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Navy Admits to Having Released Chemicals Known to Injure Infants’ Brains

The Navy admits to releasing “tons” of toxic contaminants, some of which have been proven to damage infants’ brains.

A Naval aircrewman prepares a sonobuoy, equipment known to harbor toxic heavy metals and chemicals that cause brain damage, in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. (Photo: US Pacific Fleet)

Part of the Series

For decades, the US Navy, by its own admission, has been conducting war game exercises in US waters using bombs, missiles, sonobuoys (sonar buoys), high explosives, bullets and other materials that contain toxic chemicals — including lead and mercury — that are harmful to both humans and wildlife.

The Navy’s 2015 Northwest Training and Testing environmental impact statement (EIS) states that in the thousands of warfare “testing and training events” it conducts each year, 200,000 “stressors” from the use of missiles, torpedoes, guns and other explosive firings in US waters happen biennially.

Sonobuoys, which weigh from 36 to 936 pounds apiece and many of which can contain up to five pounds of explosives, are dropped from aircraft and never recovered; they’re called “expended materials.” The Navy is planning to increase its sonobuoy use from 20 to 720 annually, according to its Northwest Training and Testing 2014 document. This steep increase could have devastating impacts for humans.

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“The batteries from dead sonobuoys will leach lithium into the water for 55 years,” Karen Sullivan, a retired endangered species biologist, told Truthout. “Lithium can cause severe neurotoxic effects and birth defects in humans.”

The Navy biennially conducts large-scale war-gaming exercises in the Gulf of Alaska that introduce heavy metals and other toxins into the environment. The war-gaming exercises “release chemicals that are known to injure the developing brain,” environmental toxicologist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, a native of Iran and author of the book Pollution and Reproductive Damage, told Truthout. These chemicals are released not only in the Gulf of Alaska, but also off the west coast in various locations extending from Alaska to Mexico, during naval exercises.

“From a global health standpoint, it is the rising background levels of environmental toxicants that are alarming,” Savabieasfahani, who was given the Rachel Carson Prize environmental award in 2015, said. “Human health has already been impacted by the cocktail of toxicants that are released by this sort of military practice.”

And when one adds up the number of “expended materials” the US Navy has already released into the seas — and what it is permitted to release in the future — the aforementioned damages are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Serious Consequences, “Especially to Children”

Sullivan, who worked at the US Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 15 years, is an expert in the bureaucratic procedures the Navy is supposed to be following.

She calculated the numbers of used and permitted sonobuoys from Navy and Fish and Wildlife Service documents, and the totals are staggering.

“In all, 5,175 expendable 36-pound sonobuoys, every five years, are contributing 186,660 pounds, or 93 tons, of contaminants to our waters,” Sullivan told Truthout.

If the older sonobuoys used in previous years are included, Sullivan believes the Navy “could have reasonably been expected to have used” 5,000 of them over a 20-year period, which would have added another 990 tons of materials, including heavy metals and leaking batteries, to the oceans.

“In a 40-year time span there could be the toxic equivalent of 1,363 tons, or 779 midsized cars made of materials that the ecosystem off the Washington-Oregon coast doesn’t need,” Sullivan added.

These are exactly the kinds of materials that Savabieasfahani warns are so destructive to babies and children.

“Low and even very low levels of chemicals, including heavy metals, have had serious adverse health consequences for humans, especially to children,” she told Truthout.

Savabieasfahani explained that common industrial chemicals from metals that are dispersed in the environment have contributed heavily to the large number of neurodevelopmental disabilities now seen globally.

“Lead and mercury compounds released by Navy exercises add to the background levels of those neurotoxic metals,” she said.

And according to the Navy, in the Pacific Northwest alone, sonobuoys comprise only 34 to 36 percent of the total weight of the expended components. Many other toxic elements are being released into the oceans.

Savabieasfahani points out that it only takes a minute amount of exposure to these toxins to cause permanent injury to human infants.

“The developing human brain is exceptionally vulnerable to lead and mercury exposures,” she said. “Major windows of developmental susceptibility occur in utero and during infancy and early childhood. During these highly sensitive life stages, those metals can cause permanent brain injury at very low exposure levels.”

The Navy has also used a significant number of weapons that contained Depleted Uranium (DU). DU was supposed to be phased out in 2008.

But a draft Navy EIS from December 2008 said, “Under the no-action alternative [meaning that no other option is to be used in its place], a total of 7,200 rounds of 20-mm cannon shells [28 percent of total gun shells] would be used by close-in weapons systems (CIWS) training. Rounds are composed of depleted uranium (DU) as well as tungsten.”

It could be argued that this is the way in which the Navy handles National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) processes, and that a “no-action alternative” in an EIS doesn’t mean “no action,” but instead describes what is actually a pre-existing baseline activity within which DU could still have been used, as well as plans to continue using it.

