, like the animals, had been outside the previous night when a notorious Army nerve-agent accident proceeded invisibly.Soon, 6,000 sheep near his home would die. A helicopter from the Army's nearby Dugway Proving Ground would land in his yard and disgorge officials who Peck says collected dead wildlife and performed blood tests on his frightened family.

Scientists say nerve agent VX from an Army jet killed the sheep, probably through contact with droplets on plants and snow - like the snow Peck ate. The Army never agreed unequivocally, but it paid $1 million in damages to ranchers. The Army also always insisted that no humans in Skull Valley were affected.

But now, 25 years later, that longtime Army claim about human safety is in question because of documents the Deseret News obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. They suggest:

- Peck and his family were possibly exposed to small levels of VX in 1968. They became sick with what Army documents say may be symptoms of low-level VX exposure. Also, blood tests that the Army said proved residents were not exposed are now considered inconclusive by other scientists.

- That exposure could have led to long-term illnesses the Pecks have suffered ever since, including violent headaches, numbness and "bouts of paranoia." Scientific studies say some other people exposed to VX have reported similar long-term sickness.

- Evidence that nerve agent caused such problems is not conclusive, in part because the Army did no follow-up testing on Skull Valley residents - even though reports into the accident called for it. Ironically, the Army did follow up on livestock.

- The 25-year-old incident affects a new issue today: the planned burning of chemical arms at Tooele Army Depot. It may spread anew tiny nerve agent particles and their dangers.

And even tiny amounts of VX can kill: lethal doses are just 10 milligrams by touch or 2 milligrams by inhalation.

"A 10 mg droplet of VX would just about span the columns on the image of the Lincoln Memorial on the back of a penny," said Sanford S. Leffingwell, a physician with the Special Programs Group of the National Center for Environmental Health, which is in charge of determining long-term risks from low-level doses.The beginningAt 5:30 p.m. on March 13, 1968, an F-4 Phantom jet took off at Dugway Proving Ground for "Operation Combat Kid" - a test to see how accurately a two-tank spray system could spread nerve agent.

Records show the jet streaked all over the base as it made passes at a target area near Granite Mountain. The Army still censors out of documents exactly what nerve agent it used, but scientists say it was VX - the most deadly of such agents.

While even a tiny droplet could be deadly, the jet dropped hundreds of pounds of it - most of it in larger drops that fell to the ground quickly. But Army documents estimate that up to 20 pounds of finer droplets "may have escaped the proving ground" with the wind.

About 25 miles downwind that evening was Peck, who was outside working on a tractor cleaning out a ditch at the ranch he rented - precisely between two sheep herds that would die. He continued his work the next evening, when the first sheep perished.

Peck later wrote in a report to Dugway - where he was then a supply clerk - "The wind was blowing both times. At approximately 6 p.m. Wednesday, it started to rain (March 14, the day he also ate the snow). I continued the operation of the Cat approximately another 30 minutes in the rain. I developed an earache as a result of the rain and wind."

Flu or nerve agent poisoning?

His earache wasn't the only sickness the Pecks suffered that week. Peck said many family members had violent diarrhea, sore throats and trouble breathing.

Army records verify that for Peck's wife, Connie, and two of the six children they had at the time. The three were the only ones home when officials came by helicopter to give blood tests.

Officials recorded that Connie had a cough and sore throat from March 20 to 25 (the day of the exam). She had trouble breathing much of that time and complained of nasal congestion. A daughter, June, had diarrhea and cramping. A son, Mark, had an ear infection that began the night of the nerve agent test.

Peck remembers, "The whole family had what we thought was the flu. But it wasn't a normal flu. It was more severe." Army documents show a few other Skull Valley residents reported similar sickness.

Some flu symptoms are similar to signs of low-level VX exposure.

A 1992 Army document - based on decades of testing - warns those who work around VX that signs of exposure include, "headache . . . runny nose and nasal congestion . . . nausea, vomiting . . . abdominal cramps, diarrhea."

That was also known in 1968, but a team that looked at health reports of Skull Valley residents - including the Pecks - still wrote, "It is clear that there were no symptoms which could conceivably be related to organic phosphate (nerve agent) poisoning either acute or chronic."

