Toxic Exposures: Mustard Gas and the Health Consequences of World War II in the United States (Critical Issues in Health and Medicine) By Susan L. Smith Cover Image
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Mustard gas is typically associated with the horrors of World War I battlefields and trenches, where chemical weapons were responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. Few realize, however, that mustard gas had a resurgence during the Second World War, when its uses and effects were widespread and insidious.  Toxic Exposures tells the shocking story of how the United States and its allies intentionally subjected thousands of their own servicemen to poison gas as part of their preparation for chemical warfare. In addition, it reveals the racialized dimension of these mustard gas experiments, as scientists tested whether the effects of toxic exposure might vary between Asian, Hispanic, black, and white Americans. Drawing from once-classified American and Canadian government records, military reports, scientists’ papers, and veterans’ testimony, historian Susan L. Smith explores not only the human cost of this research, but also the environmental degradation caused by ocean dumping of unwanted mustard gas. As she assesses the poisonous legacy of these chemical warfare experiments, Smith also considers their surprising impact on the origins of chemotherapy as cancer treatment and the development of veterans’ rights movements. Toxic Exposures thus traces the scars left when the interests of national security and scientific curiosity battled with medical ethics and human rights.  

About the Author

SUSAN L. SMITH is a professor of history at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.  She is the author of Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Black Women’s Health Activism in America, 1890–1950 and Japanese American Midwives: Culture, Community, and Health Politics, 1880–1950

Praise For…

"Stunningly thorough scholarship … In 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force; it is currently signed by 192 countries. Yet it has already been violated many times. Warfare continues, as does military research on chemicals and drugs that could become agents of biowarfare. It is difficult to disagree with the plea that ends Toxic Exposures: public oversight and public debate on this process are needed now more than ever."
— Nature

"[Toxic Exposures] is certainly a detailed, thorough examination of mustard gas, but it is also a tool for examining the long-term societal, environmental, and personal effects of war. There is a 'toxic legacy' to war, and Smith's book expertly addresses this issue... Recommended. All readers."
— Choice

"Should appeal to readers who wish to gain insights into this murky world of chemical warfare."
— Chemistry World

"Toxic Exposures is compelling and persuasive about the untoward outcomes of military testing. Smith’s work is sound and comprehensive, and her scholarship is impeccable.”

— Susan E. Lederer

Canada supplied much of the mustard gas used in the U.S.-led test program as well as 1,000 bombs, DND records show. Canadian chemical warfare specialists from Suffield, Alta., helped design some of the tests and Canadian pilots took part in the bombing raids. Susan L. Smith, a University of Alberta historian, said Canada was a significant participant in the chemical weapons testing on San Jose Island. “This was an area where Canada indeed punched above its own weight,” said Smith, author of a new book called Toxic Exposures, which chronicles mustard-gas use during the Second World War.

During her research, Smith found that scientists conducted racebased chemical warfare experiments on San Jose Island. Scientists monitored how mustard gas affected the skin of Puerto Ricans and Caucasians, during the tests. Other tests in the U.S. focused on blacks and Japanese. Smith noted that all individuals, no matter what their ethnicity, suffered extensively from the mustard-gas exposure.

At one point, the U.S. considered using mustard gas as a method to kill Japanese troops hiding in bunkers and other fortresses on Pacific islands. Tests on San Jose Island were key in those preparations but the Americans decided not to proceed with using the weapons. It will take between six and eight weeks to dispose of the eight weapons, Panamanian officials have said. “Canada has a moral commitment to help clean up the mess it created,” Smith added.
— David Pugliese

"Many remember chemical warfare as something that disappeared along with WWI gas masks, but Smith recovers a more recent history of weaponized poisons developed during WWII. Supported by stunningly thorough research, Toxic Exposures will leave you gasping for air."

— Paul A. Lombardo

“A cautionary tale that should be widely read and discussed.”
— Alberta Views

"[A] rich monograph [and] strong addition to the literature of chemical warfare."
— Social History of Medicine

"Toxic Exposures provides a timely and well-researched contribution, adding additional documentation and context to this fascinating and troubling story."
— American Historical Review

"Smith’s closing observation bears repeating: 'Surely, the history of the mustard gas experiments during World War II provides a powerful lesson in why such medical experimentation necessitates public scrutiny and public debate.' Toxic Exposures is a welcome reminder of that lesson."
— Michigan War Studies

"An excellent book that will appeal to those interested in medical history and military history." 
— Journal of Military History

"Slim in size, but big in scope."
— Canadian Journal of History

"This well-researched, thought-provoking, and timely study of mustard gas experiments during World War II and after is a welcome addition to the growing scholarly literature on chemical warfare and the health consequences of war. It is of benefit not only to historians of science and medicine, the military, and the environment but to a much wider readership of all who are concerned about the use and morality of chemical weapons." 

— Isis

"Toxic Exposures is an important contribution to the history of science, medicine, and warfare. Smith has drawn upon numerous primary sources, some not previously mined, and extensive secondary works in her research. This well-written and perceptive book also raises social and ethical issues related to human experimentation, racial bias, and environmental pollution....Smith has produced a readable and thoroughly documented, if brief, history of mustard gas in World War II, and the consequences of its use."
— Journal of American History

"From Chemical Weapon to Chemotherapy, 1917–1946," by Carolyn Wilke
— The Scientist

"Concise, engaging, and forthright, Smith’s work ultimately emphasizes the shared history of war and medicine – serving as a potent reminder for scholars working in both fields."
— Canadian Bulletin of Medical History

"Susan Smith’s thorough and illuminating book digs deep into the archives to tell the story of the predominant gas in the U.S. arsenal, mustard gas. As she shows, even an unused weapon can have a fascinating history."
— Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

Toxic Exposures calls attention to the close relationships between science, medicine, and the preparation for war. Smith’s carefully honed monograph also warns us that the secrecy of government research programs, while sometimes justified for security reasons, has also caused untold damage to human bodies and the environment. This highly readable book should be important reading for specialists in medical ethics, the history of medicine, and the scholarship on war and the environment.”

— Environmental History

"If chemical weapons were largely absent from the Second World War, they have by no means disappeared in the seventy-five years since, thus making Smith’s work an important chapter in the overall narrative stretching from the First World War to the present."
— Canadian Military History

Product Details
ISBN: 9780813586106
ISBN-10: 0813586100
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
Publication Date: April 19th, 2019
Pages: 209
Language: English
Series: Critical Issues in Health and Medicine