Government scientists smashed lightbulbs full of bacteria inside the NYC subway to see what would happen


On June 6, 1966, a group of US Army scientists made their way into the Seventh and Eighth Avenue lines of the New York City subway. Some carried air sampling machines in boxes and on belts; others carried light bulbs.


The light bulbs were packed with about 175 grams of Bacillus subtilis bacteria, then known as Bacillus globigii - approximately 87 trillion organisms in each. The plan was to shatter them and then use the sampling machines to see how they spread through the subway tunnels and trains.

This test was one of at least 239 experiments conducted by the military in a 20-year "germ warfare testing program" that went on from 1949 to 1969. These experiments that used bacteria to simulate biological weapons were conducted on civilians without their knowledge or consent. That stands in direct violation of the Nuremberg Code, which stipulates that "voluntary, informed consent" is required for research participants.

And while the people who conducted these experiments did so under the belief that the bacterial species they used were harmless, it has since been revealed that they can cause health problems.

"They're all considered pathogens now," says Leonard Cole, the director of the Terror Medicine and Security Program at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, who documented these experiments in his book "Clouds of Secrecy: The Army's Germ Warfare Tests Over Populated Areas."


A paper from the National Academy of Sciences analyzing military experiments notes that B. globigii is "now considered a pathogen" and is often a cause of food poisoning. "Infections are rarely known to be fatal," the report said - though fatal cases have occurred.

A microscopic picture of spores and vegetative cells of Bacillus anthracis which causes the disease anthrax is pictured in this undated file photograph. REUTERS/Files

Thomson Reuters

Scarier would be Bacillus anthracis, which causes the disease anthrax.

Clouds in the subways

The New York experiments were some of the most shocking ones that occurred in terms of people exposed, according to Cole.

"During peak hours, these bacteria were dropped," he says. "If you can get trillions of bacteria into a light bulb and throw it on the track as a train pulls into a station, they'll get pulled through the air as the train leaves."

The Army came to that very conclusion, which is documented in a report titled "A Study of the Vulnerability of Subway Passengers in New York City to Covert Attack with Biological Agents."


They wrote that clouds engulfed people as trains pulled away, but that they "brushed their clothing, looked up at the grating apron and walked on." No one was concerned.

Army scientists concluded that it took between four and 13 minutes for train passengers to be exposed to the bacteria. Five minutes after bacteria were released at 23rd Street Station, the bacteria could be detected at every station between 14th Street and 59th, according to the report. Between June 6 and June 10, they calculated that more than a million people were exposed.

New York subway

Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Scary results revealed

The germ warfare testing program was revealed by a news report in the early 1970s and then by subsequent Freedom of Information Act Requests. Scientists who'd been involved with the program were called to testify before Congress.

Army scientist Charles Senseney was one of those called to testify in 1975. He told a Senate subcommittee that city officials had no idea the tests occurred. According to a New York Daily News report that cites his testimony, he said that a more dangerous agent would have "put New York out of commission."


In a 1995 Newsday story (which is not available online), reporter Dennis Duggan contacted the retired Senseney, who declined to tell him anything about it.

"I don't want to get near this," Senseney said to Duggan. "I [testified], because I was told I had to by the people at the Department of Defense ... I better get off the phone."

Cole cites some declassified documents that discuss the New York tests in his book.

The report's conclusion is chilling: "Test results show that a large portion of the working population in downtown New York City would be exposed to disease if one or more pathogenic agents were disseminated covertly in several subway lines at a period of peak traffic."

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