Leffingwell, with the Centers for Disease Control, says now, "The symptoms above obviously overlap with common viral infections. Trouble breathing is consistent with organophosphate poisoning and I suppose one could find earache as a result of increased secretions blocking the passages to the middle ear."

But while nasal secretions are common early signs of low-level VX exposure, he said cramping and diarrhea normally require much larger doses - so they are not common symptoms.

So Leffingwell said he still feels the Pecks probably suffered "an infectious disease which came along at the wrong time. Unfortunately, there is no way to resolve this so long after the fact."

A faulty blood test?

Other reasons medical teams concluded that humans were not affected were because none died, while thousands of sheep did, and because of blood tests that it said proved lack of exposure - but which scientists now (and even in 1968) say were inconclusive.

Skull Valley residents were given blood tests to see if their "cholinesterase" level was low. Nerve agent in large doses makes it drop steeply. Cholinesterase is an enzyme needed for nerves to send messages properly, and blockage of it can kill quickly.

However, normal levels of cholinesterase vary widely because of genetics, disease or drug use. It is difficult to recognize small drops that low levels of nerve agent can cause unless doctors have a baseline from previous tests for comparison.

They did not have such a baseline for the Pecks and most Skull Valley residents. Large exposures produce drops so huge they are obvious without a baseline.

Army documents said the "red blood cell cholinesterase value" of child Connie Peck was 17.0, for child Mark was 11.5 and for mother June was 13.5. One Army document noted that was within the "normal" (and wide) range of 7.5 to 16.2.

Ray Peck's level was 6.6 - or below what that document said was the normal range. Other documents, however, conflicted, saying such apparently low levels by Peck and a few other Skull Valley residents who also worked at Dugway were still within normal ranges for the general population.

The Army said the mean for such tests of Skull Valley residents (excluding, for some reason, those who worked at Dugway and who had much lower scores) was 11.84, which it noted was a bit lower than a "normal mean" of 13.2. It would have been even lower if the Dugway workers had been added.

The tests may have been inconclusive, said Dr. Annetta Watson with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She recently participated in a National Institute of Medicine study that verified long-term ills for veterans exposed to mustard gas.

"Without a baseline determination (made from a blood test before any possible exposure), it is impossible to sort out differences in individual cholinesterase activity due to sources of biological variability vs. exposure to an organophosphate (commercial insecticide or military nerve agent) or carbamate (commercial insecticide)," she said.

Army doctors knew that in 1968, too. One wrote that he couldn't say whether nerve agent was responsible for a low reading by another resident because "unfortunately, Mr. Redden had no baseline cholinesterase to which to compare his present findings."

Also, before dead sheep from Skull Valley were buried, the Army took blood tests from people who would do the work - and then took more tests afterward. It found no significant drops in cholinesterase levels.

No follow-up for humans

Even though reports from government doctors said no exposure to residents was likely, it warned that "continued surveillance of the human and animal population in the valley is indicated."

But Peck said, "My family never had any more tests. The Army never followed up with us at all." Army documents released also show no record of any follow-up tests.

Leffingwell said more blood tests over a few months could have established a cholinesterase baseline in retrospect - which could have proven low-level exposure. But he said that probably would have been warranted only if stronger reasons then existed to suspect significant exposure.

Meanwhile, follow-ups were done on sheep and cattle. For example, one test sent new sheep into an area suspected of contamination a few weeks after the first incident. They quickly developed signs of nerve agent poisoning.

That was repeated after five months with sheep and cattle, but they no longer showed signs of poisoning.

Humans, of course, were continuing to live and work in the same general areas. At least one sheepherder reported severe headaches in that time, according to Army documents, but doctors said they doubted it was connected with contamination.

Meanwhile, the Army never conceded that a nerve agent accident was responsible for the sheep kill - and still doesn't. For example, a Defense Department report this year identifying the sheep burial trenches as potential hazardous waste sites said they were "allegedly killed" by nerve agent.

