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Topic editor: Steven G. Gilbert
Lead author: Lester Jacobson

Overview

There are a variety of toxic materials used by the US military that pose a threat to the health of humans and the environment. Many explosives are very toxic and some pose a cancer risk. The disposal of military hardware into the ocean has also proven hazardous. Huge amounts of Polychlorinated Byphenyls (PCBs) have leeched into the ocean from military gear. Artificial reefs, which are newly popular with local governments, also pose a health risk.

Ship Disposal Programs

Background

The US Navy and the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) are tasked with the responsibility to dispose of obsolete, aging ships. Ship breaking yards, mostly in southern Asia, had been used to recycle old ships since the 1970s. However, revelations about the deadly work conditions of these ship breaking yards, coupled with increasing national security concerns, have prompted the Navy and MARAD to look for alternate ways of disposal. They found their solution in the SINKEX program and artificial reefs. Hundreds of ships have been sent to the ocean floor, along with thousands of tons of military equipment.

The SINKEX Program


The USS Towers, as it is sunk in the US Navy's SINKEX Program

The Navy uses retired ships for target practice through the SINKEX program. Old military ships are towed into deep water then sunk by missiles and torpedoes. Once on the ocean floor, PCBs, iron, lead paint and anti-fouling pant all can leech into the ocean, fish, and food-chain. The EPA is aware of the toxic potential of sunken ships, but granted the program a waiver because of cost (it is a cheap way to dispose of ships) and because the environment costs seemed minimal. Recent studies have shown that there has been a higher environmental cost than anticipated by EPA: PCBs were leeching out of the sunken aircraft carrier Ex-USS ORISKANY at twice the rate modeled by the EPA, and the concentration of PCBs in local fish increased by 1,446%. In short, the SINKEX program has led to elevated levels of toxins in the ocean. Despite concerns, program continues: 5 ships disposed in 2010, four more are planned to be sunk in 2011.

Artificial Reefs


Some of the 2 millions tires constituting the Osborne artificial reef, near Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Artificial reefs are created when a variety of old hardware is dumped in shallow water, thus creating a reef. Billed as a cheap way of disposal which boosts local economies, Artificial reefs have become popular with local and federal agencies in recent years. Thousands of tons of equipment has been dumped into the ocean, ranging from tanks to subway cars to tugboats. Once dumped into the water, these new reefs attract fish, who are followed by divers. Artificial reefs can also pose a risk to public health, for PCB, asbestos, iron, lead paint, antifouling paint can leach into the ocean from these reefs.

For a damning report about Arficial Reefs and the SINKEX Program see "Dishonorable Disposal"

Military Sites

Military bases, battlefields, and target ranges are all places that can be a significant health risk. Many of the high explosives used militarily are extremely toxic, and some can cause cancer. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "Regional and international conflicts or military occupations, coupled with day-to-day operations of military bases and support facilities, have resulted in environmental degradation and long-term contamination of soil and groundwater both at former and at active military sites." Potential pollutants include: TNT, DNT, RDX, picric acid, and chemical compounds involving tetryl, lead, mercury, ammonium, and nitrates such as nitroglycerin.

Toxic Chemicals Commonly Used in Military Weapons (excluding chemical warfare agents)

Chemical

Potential migration to ground water

Non-cancer toxicity

Cancer Potential

TNT

High

High

Yes

DNT

High

High

Yes

Nitroglycerin

High

High

Unknown

Dinitrophenols

High/moderate

High

Unknown

RDX

High

Moderate

Yes

HMX

High

Moderate

Unknown

Tetryl

High

Moderate

Unknown

DNB

Moderate

Moderate

Unknown

Adapted from the WHO Report "Protecting Groundwater for Health," which provide much of the information in this section.

More Resources

*A map of some of the ships sunk in the SINKEX program can be found at the website usnavyoilers.com

*Toxipedia has articles on the health threats of PCBs and asbestos

Current Events

*Navy´s ship disposal policy comes under fire

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