Military Waste In Our Drinking Water


The U.S. military is poisoning the very citizens it is supposed to protect in the name of national security.
by Sunaura Taylor and Astra Taylor

Left, a painting by Sunaura Taylor.

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 beings.

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 risks.”

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 believed.

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.


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