But a Centers for Disease Control report in 1968 said, "Circumstantial evidence tying the deaths to Dugway was overwhelming; the product tested was lethal; it had been released the day prior to the first sheep losses; the sheep in the bands closest to the test were affected first and most severely; and all of the affected sheep were apparently downwind."

But it noted that nothing more than the faintest of possible traces of nerve agent itself was found on sheep or in the plants, soil and water - meaning any droplets involved had to be tiny.

Continuing sickness for the Pecks

Peck suspects his family was exposed to nerve agent because of illnesses that struck then and have continued since.

Scientific reports say some others who were also exposed to VX in Army tests have reported similar illnesses - but scientists say insufficient evidence exists to prove a connection. But they cannot disprove it either.

Peck first described the illnesses nearly a year ago to the Deseret News before either knew how similar they were to problems those studies reported about others exposed to VX.

Among the Peck's illnesses have been headaches. "I had a nasty headache that day (March 14) and have had them ever since," Peck told the Deseret News. "I had headaches once in a while before that, but never as bad or as constant. The same with my family. Some of the kids have the same problem."

Peck adds, "They got so severe that in 1985, I even had CT scans and everything. But the doctors couldn't find anything wrong."

Another problem was what Peck describes as "bouts of paranoia." After the 1968 sheep kill, he said he suddenly "became terrified and fearful of making mistakes at work (as a supply clerk at Dugway)." He said it affected his work and may have prevented promotions, that later led him to leave and move.

He adds, "I had always been mechanically minded. But I would start to work on a car and become terrified of making a mistake. . . . I had a small upholstery business, but suddenly I became so terrified of making mistakes I couldn't do it for a while."

Another problem was numbness from his left hip to his knee. Sometimes he said that area also burned "like someone poured hot oil on my leg." He said the problem mostly went away with time, "but if I stand for a long time, the numbness comes back."

He also said he has had constant aches in his shoulders, which get worse any time he lies down.

A final problem - and the only one that others exposed to VX have not also reported in scientific literature - were miscarriages (plus some deaths at birth) suffered by his children, and three problem pregnancies by his wife after the accident (including two deaths).

"We come from large families and never had problems with that before. But the girls (who were children at the time of the accident) have had a real struggle with miscarriages," Peck said.

Since leaving employment at Dugway, Peck has worked around hazardous chemicals - including cyanide - at other jobs. But he said his health problems began at the time of the sheep kill.

Others had similar problems

Similar problems by others were mentioned in a three-volume series of reports in the mid-1980s from a National Academy of Sciences panel that studied possible long-term effects of low-level exposure to nerve agents including VX.

That study came because the Army had tested 15 different types of nerve agents on 1,800 volunteers through the years - but had not followed-up on long-term effects to them. About 740 had been tested with VX - usually with minuscule amounts.

Of 538 people surveyed years after exposure, 47 reported continuing health problems they felt came from their exposure.

Among problems were increased irritability, inability to concentrate and depression. The study noted, "If these changes occurred and persisted, they might be difficult to detect."

The study also says, "Some of this information (from those exposed) seems to suggest that immediate psychological effects can follow" but said the brief summaries of their case studies supplied to the panel provided little hard data.

The panel also noted that other studies it reviewed "suggested that OP (nerve agent) exposure might exacerbate psychotic problems," possibly like Peck's "bouts of paranoia."

The panel also said that when the people were first exposed to nerve agents, symptoms they reported included headache, nausea, lack of concentration and blurred vision - and studies reported that symptoms sometimes lasted for extended periods.

The study said it "is unable to rule out the possibility that some anti-cholinesterase (or nerve) agents produced longer-term adverse health effects in some individuals." But it would not conclude that it did cause them either.

(Additional information)

A new threat to others?

If the Pecks were exposed to nerve agent and it contributed to their health problems, it could bode ill for plans to burn chemical arms including VX at Tooele Army Depot.

The Army figures the most agent involved in the sheep kill was 20 pounds, and likely much less. Also, only the tiniest possible traces of nerve agent were ever found in Skull Valley, suggesting any amounts that hurt the Pecks and sheep were minuscule.

