Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis, spraying, government testing

Former Residents Demand Answers And Reparations For Cold War-Era Military Experiments In St. Louis Housing Complex

In 2022, filmmaker Damien D. Smith’s documentary Target: St. Louis Vol. 1 chronicled the post-World War II secret military experiments on St. Louis residents of the predominantly Black Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. While Smith’s film was nominated for Best Documentary at the BronzeLens Film Festival, the stories the documentary told didn’t manage to generate much public interest.

Ben Phillips, one of the men who’d shared his experiences with Smith, is now telling his story and the stories of the families who lived at the housing complex to CNN. Phillips says that the U.S. Army had been conducting secret testing on the low-income housing complex, spraying a potentially carcinogenic chemical known as zinc cadmium sulfide, according to the National Institute of Health.

Phillips described the procedure to CNN.

“The majority of it was done at night. So, you know, you’re at home, it’s a summer evening, you got your windows opened up on the seventh floor because you don’t have air conditioning,” he said. “And it’s spewing this stuff off the roofs.”

Phillips said that this spray had a harmful effect, recalling, “I had a little sister who was having convulsions when she was about a year and a half old. It went on for about two and a half years, and then stopped.”

Phillips’ story reached the ears of United States Senator for the state of Missouri Josh Hawley. Hawley, a Republican, held a bipartisan rally at the U.S. Capitol calling for justice for Phillips and others with similar stories.

Hawley said during a press conference, “Dating all the way back to the Manhattan Project, the government used the city of St. Louis as a uranium-processing facility, as a major site, and then when that was over […] it allowed it to seep into the groundwater, it allowed it to get into Coldwater Creek, it allowed it get into the soil. Generations of Missourians—children—were poisoned because of the government’s negligence.”

He continued, “If the government is going to expose its own citizens to radioactive material […] for decades, the government ought to pay the bills of the men and women who have gotten sick because of it. They ought to pay for the survivor benefits of those who have been lost.”

The senator’s pursuit of compensation for the victims of nuclear radiation exposure culminated in an extension to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in July, and his legislation received an endorsement from President Joe Biden. 

Filmmaker Smith, recounted what his grandmother, who hails from St. Louis, said she knew about the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, and learned that cancer was a prevalent condition among ex-residents when he interviewed them for Target: St. Louis Vol. 1.

Smith shared with CNN, “I started doing some more research about it and it infuriated me that they can test on a population that they deemed to be basically sub-human.”

He said it “definitely stripped them of any constitutional rights.”

As for Phillips, he maintains that his ultimate goal is not motivated by financial gain. Rather, he wants the public to know about what he and others survived, telling CNN: “This happens so often to marginalized communities — African American communities — because they’re easier to prey upon because, at least back then, they hardly had a voice.”

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