Tiny San Jose Island, with an area of 17 square miles and a permanent population of 10, once hosted a contingent of 200 US soldiers who began conducting chemical warfare testing from 1945 to 1947. Seventy years later, eight mustard gas bombs still remain undetonated on the island, and one Panamanian report claimed that there could be as many as 3,000 other bombs that still haven't been found.
Panama has repeatedly pushed the United States to destroy the bombs since they were discovered in 2002, and the US only agreed to do so in 2017. Previously, Washington offered to pay for the training of Panamanians to dispose of the bombs, so long as the small Central American republic released the US from liability.
Panama refused and demanded that Washington clean the mess up themselves. As the American government took a hardline stance against the use of chemical weapons during the Syrian Civil War, it became increasingly amenable to the disposal of such weapons it created in decades past.
The disposal will begin in September 2017 and will take six to eight weeks, according to Panamanian officials. It will be overseen by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
In a new wrinkle, the Canadian Department of National Defense (DND) has revealed that they may also have mustard gas and other chemical weapons on the island. Ottawa is not going to participate in the disposal of the bombs, according to a statement from Global Affairs Canada, but in the past Canada has denied involvement in the San Jose weapons tests.
In fact, the new DND file notes that most of the mustard gas, as well as roughly 1,000 of the bombs used in the San Jose tests, were Canada-made. Canadian scientists helped design some of the tests, and Canadian pilots flew the planes that dropped chemical bombs during the experiments.
Furthermore, Canada used heavy duty metal shipping containers to transport mustard gas to the island — containers durable enough to have survived 70 years of weathering and decay. Mustard gas decomposes very slowly, especially outside of water, meaning much of the soil in San Jose may be contaminated.
Susan Smith, a professor of history at the University of Alberta and an expert on the use of mustard gas during World War II, said that Canada was a significant participant in the chemical weapons tests on San Jose Island. "This was an area where Canada indeed punched above its own weight," Smith told the Ottawa Citizen. "Canada has a moral commitment to help clean up the mess it created."
She added that the San Jose experiments tested how soldiers of different races reacted to mustard gas exposure, with white, Puerto Rican, black, and Japanese soldiers all being exposed.
"It felt like you were on fire," then-93-year-old Rollins Edwards told NPR in 2015. Edwards served in the US Army during the war and was party to the mustard gas tests. "Guys started screaming and hollering and trying to break out. And then some of the guys fainted. And finally they opened the door and let us out, and the guys were just, they were in bad shape."
Edwards says he still gets rashes and flaky skin from the chemical burns he suffered 70 years ago.
In 1974, a construction worker on San Jose Island suffered mysterious chemical burns. In 2001, Panama discovered the existence of the chemical weapons and asked Canada to assist in a comprehensive search for bombs in the island's jungles, but Canada said no.
Most countries who fought in World War II did not use chemical weapons against enemy combatants. The Imperial Japanese did, but only against other Asian nations such as China. The Americans did at one point consider the use of mustard gas against the Japanese in the last days of the war, but opted for atomic weapons instead.
Canada, Panama and the United States are all signatories to the 1992 United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention, which stipulates that all chemical weapons worldwide are to be destroyed. The US government has disposed of 90 percent of its 37,000-ton stockpile of chemical weapons since then.