On a tiny island off western Scotland, British scientists text-exploded a series of anthrax bombs during World War II, obliterating a luckless flock of sheep. It took 50 years to decontaminate the place.
But even 11 years after the "Keep Out" signs were removed, few people dare to visit Gruinard Island, which measures just one mile (1.6 kilometres) long and is half as wide. "I would not go walking on Gruinard," Brian Moffat, archaeological director of a current excavation at Soutra, near Edinburgh, told the Sunday Telegraph.
Moffat said his team had found buried anthrax spores at the Soutra site which had survived for hundreds of years. "If anthrax is still active at Soutra, there is no reason to suppose it has not survived on more recent sites. It is a very resilient and deadly bacterium," he added.
Fears of a bio-terrorism attack using anthrax have soared in the wake of the September 11 air strikes on the United States and the US-led riposte, now into its second week, against Afghanistan and chief suspect Osama bin Laden.
One person has died of anthrax and at least 11 others exposed to the deadly bacteria in the United States since September 11 in what US officials say is a bio-terrorist campaign.
In 1941, after the Allies suspected the Nazis of carrying out anthrax bomb tests, military scientists from the British government's laboratories at Porton Down, southwestern England, headed north to see whether the germ could be used as a biological weapon.
Gruinard was chosen because it was small, uninhabited and near an allied military base at Loch Ewe. The guinea pigs of "Anthrax Island," as local people on the mainland called it, were 60 sheep placed in pens, exposed to the bacterium released from specially-adapted mustard gas canisters. All died within days.
In the final test, a Wellington bomber dropped anthrax, in the form of possibly the world's first biological bomb, on an island target.
Following the tests, precautions taken by scientists did not prevent anthrax reaching Britain's mainland. Although the sheep were dumped in a cave on the island and buried under tonnes of rock, one of the carcasses was dislodged during a storm and floated to shore.
The four-year clean-up operation of Gruinard did not begin until 1986, when civilian contractors used pipes to inject 280 tonnes of the toxic gas formaldehyde, diluted with seawater, 13.5 metres (45 feet) into the ground. The island's topsoil was thereafter removed in sealed containers.
Gruinard might have been declared safe a decade ago, but even local tourist guides feel obliged to remind visitors to the Highlands about the island's dark past. "Gruinard Island is best known, unfortunately, as the site of germ warfare experiments in the Second World War that left it contaminated with anthrax until finally declared safe in 1990," says the aptly titled "Undiscovered Scotland" guide. In the current climate, "Anthrax Island" could remain ignored for many years to come.
Published in TNT News