That means that since the Navy was, in late 2008, proposing to continue with its existing course of action using DU rounds, it does not look like depleted uranium was phased out in 2008.

The Navy has known for at least 20 years that DU is controversial. Thus, it could be reasonably expected that it would have kept track of where it had used DU in its exercises during 2009, and possibly during 2010.

But it did not.

The Navy’s final EIS, published in September 2010, said, “No site-specific records are available to identify the areas in which such rounds were expended, but areas of accumulation likely exist beyond 12 nm from shore in the deep waters of [Warning Area] W-237.”

Twelve miles offshore is not only close in, but it’s well within the boundaries of federally reserved treaty fishing rights by four Native tribes, who were not consulted about the Navy’s use of DU in their waters.

Map of the Navy's aforementioned W-237 Map of the Navy’s aforementioned W-237 “Warning Area.”The Navy refuses to disclose the actual amount of DU already on the sea floor in Warning Area-237, large portions of which are situated within the boundaries of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

While they also failed to provide information about how much DU was in each of its 20-millimeter cannon shells, according to a February 2014 publication Health & Drugs – Disease, Prescription & Medication, there were 180 grams of DU in each 20-millimeter round.

Given that the Navy has admitted to using 7,200 DU rounds per year, this adds up to approximately 2,857 pounds of DU per year. Given that the US military has been using DU since the early 1980s, if the Navy used the amount of rounds it has admitted to (7,200 annually) from 1985 to 2008, it is possible that, from their 20-millimeter cannon shells alone, there could be 34 tons of DU on the seabed in Pacific Northwest waters alone.

Savabieasfahani warns us of the impacts of these chemicals and munitions, even though they are underneath ocean water and relatively far away from human population centers.

“Despite the absence of so-called ‘direct impacts,’ we must be seriously concerned about any release of such chemicals into the environment,” she said. “In areas where military activities have been intense, we see severe public health contamination with lead and mercury. The result is horrifying birth defects in children whose environment was severely disrupted by bombing.”

Savabieasfahani cites Iraq, which she has studied extensively, as an example of the impacts of DU and heavy metals released by the military. “Children living near polluting US military bases in Iraq exhibit debilitating neuro-developmental disorders,” she said. “Globally, the rising levels of neurotoxicants, lead and mercury included, are at the root of this current pandemic of neurodevelopmental disabilities in children.”

The Largest Polluter on Earth

Savabieasfahani has become internationally renowned for her work on the impacts of military pollution on infants and children. She notes that the issue of military pollution has not received sufficient attention from the scientific community or the general public.

“Military pollution and its public health impact needs immediate attention by our scholars and policy makers if we are to reverse the current trend in children’s neurodevelopmental disabilities,” she explained.

According to both the Navy and Savabieasfahani, hazardous materials from US military training activities around the globe have left heavy metals, propellants and explosives littered throughout the oceans.

“Given this, what will the Navy’s war gaming cause in the food system, given that fish caught in the area are eaten around the US, and around the globe?” Savabieasfahani asked. She believes food-source contamination to “clearly be an issue when it comes to pollution created by the US military.”

On this point, and the others she made, Savabieasfahani minced no words when it came to how she saw the US military.

“They are indeed the largest polluters on Earth, as they produce more toxic chemicals than the top three US chemical manufacturers combined,” Savabieasfahani said. “Historically, large global ecosystems and significant human food sources have been contaminated by the US military.”

One only need consider the ongoing impacts of Agent Orange in Vietnam, or the use of nuclear weapons on the people of Japan, as just two examples.

“The most recent scar left on the planet by the US military is the environmental devastation we witness in Iraq,” Savabieasfahani said. “In the past, US military exercises have polluted the drinking water of the Pacific island of Guam, released tons of toxic chemicals into Subic Bay in the Philippines, deposited carcinogens into the water source of a German spa, and spewed tons of sulfurous coal smoke into the skies of Central Europe. Vieques, the Puerto Rican island which was used as a Navy bombing range for years, remains contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyl [PCBs], solvents and pesticides.”

According to a Brown University study, “cancer rates are off the chart,” with the mortality rate for Vieques Island residents 47 percent higher than the mainland mortality rate.

Navy Materials Used in Alaska

The Navy admits, in another EIS, to polluting the Gulf of Alaska with both hazardous and non-hazardous materials during its annual Northern Edge war-gaming exercises. These materials include lead, mercury, and most of the other heavy metals and other toxic materials mentioned by Savabieasfahani above.

The Navy acknowledges that it introduces these materials into the ocean via the use of manned and unmanned aircraft, sonobuoys, batteries and anti-corrosion compounds coating exterior surfaces of ordnance, including missiles, small-caliber rounds, torpedoes and bombs.

