AlterNet  [Printer-friendly version]
August 4, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: It's an ugly truth that manufacturing weapons
to kill abroad also kills at home. In other words, the military is
killing some of the people it is supposed to be protecting. After you
read this article, get more details from the Military Toxics

By Sunaura Taylor and Astra Taylor

The US military is poisoning the very citizens it is supposed to
protect in the name of national security.

In 1982 our family was living on the southside of Tucson, Ariz., in a
primarily working class and Latino neighborhood not far from the
airport. That year Sunaura was born with a congenital birth defect
known as arthrogryposis, a condition that severely impedes muscle
growth and requires her to use an electric wheelchair. On nearby
blocks, women were giving birth to babies with physical disabilities
and neighbors were dying of cancer at worrisome rates. Over time, we
learned that our groundwater was contaminated.

Most of us are vaguely aware that war devastates the environment
abroad. The Vietnamese Red Cross counts 150,000 children whose birth
defects were caused by their parents' exposure to Agent Orange. Cancer
rates in Iraq are soaring as a result of depleted uranium left from
the Gulf War. But what about closer to home?

Today the U.S. military generates over one-third of our nation's toxic
waste, which it disposes of very poorly. The military is one of the
most widespread violators of environmental laws. People made ill by
this toxic waste are, in effect, victims of war. But they are rarely
acknowledged as such.

On Sept. 11, 2001, we were living together in New York City. In the
months following the attack on the World Trade Center, the media and
government routinely informed a fearful citizenry of the importance of
clean drinking water. Terrorists, they warned, might contaminate
public sources with arsenic. We were instructed to purchase Evian
along with our duct tape.

In 2003, when the Defense Department sought (and later received)
exemptions from America's main environmental laws, the irony dawned on
us. The military was given license to pollute air and water, dispose
of used munitions, and endanger wildlife with impunity. The Defense
Department is willing to poison the very citizens it is supposed to
protect in the cause of national security.

Our family knows of something much more dangerous than arsenic in the
public aquifers: trichloroethylene, or TCE, a known carcinogen in
laboratory animals and the most widespread industrial contaminant in
American drinking water.

Disturbingly Common

Last week a study was released by the National Academy of Sciences,
raising already substantial concerns about the cancer risks and other
health hazards associated with exposure to TCE, a solvent used in
adhesives, paint and spot removers that is also "widely used to remove
grease from metal parts in airplanes and to clean fuel lines at
missile sites." The report confirms a 2001 EPA document linking TCE to
kidney cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, impaired
neurological function, autoimmune disease and other ailments in human

The report has been garnering some publicity, but not as much as it
deserves. TCE contamination is disturbingly common, especially in the
air, soil and water around military bases. Nationwide millions of
Americans are using what Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, D-NY, has called
"TCE-laden drinking water." The Associated Press reports that the
chemical has been found at about 60 percent of the nation's worst
contaminated sites in the Superfund cleanup program.

"The committee found that the evidence on carcinogenic risk and other
health hazards from exposure to trichloroethylene has strengthened
since 2001," the study says. "Hundreds of waste sites are contaminated
with trichloroethylene, and it is well-documented that individuals in
many communities are exposed to the chemical, with associated health

The report urges the EPA to amend its assessment of the threat TCE
poses, an action that could lead to stricter regulations. Currently
the EPA limits TCE to no more than five parts per billion parts of
drinking water. Stricter regulation could force the government to
require more thorough cleanups at military and other sites and lower
the number to one part per billion.

The EPA found it impossible to take such action back in 2001, because,
according to the Associated Press, the agency was "blocked from
elevating its assessment of the chemical's risks in people by the
Defense Department, Energy Department and NASA, all of which have
sites polluted with it." The Bush administration charged the EPA with
inflating TCE's risks and asked the National Academy to investigate.
Contrary to the administration's hopes, however, the committee's
report has reinforced previous findings, which determined TCE to be
anywhere from two to 40 times more carcinogenic than previously

Thousands Contaminated

We didn't know it when we lived there, but our Tucson neighborhood's
public water supply was one of thousands nationwide contaminated with
TCE (along with a medley of other toxic chemicals including,
ironically, arsenic). It wasn't terrorists who laced our cups and
bathtubs with these poisons -- it was private contractors employed by
the Air Force.

Beginning during the Korean War, military contractors began using
industrial solvents, including TCE, to degrease airplane parts. Hughes
Missiles Systems Co. (which was purchased by the Raytheon Corp. in
1997) worked at the Tucson International Airport, spilling chemicals
off the runway and letting them sink into the soil of a city entirely
dependent on its underground water supply. What didn't seep into the
earth was dumped into unlined pits scraped into the desert floor. Over
the course of many years Hughes used barrels and barrels of TCE at the
airport hangars and at weapons system manufacturing facilities on
government-owned and contractor-operated land not far from where we
lived. As late as 1985, 2,220 pounds of TCE was still being dumped in
Tucson landfills every month.

Like so many other toxic hotspots, Tucson's southside is primarily a
working-class community called home by many people of color. It is
situated near the San Xavier Indian reservation, which also had
residential areas affected by runoff.

Generally, fines associated with hazardous waste laws are up to six
times higher in white communities than their minority counterparts.
What has happened in Tucson since the early '80s reflects this
unevenness. There has been only one legal case against the military
and its cohorts, a lengthy personal-injury lawsuit filed in behalf of
1,600 people against the aircraft manufacturer, the city of Tucson and
the Tucson Airport Authority (citizens are not allowed to sue the
federal government over such matters). The case excluded thousands of
potential plaintiffs and did not include funds from which future
claimants could collect for illnesses like cancers, which typically do
not appear until 10 or 20 years after chemical exposure. As a result,
many southside residents have yet to be compensated and probably never
will be. To this day, some area wells remain polluted, and most
estimate cleanup will not be completed for another 20 to 50 years.
Meanwhile, residents have the small consolation their water supply is
being monitored.

The National Academy of Sciences study is a step in the right
direction, but one that will certainly be met with resistance. In
Tucson, because the lawsuit was settled out of court, none of the
defendants had to admit that TCE is carcinogenic. Instead of
acknowledging the link between TCE and local health problems,
officials blamed the smoking and eating habits of local residents and
said their cancer was the result of "eating too much chili." It was
suggested to our parents, who are white, that Sunaura's birth defect
may have been the consequence of high peanut butter consumption.

But people who have lived on the southside of Tucson don't need
experts to verify that TCE is deadly. Some estimate that up to 20,000
individuals have died, become ill, or been born with birth defects.
Providing further proof, the Tucson International Airport area is one
of the EPA's top Superfund sites. Arizona state guidelines also assert
that TCE is toxic; they say one gallon of TCE is enough to render
undrinkable the amount of water used by 3,800 people over an entire
year. Over 4,000 gallons drained into Tucson aquifers. As a result of
this week's report, Arizona's environmental quality chief says the
state is independently and immediately going to adopt stricter TCE
soil standards.

It's an ugly truth that manufacturing weaponry to kill abroad also
kills at home. The process involves toxic chemicals, metals and
radioactive materials. As a consequence, the U.S. military produces
more hazardous waste annually than the five largest international
chemical companies combined. The Pentagon is responsible for over
1,400 properties contaminated with TCE.

Citizens, who pay for the military budget with their tax dollars, are
also paying with their health and sometimes their lives.


Sunaura Taylor, a figurative painter, has written on disability for
various publications. View her paintings online at Astra Taylor is a writer and documentary
filmmaker. Her first book, Shadow of the Sixties, is forthcoming from
the New Press in 2007.