As children, we were taught that the military protected us in times of war. We learned about soldiers being killed and wounded by ‘the enemy’, and how people died if they got shot or if a bomb landed on them. Sometimes innocent people got killed during a war, but the fact that most victims were civilians was carefully hidden from us by our elders. They knew that children are smart enough to understand that there is a big moral difference between killing other soldiers and killing ordinary people. That a significant number of deaths were caused not by a weapon’s impact, but by its toxicity and by military pollution, was never mentioned.
We did not learn that military toxins know no boundaries, that they don’t just kill the enemy, they kill our military personnel and people living near military bases, that they pollute the water, land and air. We were not taught and still aren’t told today that military toxins go anywhere and kill everything, that they are in fact the quintessential universal soldier.
The U.S. Department of Defense is the largest polluter in the world, producing more hazardous waste than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined. The types of hazardous wastes used by the military include pesticides and defoliants like Agent Orange. It includes solvents, petroleum, perchlorate (a component of rocket fuel) lead and mercury. And most ominously, depleted uranium.
The health problems that have been documented as being attributable to these various toxins in military use include miscarriages, low birth weight, birth defects, kidney disease and cancer. Military pollution most directly affects those who are targeted by our weapons, soldiers and anyone living near a military base, both in the U.S. and abroad. In the U.S., one out of every ten Americans lives within ten miles of a military site that has been listed as a Superfund priority cleanup site.
Given where chemical and nuclear weapons are used, tested, manufactured, stored and disposed of, the burden of health impacts and environmental destruction falls disproportionately on poorer communities, people of color and indigenous communities. Women face particularly severe problems because of their sensitive reproductive tissues and children because their immune systems are not yet fully developed.
The number of health problems and environmental problems that have been reported near military installations throughout the world is truly staggering. The following are only a few of the many examples.
- The U.S. Navy is the largest polluter in the San Diego, California area, having created 100 toxic sites during the last 80 years. Environmental damage caused by the Navy includes spilling over 11,000 gallons of oil into the San Diego Bay in 1988. Fish in the Bay contain high levels of mercury and radioactive compounds that are attributable to Navy pollution of the Bay.
- Near the Naval Air Station in Fallon, NV high rates of cancer and rare diseases have probably been linked to the dumping of jet fuel, radio and electronic emissions and the contamination of groundwater with radioactive materials. Fallon has the highest per capita rate of childhood leukemia in the nation.
- It is important to note that the contamination of military bases is also a problem overseas where significant toxic pollution has impacted the areas near U.S. military bases in countries such as South Korea, the Philippines and Panama.
- Pollution from the manufacturing of military weapons is equally horrific. The soil near a plant that manufactured depleted uranium rounds in Colonie, New York was found to have 500 times the amount of uranium that one could normally expect to find in soil.
- Military waste disposal sites also pose significant problems. Recently, evidence of contamination from the Diamond Alkali plant which manufactured Agent Orange that was used in Vietnam was found in the Newark Bay in New Jersey. Bottom dwellers in the Bay contain the highest levels of dioxins ever recorded in aquatic animals, high enough to guarantee cancer at the same levels in humans. Many low income, immigrant and homeless residents of the area rely on the Bay for subsistence fishing and thus face the considerable risks of exposure and ingestion of Agent Orange.
- At Rocky Flats, a former nuclear weapons plant site in Colorado, Jon Lipsky, a former FBI agent, has recently come forward to expose the contamination of the land that he says the EPA and FBI and Department of Justice are suppressing. Lipsky and other plaintiffs in a case against the DOJ are concerned about plans to turn Rocky Flats into a wildlife refuge without adequately cleaning up the contamination. As Lipsky and others point out, disguising a toxic dump as a tourist attraction to be visited by schoolchildren is unacceptable.
The cleanup of sites such as these have slowed considerably when President George W. Bush took office. EPA inspections at military sites have dropped by 10%. The number of fines has dropped by 25% and the dollar amount of fines has been smaller. Overall spending on the cleanup of military sites has dropped 20% since 2001. Military spending on the cleanup of hazardous sites amounts to only 1% of the military budget.
As is the case with many pollutants, the effects of perchlorate, a toxic rocket fuel component, knows no bounds. New research has found perchlorate, in women’s breast milk in eighteen states. It can also be found in ground water, crops such as lettuce and dairy milk. Perchlorate can cause mental retardation, loss of hearing and speech and motor skill problems. Like other pollutants that are now finding their way into breastmilk, perchlorate puts mothers in the untenable position of simultaneously nurturing and (many times unknowingly) poisoning their children.
Nuclear testing is responsible for particularly hazardous pollution. Amchitka Island, off the coast of Alaska was the site of three nuclear weapons tests in a mile-deep shaft on the island in the late 1960′s and early 1970′s. The last bomb tested was the equivalent of 400 bombs the size of the one that was dropped on Hiroshima.
At the time the tests were conducted, wildlife populations in the area dropped off dramatically. Afterwards, when workers started reporting health problems, their claims were initially dismissed but eventually they were awarded compensation for “occupational illness”. Doctors now say Amchitka workers will develop cancer at twice the rate of other Americans. More ominously, in the late 1990′s Greenpeace conducted tests that showed radioactive substances including plutonium in the waters near Amchitka. Scientists have also found that geological forces in the island chain are producing movements that may at some point in the future allow nuclear materials in the test shaft to leak into the surrounding land and water.
In “The Clan of the One-Breasted Woman”, Terry Tempest Williams shares her poignant realization that the breast cancer that struck her mother, aunts and grandmothers was in all probability due to the radiation they were exposed to during the atomic testing that took place in Utah (where they lived) between 1951-1962. Despite assurances that the tests posed no danger, clearly the testing of bombs that were hundreds of times larger than those used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki would certainly pose a danger. And a report from the Breast Cancer Fund has recently concluded that ionizing radiation is the “best established environmental cause of breast cancer”.
It is the military’s use of Depleted Uranium that should cause the most alarm. Not only is the evidence of irreparable harm becoming undeniable, it is also quite clear that the U.S. government has been aware of the lethality of these weapons for quite some time. Despite denials of health risks, a 1950 Army pamphlet states, “Although there is negligible danger from uranium and plutonium outside the body, it is possible for dangerous amounts of these elements to enter the body through the lungs, the digestive system, or breaks in the skin.”
The impact of depleted uranium on Gulf War veterans is so staggering that it is incomprehensible that the U.S. government persists in denying the damage done. The numbers tell the obvious story. During the three-week war in 1990-91, 467 U.S. personnel were reported injured. Since then, more than 11,000 Gulf War veterans have died and more than 600,000 are on permanent disability due to their exposure to depleted uranium, or what we euphemistically call Gulf War Syndrome.
There is no justification for our military killing us to protect us. Our continued ignorance and silence will become our collective epitaph.
Filed Under: Environment