Other sources of the hazardous materials released by the Navy include, according to its own EIS, propellant from aircraft, ships and ordnance, along with toxic components of fuel oils including aromatic hydrocarbons, such as benzene, toluene, xylene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as naphthalene, acenaphthene and fluoranthene.

Emily Stolarcyk, who is program manager for the Eyak Preservation Council (EPC), based in Cordova, Alaska, has been tracking the Navy’s Northern Edge exercise for its environmental impacts.

“The Navy has been authorized to deliver up to 352,000 pounds of expended materials into the ocean each time they conduct Northern Edge,” Stolarcyk told Truthout. “10,500 pounds of that 352,000 is hazardous. But the non-hazardous garbage they leave behind is still concerning. Those scattered pieces are called ‘detonation byproducts.'”

“Detonation byproducts” include sonobuoys, which are designed to be used once for about eight hours and never retrieved.

The “expended materials” section of the Navy’s EIS for its Northern Edge exercises mentions that the use of DU is not part of its proposed actions in the Gulf of Alaska, and that it has been replaced by Tungsten. While seemingly an improvement, Stolarcyk pointed out that there are also negative consequences of using tungsten.

“Tungsten is a heavy metal that can have negative effects on humans and other biological organisms,” she said. “Tungsten alloys may have additional health effects associated with the alloyed metals. The two primary exposures are though inhalation and ingestion.”

Missiles, bombs and torpedoes are used heavily during the Navy’s exercises. The Navy’s own EIS shows that the cyanide discharge from a Navy torpedo is in the range of 140-150 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s “allowable” limit on cyanide is a scant one part per billion.

Stolarcyk pointed out that the Navy conducts its exercises exactly 12 nautical miles from the shore, because 12 nautical miles is the nearshore limit for the Clean Water Act, and most federal and all state regulations are not applicable to expended materials during Navy training exercises in the Temporary Maritime Activities Area, where their exercises take place.

Stolarcyk pointed out that the Navy’s claims that its exercises do no harm are clearly suspect, given their purposes.

“The Navy repeatedly states that their activities pose ‘no significant threat’ to the environment,” she said. “If these bombs and missiles pose no threat, why are they used as weapons of war? Of course there is an impact from their use. Whether or not we take the time to measure that impact is something else entirely.”

Stolarcyk has, along with the EPC and, as she explained, “hundreds of concerned citizens,” requested that the Navy minimize its impact in the Gulf of Alaska by extending the protections that have been enacted in the Hawaiian and Southern California Naval training ranges for all marine mammal species of the Gulf of Alaska. Those protections include limiting the type of sonar being used, limiting the area in which the Navy is allowed to conduct its exercises. Citizens have also advocated for independent observers to be allowed to accompany all Navy vessels for the duration of all training exercises.

From 1973-2002, the Navy trained during the winter, and Stolarcyk is requesting that that practice be resumed, rather than the current practices of training in the spring and/or summer.

Overall, however, Stolarcyk prefers the Navy stop conducting any trainings that negatively impact the environment, particularly in the extremely biologically sensitive areas of the Gulf of Alaska.

“In a perfect world the Navy wouldn’t use any real ordnance or sonar and would run everything as a simulation,” she concluded.

The Navy Responds

Truthout previously requested comment from Captain Anastasia Wasem of the US Military’s Alaska Command office about the issue of the amount of “expended materials” used by the Navy during its operations in the Gulf of Alaska, as well as ongoing concern about the impacts of toxic components.

“The Navy’s training activities are conducted with an extensive set of mitigation measures designed to minimize the potential risk to marine life,” Wassem responded, and made no comment as to any impacts on human health.

In its assessment of the Navy’s plans, however, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), one of the premier federal agencies tasked with protecting national fisheries, disagreed. Its report stated:

Potential stressors to managed species and EFH [essential fish habitat], include vessel movements (disturbance and collisions), aircraft overflights (disturbance), fuel spills, ship discharge, explosive ordnance, sonar training (disturbance), weapons firing/nonexplosive ordnance use (disturbance and strikes), and expended materials (ordnance-related materials, targets, sonobuoys, and marine markers). Navy activities could have direct and indirect impacts on individual species, modify their habitat, or alter water quality.

According to the NMFS, effects on habitats and communities from Northern Edge “may result in damage that could take years to decades from which to recover.”

Truthout also requested comment from the Marine Resources Program manager for the US Pacific Fleet, Environmental Readiness Division, Northwest Detachment regarding the toxic contaminants they are allowed to release into the environment as per their EIS for Northern Edge, any mitigation strategies they have for these releases and the issue of DU rounds that remain in Pacific Northwest coastal waters.

Sheila Murray, a deputy with the Navy Region Northwest’s public affairs office responded, explaining that the Navy’s 2011 Gulf of Alaska final EIS, “Contains a comprehensive analysis of potential environmental impacts from Navy training, including military expended material that is not retrievable during the training events, such as batteries.”

