War's toxic legacy

By Deborah J. Whitman October 8, 2010

We often hear about the casualties of war and the enormous costs to fight the war, but not much is ever mentioned about the environmental effects of war.

Large amounts of toxic chemicals and heavy metals such as depleted uranium, aluminum, lead, titanium, strontium barium jet fuel and petroleum, just to name a few, are commonly used by military forces during war and for warfare testing throughout the United States as well as in many other countries.

How toxic are air, land and water in foreign lands and here at home due to our military pursuits?

According to an article published in the Kabul Press in April, American military presence in Afghanistan has generated millions of kilograms of hazardous, toxic and radioactive wastes. Americans have buried, burned or secretly disposed of waste into the air, soil, groundwater and surface waters of Afghanistan.

The U.S. Air Force Times ran an editorial on March 1 that stated in part, 'A growing number of military medical professionals believe burn pits are causing a wave of respiratory and other illnesses among troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Found on almost all U.S. bases in the war zones, these open-air trash sites operate 24 hours a day, incinerating trash of all forms - including plastic bottles, paint, petroleum products, unexploded ordinance, hazardous materials, even amputated limbs and medical waste. Their smoke plumes belch dioxin, carbon monoxide and other toxins skyward, producing a toxic fog that hanged over living and working areas.'

Afghanis also must be suffering the same injuries.

Depleted uranium is a component of toxic nuclear waste; such weaponry has been used by the U.S. military since the first Gulf War in 1991. It was incorporated into tank armor, missile and aircraft counterweights and navigational devices, and in tank, anti-aircraft and anti-personnel artillery.

The World Health Organization reports that brief accidental exposure to high concentrations of uranium hexafluoride causes acute respiratory illness, which may be fatal.

According to the Global Research Center, 'there was an estimated DU expenditure of 320 to 800 tons mainly shot on the withdrawing Iraq troops from Kuwait to the north of Basra City.' When these radioactive and toxic weapons hit their target, the depleted uranium turns into a ceramic dust that is released into the air, water and soil.

Millions of Iraqis as well as U.S. military personnel have received higher doses of radioactivity than ordinary background levels. As a result, a multi-fold increase of low-level radiation exposure-related diseases has been registered since 1995. Studies using cultured cells and laboratory rodents continue to suggest the possibility of leukemogenic, genetic, reproductive and neurological effects from chronic exposure to depleted uranium.

The rates of birth defects and cancer in Iraq have skyrocketed since the first Gulf War. Thousands of veterans from that war have fallen ill with a range of symptoms that have come to be known as Gulf War Syndrome. Common complaints include chronic fatigue, multiple cancers, musculoskeletal pain, neurological damage, signs and symptoms involving skin (including skin rashes and unusual hair loss), sleep disturbances, menstrual disorders, gastrointestinal problems, abnormal weight loss, upper and lower respiratory problems, memory loss and chemical sensitivities. Veterans' children suffer increased rates of sickness as well.

A lawsuit brought the dangers of depleted uranium home, and exposed that the Kerr Magee plant in Gore, Okla., was using DU to manufacture bullets, disposing liquid waste by deep-well injection in this rural, primarily farming area.

In addition to using toxic heavy metals and chemicals in war, there are now major concerns about these chemicals being used in warfare testing and training programs.

Currently, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Department of Defense have decided that their Northwest Training Range Complex in Washington state should be expanded to Oregon, California and Idaho. They have posted their environmental impact statement online at http://www.nwt rangecomplexeis.com. This five-year program will utilize mid- and high-frequency active sonar sources and explosive detonations. The Navy warfare chemical menu lists, in part, depleted uranium, red and white phosphorus, cadmium, lead and aluminum that will contaminate our air, water, oceans and soil.

These metals and chemicals are toxic not only to man but to marine life. A program similar to this proposed program is already in effect in Southern California.

The Navy also has requested permission to 'take' 32 species of marine mammals during its testing programs. 'Take' where? How? Definitions of 'take' include 'kill.'

Our nuclear weapons' program also raises the possibility of environmental disaster.

According to a 1962 report on the effects of nuclear weapons published by the Atomic Energy Commission/Department of Defense, 'Nuclear weapons are designed with great care to explode only when deliberately armed and fired. Nevertheless, there is always a possibility that, as a result of accidental circumstances, an explosion will take place inadvertently.

'Although all conceivable precautions are taken to prevent them, such accidents might occur in areas where weapons are assembled and stored, during the course of loading and transportation on the ground, or when actually in the delivery vehicle, e.g., an airplane or a missile.'

Considering the power of modern nuclear weapons, their use in wartime would bring environmental disaster beyond imagination.

Our own military bases house some of the most toxic waste sites in the world. The Pine Bluff Arsenal (Arkansas) is one of eight sites housing the nation's reserve of chemical weapons. A new analysis of Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state shows three times the amount of plutonium than originally reported.

Military properties in California that hold contaminated military waste include Downey (once designated a Superfund cleanup site); Hamilton Army Airbase (Novato) where wastes include petroleum, hydrocarbons and dioxins; and Mather Air Force Base (Rancho Cordova).

Continuing our war policies can only result in continued degradation of our health and environment, both at home and abroad. We have to stop the cycle of war before we can hope to save our planet and all life that inhabits it.

- Deborah J. Whitman is founder and president of Environmental Voices.