NPF: THAT TIME THE BRITISH GAVE AN ENTIRE ISLAND ANTHRAX

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 9th, 2016 by Ed

World War II brought out the insanity lurking beneath that famous British reserve. Not only did they try to blow up an entire island, but they rendered another one uninhabitable for decades – after they killed a bunch of sheep, of course.

We tend to forget how poorly WWII was going for the Western Allies before 1943. Preparing for the worst or perhaps eager to inflict the worst on Nazi Germany, the British began secretly developing an offensive biological weapons capability in early 1942. Military scientists made an aerosol out of anthrax and managed to rig a munition to disperse it. To see if the setup would work and produce lethal results, they needed somewhere very remote and very empty to test it.

Enter Gruinard Island. In Scotland, of course. Because they flipped a coin and it was either that or Ireland. Because Britain.

The island's small handful of residents was displaced by the government. More accurately they were replaced. Replaced with sheep. Eighty sheep were imported to see how they would react to being blasted with weaponized, extra-virulent anthrax. Ooh, the suspense! Are you ready for a shock? They died. Autopsies revealed that they died of anthrax. Watch some highly strange footage of the "experiments" here.

The tests proved, in case anyone was skeptical, that bombing German cities with anthrax would have lethal consequences that could linger for decades (note: anthrax is a rugged, hard to kill spore, which explains its popularity as a bioweapon). This proved remarkably prescient, as the British soon discovered that poor Gruinard Island was thoroughly, perhaps permanently, infected with literal tons of anthrax bacteria. Eventually the displaced owners and the general public started clamoring to clean up the problem in the late 1970s. A legitimate cleanup effort began in 1986, and it turned out that after an entire island gets drenched with liquid anthrax it's really hard to decontaminate it. For the next four years the tiny (0.75 square mile) island was bathed repeatedly in 300 tons of formaldehyde mixed with seawater. Some very nervous sheep were introduced in 1990 and their health was monitored closely.

They lived. The sheep lived.

The original owners were sold their island by the UK government for the 1942 purchase price of 500 pounds, and 26 years later there have been no cases of human, sheep, or any other mammal contracting anthrax on Gruinard. Hard to imagine what could grow in formaldehyde-soaked soil, but I guess nature is resilient.

The punchline? The secret project was called Operation Vegetarian. That famous British wit.