(Beyond Pesticides) “‘Don’t get pregnant at George Air Force Base’” was the advice imparted from one female Air Force member to another in 1975 at that base, located 100+ miles north of San Diego and used as an active military site from 1941–1992. From the start of their service at George AFB, both parties to this conversation came to be familiar with the shared horror stories of repeated infections, vaginal bleeding, ovarian cysts, uterine tumors, birth defects, and miscarriages among female Air Force members at the site. Many women who served at George AFB in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s suffered, but did not know what was causing, such health issues, which were frequent enough that even base doctors would sometimes privately warn women off of getting pregnant while serving there.
Among the many contaminants found at George AFB and other military sites are organochlorine-based pesticides (OCPs), such as DDT, dieldrin/aldrin, heptachlor, lindane, endrin, chlordane,mirex, toxaphene, hexachlorobenzene, chlordane, and others. (A comprehensive list of OCPs is available here.) Most of these compounds were used on military bases for decades for vegetation control, as building pesticides or fumigants, or for personal pesticide treatments for lice and scabies, and to protect from mosquitoes. Use of all but DDT has been banned or severely restricted in most countries because of the pesticides’ toxicity; despite that, DDT is still occasionally used to combat malaria in some countries.
When George AFB was designated as an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site in 1990, women who had served there learned that they’d been exposed to a variety of harmful chemicals. The base’s water supply and soils were contaminated with jet fuel and solvents, such as trichloroethylene, a human carcinogen. In addition, the barracks in which they lived had been treated with toxic pesticides, and the workers were exposed to radiation while working on F-4 phantom fighter jets. Fast forward to nearly three decades later: in March 2018, Department of Defense monitoring wells (established to test for contaminants) showedthat George AFB water sources, along with those of hundreds of other military locations, are contaminated with perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and/or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
These compounds are commonly used in the manufacture of surfactants and polymers, and are especially concentrated in the foam formulations used to douse aircraft fires. At George AFB, PFOS and PFOA levels were between 87 and 5,396ppt (parts per trillion), well beyond the EPA’s “recommended maximum” level of 70ppt. Exposure to these chemicals can cause maladies in the reproductive, hepatic, and immunological systems, as well as problems with fetal and neonatal development and thyroid function; they can also cause cancers.
With this recent revelation, communities located near military bases — Patrick AFB in Florida, Wurtsmith AFB in Michigan, and Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio among them — are testing water and tracking cancer reports from those who lived on or near the sites. In February, Dayton, Ohio government told residents that, “The sampling data strongly indicates that the contamination is the direct result of activities occurring on the Air Force base.”
The U.S. military’s history with environmental contamination and resulting health debacles is hardly news — it has repeatedly been called the world’s biggest polluter, and recent decades have witnessed waves of veterans reporting various health impacts. See Beyond Pesticides’ recent coverage of the massive Agent Orange issue, and its coverage, a decade ago, of Gulf War illness, a condition caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, including pesticides. In 2011, a study showed that among the contributing exposures for those with Gulf War Syndrome was that to lindane, an organochlorine pesticide (see below). Environmentally problematic sites in the U.S. include the 36 with water supplies poisoned by PFOS and PFOA, the more than 130 on the EPA list of Superfund sites, and the many that produce hazardous wastes and/or have dumped, intentionally or by accident, pollutants into their environment. Nearly three-quarters of Superfund sites are abandoned military sites that otherwise support military needs, not counting the military bases themselves. U.S. Representative John Dingell (retired) said, in 2014, that, “Almost every military site in this country is seriously contaminated.”
OCPs are toxic to people, very toxic to most aquatic life, and persistent in the environment once introduced; they accumulate in the fatty tissues of humans, plants, and animals, and have short- and long-term health impacts even at very low levels of exposure. Those impacts vary with the particular compound and across a significant range, and can include: neurotoxic, reproductive, immunological, anemic, tumorogenic, dermal, gastrointestinal, motor, hepatic, renal, and endocrine-disruptive effects, as well as cancers. At least three organochlorine compounds — DDT, kepone, and toxaphene — are classified by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) as “Reasonably anticipated to be . . . human carcinogen[s].”
The website GeorgeAFB.info reports that, “In 2002, aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, and lindane were detected in the surface soil at the George AFB Family Housing. In 2005 the Air Force advised the City of Victorville that the levels of pesticides detected at the Base Family Housing ‘could present a danger to human health if soils are inhaled, ingested, or contacted by skin.’ On 1 October 2007, the levels of chlordane and other organochlorine pesticides’ (‘OCPs’) and their breakdown products was so high that the Air Force banned the property and housing for residential use. As of 5/22/2017, the Air Force has failed to notify the thousands of former tenants and building occupants of their possible toxic exposure.”
Though it has made progress, it would appear that the military still faces a huge amount of remediation and compensation, for damage to both the environment and to people’s health. More information on the relationship between pesticides and health impacts can be found at Beyond Pesticides’ webpage, Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.