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`Anthrax' Island: where life imitates fiction

RONALD MOSEY read the novel with rapt fascination, despite its morbid theme. It detailed how a Scandinavian couple, sailing around the world with their dog, misread a navigation chart and landed on the wrong island. Instead of venturing onto one of the summer islands off the western coast of Scotland, they blundered onto a rocky outcrop that had been used for biological warfare experiments during the 1940s. Decades later it was still contaminated with anthrax spores. First the animal, then the couple, contracted the illness and died horrifying deaths at sea.

Mr. Mosey, who has long since forgotten the book's title, took more than passing interest. For from the front door of his house in this seaside hamlet, the grizzled Scotsman could see just such an island some three miles across Gruinard Bay.

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Gruinard Island, off the coast northwest of Inverness, was used by the British Ministry of Defense more than 40 years ago to test the potential of anthrax as a biological warfare agent.

The experiment was successful - if that is the proper word - beyond the scientists' wildest expectations. Gruinard Island was inadvertently contaminated for more than four decades. Only this year has it been declared suitable for human use, and then only after an extensive decontamination effort.

In 1941, scientists at Britain's chemical warfare center at Porton Down, England, were afraid that Germany and Japan had perfected biological weapons. They embarked on a secret crash program to create their own bio-weapons, and selected Gruinard Island as the test site.

After tethering sheep to stakes, the researchers exploded canisters containing billions of anthrax spores. They took notes on how quickly the animals began to die, and at what distance from the center of the bombing.

An ancient disease as a weapon

ANTHRAX is a disease caused by a bacterium known as Bacillus anthracis. Known since antiquity, it is endemic to many regions of the world, and sometimes affects human beings in contact with livestock and animal products. In Britain, it is known as ``wool-sorter's disease''; in the Soviet Union, ``Siberian fever.''

What makes anthrax effective as a biological weapon is the many ways in which it spreads. It can cause infection if ingested or inhaled, and it can penetrate the tiniest wound in the skin. The bacterium has the ability to form a spore - in effect, creating a tough coating about itself that can resist sunlight, heat, and disinfectants. These spores, which can be harvested easily from man-made fermentation vats, are easily dispersed through the air.

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Mortality rates are usually high for untreated victims. Partly as a result of the Gruinard Island tests, the United States chose anthrax as one of the agents in its own biological warfare arsenal. (The US biological weapons program was halted in 1969, and the arsenal was destroyed; only biological defense research is permitted today.)

The British government found early on that anthrax could get out of control. Although the researchers destroyed the sheep carcasses with explosives, and assumed that any wind-borne spores would fall harmlessly into the ocean, there was an outbreak of anthrax on the Scottish mainland in 1943, the year the tests on Gruinard were terminated. It is still unclear whether spores drifted over from the island, or whether a contaminated carcass washed ashore.

Spores resist even fire

LOCAL farmers received compensation, and strict wartime secrecy prevented word of the outbreak from spreading. Scientists hurriedly returned to the island to burn off the heather and, with it, the anthrax. They found, however, that anthrax spores had migrated under the soil, forming a deadly underground lacework of infectious organisms.

That year, the British government declared Gruinard Island off limits to man or beast. For the next four decades, signs along the coastal edge warned any landing parties away.

Periodically, scientists in protective suits would venture onto the island to confirm that it was still contaminated. Each year, the government updated the warning on the markers to reflect the current year.

One of the men who changed the signs was John Gunn, now in his 80s. He was one of few who regularly visited the island over the years, an experience he speaks about reluctantly.

The island visitor speaks

`I DIDN'T much care what they were doing on the island,'' he says. ``It didn't matter to us at all. Nobody here worried about it. Not a single person.''

One woman from the village, however - who asked not to be named - disagreed: ``Certainly people worried about it. And they were right to worry.''

She, for example, wondered what would happen if sea gulls had carried contaminated soil from the island to the mainland.

``If there was birds flying from the island over here, they never did no harm,'' says Mr. Gunn.

He says that rabbits thrived on the island over the years. But he allows that he never worried, because ``The rabbits, they couldn't swim.''

Over the years, the British government abandoned both chemical and biological weapons, and today it prohibits anything other than defensive research.

The once-isolated north of Scotland became a tourist mecca, and Gruinard became a greater embarrassment for successive British governments.

In the late 1970s, scientists determined that only three or four of Gruinard's 550 acres were contaminated. During the 1980s, researchers determined that a solution of formaldehyde and sea water would kill the remaining spores.

The nongovernmental Royal Conservation Society, at the invitation of the British Defense Ministry, appointed a watchdog committee to oversee the decontamination effort and ensure that the island was rendered safe. In 1986, a contractor laid a grid of 30 miles of drip hoses to douse the contaminated areas. Afterward, soil samples were taken, in some places down to bedrock.

The result, says Graham Pearson, the current head of the official British Chemical Defense Establishment, at Porton Down, was that ``the treatment was by and large effective.''

Life returns to island

TO prove the point, local sheep farmer Angus Renwick was invited to graze some of his herd on Gruinard Island from May to October of 1987. The animals were monitored by veterinarians; none contracted anthrax.

``They flourished being over there,'' says Mr. Renwick's wife, Nancy.

Mr. Renwick will not talk to reporters about his experiences on the island. But his wife says he and their son found Gruinard a pleasant place. ``There was rabbits over there, and a duck with her young family.''

In May of this year, the British Defense Ministry declared Gruinard safe for normal use, and offered the island back to the original owners, a family trust, for the 1941 purchase price of 500 ($915 at today's exchange).

Today, the island is remarkable mainly for its rugged beauty. The last two patches of land to be decontaminated are greener than the rest of the island. But that is likely to change as the native flora reclaims the land. Then there are likely to be few visual reminders that this island was an early victim of the effort to wage war by biological means.

But it could take longer for the cloud of secrecy and controversy that enveloped Gruinard to dissipate. Even now, many of the locals refer to it only as ``Anthrax'' Island.

``They say it's safe now,'' says Ronald Mosey.

``I don't know....''

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