Waste in Our Drinking Water
Taylor and Astra Taylor
Friday 04 August 2006
US military is poisoning the very citizens it is supposed to
protect in the name of national security.
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
who pay for the military budget with their tax dollars, are also
paying with their health and sometimes their lives.
Taylor, a figurative painter, has written on disability for
various publications. View her paintings online at
www.sunnytaylor.org. Astra Taylor is a writer and
documentary filmmaker. Her first book,
Shadow of the
forthcoming from the New Press in 2007.
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