BY ELIZABETH FIEND Sadly, we hear each day about the horrible human toll of war — the body counts, the amputees learning to cope, the countless and nameless children ravaged by the violence, rendered orphans or worse. War is hell on earth, of course. But war is also hell on The Earth, too. You may not be aware of just how toxic and devastating is the footprint that the military-industrial complex leaves behind on Battlefield Earth. Agent Orange, rocket fuel, lead, mercury, petroleum, asbestos, countless carcinogenic solvents. This toxic stew settles into the soil in which we grow our food, seeps down into the water we drink and floats unseen in the air we breathe making us sick — terribly sick — and killing many of us, or leading to birth defects, cancer, miscarriages, and kidney and thyroid disease. Twenty-nine million Americans — that’s about one in every 10 — live within 10 miles of a toxic military site. That is, a site that’s already been labeled under the Superfund Program as being a top priority for toxic-waste cleanup. There are many, many, more sites that haven’t yet been certified.
The military-industrial complex has a long track record of leaving a mess all around the country and all around the world. In San Diego alone, the Navy is responsible for creating 100 toxic sites. Jet fuel was dumped around the Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nevada. As radioactive materials seeped in to the ground water, cancer followed. In Denver, tons of asbestos-laced soil left over from the Lowry Air Force Base had to be dug out of the ground before a new housing development could be built. The Air Force refused to pay the $15 million bill for the removal, claiming the risks from asbestos weren’t high enough to warrant cleanup.
Breast cancer rates are startlingly high among people who lived near the 1951-1962 atomic tests in Nevada and Utah. Regardless, the Bush administration has raised the possibility of resuming nuclear testing in Nevada. “I Belong to a Clan of One-Breasted Women,” by Terry Tempest Williams, is a heart-breaking essay about a Mormon family who witnessed those atomic tests. The story begins: “My mother, my grandmothers, and six aunts have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead. The two who survive have just completed rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.” More recently in Alaska, as a result of nuclear testing off of that state’s coast, doctors say workers there will develop cancer at twice the rate as the general public.
The Vietnamese Red Cross estimates that 150,000 children have birth defects caused by the U.S. military’s spraying of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Recently, New Jersey’s Newark Bay was found to be contaminated with dioxins from the manufacturing of some of that Agent Orange. In the Philippines, the rate of miscarriage is high around the former site of the Clark Air Force Base.
In Colonie, NY, soil near a factory that supplies the military with depleted uranium was found to have 500 times the normal amount of that material. The health cost of depleted uranium on Gulf War veterans is shocking and awesome. It is equally mind-blowing that the U.S. government persists in denying there is any such thing as Gulf War Syndrome, despite the fact that 80,000 veterans of that conflict have officially registered as being ill. In today’s Baghdad, the Tigris River — a source of drinking water for many — is a chemical cocktail of oil, gas, pesticides and heavy metals from Iraqi and American military waste.
The U.S. military has also left behind a poisonous goulash in hundreds of other sites, including Hawaii, South Korea, Greenland, Panama and Philadelphia. Huh? Yes. It seems that no place is spared the mess created in the name of war. In South Philly, 20th St. and Oregon Avenue is the site of the former Defense Personnel Supply Center, where Army uniforms were made. It’s estimated that more than 500 workers and nearby residents have died or fallen ill as a result of exposure to asbestos, DDT, unknown fumes and other hazardous chemicals at the factory complex, also known as the Quartermaster. Workers reported to the South Philly Review that a black oily substance would seep into work stations, even out of the water fountain, during rain storms. Management told the workers to wait it out in the rec room, and then return to their jobs.
The site was shut down in 1994, and for the past few years an ad-hoc group of workers and residents has been asking Congress to investigate their exposure to toxins at the plant. The issue was never resolved, the site never cleaned up. When a new mall was built there, contractors were instructed not to dig deeper than 10 feet, to avoid disturbing a toxic petroleum plume.
Shit happens, but the Department of Defense seems to think theirs doesn’t stink. Under the Bush administration the Pentagon is taking unprecedented steps to limit the military’s accountability for its long history of pollution. Under the guise of national security and terrorist threats, the armed services believe they should be exempt from current environmental laws. The DOD has already been granted exemption from our nation’s wildlife protection laws. The Pentagon has also repeatedly asked Congress for exemptions from the Clean Air Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, the Compensation and Liability Act (Superfund law), and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The DOD has also tried to get around environmental laws by reinventing the definition of solid waste to exclude munitions and their fragments, explosives and a list of other toxic materiel.
The Pentagon is putting the screws to governmental agencies that might block their path to perma-war. The military bitched to the White House that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was overstating the dangers of military waste. Since then, the EPA has lessened annual inspections at military sites by 26 percent, and cut the number and severity of fines. The EPA also said it would back off and take more time to study the toxicity of several prominent military chemicals.
Perchlorate and trichlorethylene, two toxic military chemicals, are causing extensive worry. Perchlorate, the explosive ingredient in rocket fuel, has been seeping into ground water around military bases, rocket test sites and the factories that produce it. At many of these sites, it’s believed to have been haphazardly and improperly disposed of. Perchlorate affects the thyroid gland by blocking iodide uptake, causing thyroid problems in women and birth defects and lower IQs in children. Perchlorate has been found in the drinking water of 22 states, in 93 percent of lettuce and milk, and in 97 percent of breast milk taken from random samples across the United States. In 2003 when U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) insisted that perchlorate sites be cleaned up, the DOD shot back that they were excluded from any liability for perchlorate because they needed to be anti-terrorist ready.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recently found perchlorate to be 10 times more toxic to humans than the DOD has been claiming.
The second chemical, trichlorethylene (TCE) is a solvent used to clean fuel lines at missile sites and to degrease airplanes. The military and its contractors began using it way back during the Korean War. TCE is the most commonly found industrial pollutant in America’s drinking water. Its occurrence is especially severe around military bases and at hundreds of chemical waste sites spread across the U.S., where it also contaminants the soil and air. In 2001, the EPA linked TCE to auto-immune diseases, birth defects, cancer and specifically to kidney disease. In 2006, the NAS found that TCE is even more dangerous than was announced five years earlier by the EPA.
Stats / cleanup flaws since Bush / EPA back off:
Clan of the One-Breasted Women:
Gulf War Syndrome:
HYPERLINK “http://www.gulfweb.org/bigdoc/selfhelp.cfm” \l “What%20is%20Gulf%20War%”http://www.gulfweb.org/bigdoc/selfhelp.cfm#What%20is%20Gulf%20War%
Nuclear waste cleanup:
Perchlorate / EPA back off:
HYPERLINK “http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11707.html” \l “toc”http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11707.html#toc
Personal story: (has links to disturbing oil paintings of deformed
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth Fiend is Philadelphia’s Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. Most people don’t know it yet, but that will change. Miss Fiend is host of the Big Tea Party. But enough of my yackin’, here’s Elizabeth with the 411 on her column: “Most people don’t think about the fact that science doesn’t determine our government’s regulations and recommendations for health and the environment, it’s sleazy politicking and backroom lobbying that makes the rules and I would like to bring this fact more to the forefront,” she says. “My philosophy is decidedly anti-big business/governmental lobbying but in line with the science of (my idol, ok crush) Dr. Walter Willett, Harvard University School of Public Health. There’s an edge to it, but it’s not goofy new age-y stuff with no basis in fact. And besides all that, I am the most fun of all the health advocates. I’m the only one who consistently wears pink and is brewing absinthe in her kitchen (excuse me, that’s illegal, infusing absinthe).” Word.