The Tooele plant could release up to an estimated 25.2 pounds of nerve and mustard agent in coming years, according to Deseret News estimates.

The Deseret News made that estimate based first on state permits that require the plant to destroy 99.9999 percent of nerve agent burned. That means .0001 percent - or one-millionth - could be allowed by permits to escape smokestacks.

While that seems like virtually nothing, Tooele has a huge stockpile that could make that seemingly small percentage result in a significant amount over time.

Watchdog groups estimate the total U.S. chemical arms stockpile is about 30,000 tons. The Army has classified the exact number, but says 42 percent of the total stockpile is at Tooele.

So the estimated amount of nerve and mustard agent that could be allowed to escape would be about 25.2 pounds - slightly more than the amount of chemical arms involved in the Skull Valley incident, but spread out over many years in stead of one night.

Also, only 10 percent of Tooele's chemical stockpile is VX - so only about 2.52 pounds of it could escape Tooele's smokestacks, unless accidents occur.

A burning question

Cindy King, an environmental advisor for the Sierra Club of Utah, figures releases will be higher.

"The Army has yet to achieve the 99.9999 level at any of its plants. . . . Small amounts have escaped, and I think it will affect the health of people." On the other hand, Marilyn Tischbin, spokeswoman for the manager of the Army chemical demilitarization program, said, "We don't think any agent will actually escape. But you can't measure zero. We can measure .0001 percent. So you assume an amount slightly smaller than that could escape."

She notes that alarms are designed to sound and stop processing before any buildup of agent reaches even 20 percent of that small, permitted amount. However, the Deseret News found in previous years that accidents at an early pilot plant at Tooele released up to 70 times the allowed hourly releases, and accidents were not reported to nearby civilian authorities.

Also, the Army says the aging arms pose more potential problems through continuing disintegration than by controlled incineration to destroy them. Accidents from aging could produce much larger exposures than incineration ever would.

Tischbin also said a panel at the Centers for Disease Control led by Leffingwell concluded that the tiny amounts that could be released are safe to workers and the more distant public.

Transcripts of that panel's deliberations supplied by Leffingwell show it reviewed all studies it could find about long-term effects of low-level exposure and found no evidence indicating Army plans would create undue risk.

But one member, Dr. William Lijinsky, has misgivings that studies indicating such levels are safe might be invalid because "the animals at the lower dose were only followed for a year or 18 months (which) is inadequate."

Concerned citizen groups around the eight bases that store chemical arms put enough pressure on Congress last year that it postponed construction of all chemical burn plants - except at Tooele - until a study of alternative methods is completed (which is expected in December).

They feel options such as using other chemicals to neutralize nerve agents would be safer. But Leffingwell said developing alternate destruction methods could take more than a decade, increasing risks from continued decay of the aging stockpile.

The Army had already spent $392 million on the Tooele plant, and Congress continued its construction. It is scheduled to be completed this summer.

Why was the story pursued?

Regardless what happens with Tooele, Peck wants people to make decisions about military actions with the best information possible. He said he regrets not pursuing more information earlier.

"I worked at Dugway. I was worried about my job," he said. After he left, he worried "people might just think I was a disgruntled worker or might think I was unpatriotic. I guess I was naive."

He said he first decided to pursue the matter after reading information from the Downwinders watchdog group about effects of military tests on others - and even contacted some lawyers about his options, but said they figured he had no chance of winning any lawsuits.

News sources told the Deseret News about Peck, and it asked him in letters if he would like to work together to pursue Army documents about his family.

Peck did not respond to the letters for months, again worrying about being seen as unpatriotic or a disgruntled worker. Finally, he decided he wanted to know what happened and agreed to work with the Deseret News.

Steve Erickson, spokesman for Downwinders, said he feels others may have problems like Peck. "We've had many people in Tooele County come to us complaining they think Army tests made them sick. We have found some interesting leukemia clusters. . . .

"But we don't have any baseline epidemiological studies out there that could show changes over time. That's (something) we would like the state and Army to do," he said.

Adds Peck, "I don't want anyone else to go through what we have."