Could Utah's high rate of multiple sclerosis - a disease of the nervous system possibly connected to viral infections - be caused by decades of Army testing of germ, nerve gas and radiological weapons there?

Researchers for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society are beginning to try to answer that question - but they warn studies may take years, and that shaky finances might prevent completion.They also say an extensive Deseret News list last week of all such tests revealed so far by years of digging helps the research, but that access to other still-classified data possibly showing the full extent of all testing would likely be needed.

Meanwhile, other groups are also considering beginning projects to study anecdotal evidence suggesting that Cold War tests may also have caused higher cancer rates in northern Utah or exotic diseases among workers at Dugway Proving Ground.

MS in Tooele

Joyce Stromberg, a Tooele resident who says her daughter was among the youngest people ever diagnosed with MS at age 15, is a volunteer project coordinator with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which is gathering data about residents of Tooele County (where most Army tests were conducted) who have the disease.

"A study by the University of Utah found the rate of MS in Tooele County is seven times higher than the national average," she said. "The overall rate for Utah is twice the national average."

The neurologist at the university who she says discovered those high rates declined several interview requests.

Stromberg said she can't help but think the military testing is somehow related to the high incidence of MS. "I have questions about why all this is happening here. Obviously, the fact those tests happened here makes you wonder. Seeing the long list of them in the paper makes me really wonder."

The Deseret News showed last week that so far, 328 open-air germ warfare tests are known to have occurred at Dugway; 1,174 open-air tests of chemical arms, mostly nerve gas; 74 tests of arms that spread radioactive particles to the wind; eight intentional nuclear reactor meltdowns; and assorted other tests and accidents.

On top of that, 141 nuclear bomb tests in Nevada spread radiation toward Utah - as did several tests of nuclear-powered rockets that spewed radioactive exhaust.

Early study begins

Dr. Mathilde Solowey, a volunteer epidemiologist at the New York City headquarters of the MS society, said Utah is one of several places nationally that it is collecting data where some MS victims question whether the disease might be tied to environmental causes.

She said, however, that the research is only in its earliest stages - such as collecting names of people with MS, when they were diagnosed, where they lived and what substances to which they may have been exposed.

"It may allow a future researcher to uncover a causative agent," she said. For example, she said a future scientist might find that "some type of radiation from the Army tests was also found in another area with a high incidence of MS."

Obstacles loom

Solowey said answering such questions is years away - if it is ever accomplished - and that it faces many obstacles.

First, it is currently being conducted almost entirely by volunteers for lack of funding. "For a true cluster study, we need the cooperation of a neuroepidemiologist" - and the required work and verification of diagnoses is expensive and time-consuming.

She has been unable to find a qualified volunteer, and said the MS society has chosen to spend most of its research money on other areas that promise more immediate benefits - such as studying possible treatments or looking into more popular theories about what causes MS.

Another problem is finding a firm list of all agents used in Dugway and related tests. While many have been revealed, she suspects others have yet to be uncovered.

Solowey said, "I used to work at Fort Detrick (a Maryland Army base that cooperated with Dugway with many of its germ and chemical tests) . . .. I suspect many tests have been kept under wraps because in hindsight they looked stupid, even if they sounded like good ideas at the time."

While the exact cause of MS is unknown, she said the most popular theory is that it may be caused by exposure during adolescence to a viral infection - such as measles. The infection then may lie dormant, usually until midlife, when it causes scarring around nerves, leading to paralysis and other problems.

Of note, the Dugway tests involved some of the deadliest germs known to man including: the plaque, anthrax, botulism, brucellosis, tularemia, Q fever and parrot fever. They also involved nerve gas, which directly attacks the nervous system.

Other probes, too

The MS society is not the only one wondering about the Utah Cold War tests. The activist group Downwinders is considering also beginning studies about whether they may have created higher rates of cancer in northern Utah, and a group of sick ex-workers at Dugway is questioning whether tests created their problems.

Downwinders President Preston J. Truman said, "We're starting to get a lot of calls from people in Tooele County and nearby areas about cancer - the same sort of stuff we used to get from people in southern Utah."

Studies about cancer in southern Utah led Congress to finally determine that nuclear tests in Nevada likely caused cancer there. Congress apologized and made available some compensation payments to some victims.

Truman said, "We're looking at maybe starting to pass out health questionnaires and do some of the other things we used to do in southern Utah. We'll begin in Tooele County, because it was nearest to the tests, and we've had most calls from there."

Former state Rep. Beverly White, D-Tooele, also said she is working with a group of retired Dugway workers who suffer from a variety of debilitating diseases that they suspect was caused by their work at the base.

"Many of them were given shots, and never knew what they were," she said. She said they are trying to come up with lists of other former employees to see if they suffer from similar diseases, and what tests or hazardous substances around which they may have worked.

She said the group is considering going to court to seek more information and compensation. "The list you published helps provides the dates and types of tests, which we need to be successful."

White said she also hopes for broader studies of problems in Tooele. For example, she said she knows of one two-block area in town where 14 cases of MS occurred - and has seen anecdotal evidence that cancer rates in the southwest corner of Tooele City seem higher than normal.