Between 1963 and 1969, the U.S. military carried out a series of classified tests, termed Project SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense), to evaluate the vulnerabilities of U.S. Navy ships to chemical and biological warfare agents. These tests involved use of active chemical and biological agents, simulants, tracers, and decontaminants. Approximately 5,900 military personnel, primarily from the Navy and Marine Corps, are reported to have been included in Project SHAD testing.
Many of the substances used in the tests were simulants and tracers presumed to be innocuous such as Bacillus globigii and sodium fluorescein, but some tests involved active agents such as infectious bacteria Coxiella burnetii, which causes Q fever, and the nerve agents sarin and VX.
Project SHAD was disclosed publicly in 2000, prompting concerns from veterans about what impact their involvement in the testing may have had on their health. Following the release of the first Institute of Medicine (IOM) SHAD report in 2007, and pressure from veterans, Congress requested additional epidemiological study of potential long-term health effects.
This request eventually led to a new report published this week by the National Academies Press, assessing health outcomes among veterans involved in Project SHAD.
The committee that conducted the new study evaluated causes of death of veterans in the study population since the 1960s and the diagnoses assigned at hospital and outpatient visits in data from the VA health system and from Medicare from 1999 through 2011.
In addition, it examined data for various subgroups of the SHAD veterans studied – for example, enlisted personnel vs. officers, and groups who may have received multiple exposures to one or more of certain substances. The committee also reviewed the scientific literature published since 2000 on the agents, simulants, tracers, and decontaminants used in the tests, from which it generated hypotheses on potential health effects that might be associated with exposure to six of the substances. These hypotheses were used to target portions of the analyses.
Exploratory analyses were also performed to ensure that unanticipated associations between SHAD testing and health outcomes in veterans would not be overlooked. Multiple analyses found no evidence of worse health outcomes among SHAD veterans.
The committee acknowledged that its study – like all epidemiological studies – has limitations. Project SHAD occurred more than 50 years ago, making it difficult to account for all of the factors that may have influenced veterans’ health.
“Our task was challenging because of the passage of time since the tests, and because many of the documents related to the tests remain classified,” stated David J. Tollerud, Chair of the Committee on Shipboard Hazard and Defense II. “Our requests for declassification of additional documents were not approved. Using the limited information available in redacted reports on these tests, the committee evaluated exposure opportunities the test participants may have had.”
Although a request for classified information on the concentrations of test substances at sampling stations was denied, the committee said it did not expect that the classified information would have altered its findings.
Because of the length of time passed and limits on the redacted technical documents, “some veterans expressed concerns about the committee’s ability to refine assessments of exposure” beyond those steps taken in the original SHAD study from 2007.
In testimony to the committee, some veterans described having gaps or missing items from their medical records, such having receiving vaccinations against tularemia, Q fever and Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis prior to their involvement in the Project SHAD testing. Others noted their recollection of visits to sick call following participation, visits which were missing from their medical record documentation.
SHAD veterans have also expressed frustration regarding the requirement to document their participation in Project SHAD when seeking disability benefits from the Veterans Administration, even though they were not allowed to keep records or documentation due to the classified nature of the tests.
It seems likely that the skepticism from some veterans will continue despite the new report, given the committee’s own acknowledgement that information sought from the DoD was not made available.
“The committee’s understanding is that additional, and potentially relevant, material on SHAD tests exists and remains classified. The IOM committee requested declassification of 21 additional elements from at least nine documents from the DoD in August 2012. In January 2014, an additional request was made for release of multiple films made of Project SHAD tests,” states the report. “None of the requested materials were cleared for public release.”