Murray claimed that “analysis, using best available peer reviewed science, determined that there would not be significant impacts and in fact impacts are very minimal given how spread out any usage could be and the relatively infrequent use of the [Gulf of Alaska] Temporary Maritime Activities Area.”

She added that the Navy uses “designated deep water munitions disposal sites” for expended materials at locations “which have had greater rate of concentration,” and clarified that in recent years the Navy has conducted one exercise every other year in Alaska, as opposed to an EIS (their own) which covered maximum activity “which is two exercises per year.”

“The analysis takes into account the environmental conditions found in the [Gulf of Alaska], including sensitive areas,” Murray added. “Although impacts are not significant, recently, through consultation with regulators and tribes the Navy has agreed to additional mitigation measures to include no use of explosives at Portlock Bank, a known fishing ground.”

According to Murray, “when live or practice munitions are used and function properly” over 99.9 percent of the explosives are broken down and, “The total amount released is small and diluted below action levels in the ocean. In the small number of cases where the munitions do not function properly, minute quantities of the chemicals can be released into the environment.”

She said the Navy believes that since the materials decompose very slowly and at low concentration levels, they do not pose a threat to human health or marine life, and that unexploded bombs left in training areas “are extremely rare events.”

Truthout also asked what the Navy is doing to mitigate damage to the environment where the training exercises are conducted. Murray responded that, “The military has numerous environmental stewardship practices to promote the health of species, habitat and other environmental resources. As a steward of the environment, the Navy avoids, minimizes or mitigates potential effects on the environment from its activities.”

She claimed that studies by the Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other groups “do not show significant concentrations of hazardous materials from those activities,” and has taken other mitigation measures listed in chapter five of the Final EIS. Along with other mitigation efforts, Murray said the Navy only allows sinking exercises in water greater than 6,000 feet and at least 50 nautical miles from land.

As for the use of DU munitions, Murray reiterated that these were replaced after December 2008, and for those already in the Pacific Ocean said, “Over the many years required for the rounds to corrode, mixing of the ocean water would ensure that local background uranium concentrations in seawater would remain unchanged. The exposure to marine life would be negligible.”

She claimed that current research “does not suggest short- or long-term effects” from the release of DU to the environment that could result in its update by marine organisms.

Of the DU issue, Murray concluded, “Recent study of an area off southern coast of England used for test firing DU rounds (at a much greater rate than ever potentially used in GOA TMAA) did not show presence of DU in sample of intertidal and ocean bottom sediments, seaweed, mussels, and locally caught lobster and scallops. (Toque, 2006). It would be impractical to attempt to retrieve these rounds or other military expended munitions however DU rounds are extremely stable in sea water and pose no greater threat than any other metal.”

The claim that DU rounds “pose no greater threat than other metal” flies in the face of dozens of peer reviewed scientific reports about negative biological impacts of DU.

A Naval Cover Up?

Richard Steiner, a marine conservation biologist and former professor of marine conservation with the University of Alaska, Anchorage, has been trying to obtain factual environmental information from the Navy about its operations in Alaska for five years.

“I spent over a year trying to obtain specific information about Northern Edge 15, and the Navy continued to refuse to cooperate,” Steiner, who regularly works as a consultant globally on marine conservation issues for governments, the UN, industry and non-governmental organizations told Truthout. “They even provided false, conflicting information prior to the exercise (e.g. that there would be no explosives used, when indeed there were), and then after the exercise I tried for many months using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain results on impacts of the exercises, to no avail.”

Steiner was particularly interested in obtaining information about the time and intensities with which the Navy was using a particularly damaging kind of sonar during their training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska, but, “They would not release this information to me,” because, he believes, “They had it [the sonar] active for much longer [than they had during a previous exercise], causing greater impact.”

Steiner pointed out that the Navy’s EIS states that it would use mid-frequency active sonar at 235 decibels “unless they choose to use it louder,” and when he pressed the Navy to provide more information about this, it would not release anything regarding whether this sonar, which is particularly damaging to several marine mammals, was used as such.

“They withheld this info on national security grounds, but there is simply no reasonable argument for such,” Steiner said. “The public deserves to know.”

In fact, even the Navy’s summary of cumulative impacts to species is classified.

Another example of the Navy’s less-than-transparent actions comes from Sullivan.

“In the Navy’s 2015 Northwest Training and Testing EIS Appendix on public health and safety, the words ‘toxic’ and ‘contaminants’ are not mentioned once,” she said. “In the Appendix on Cumulative Impacts, those words are mentioned, but never discussed in the context of decades of munitions and heavy metals dumping.”

Steiner has also, for years, requested that the Navy allow independent observers on board its fleet while its conducts its training exercises, in order to obtain independent monitoring and verification of its purported mitigation procedures.

“They will not permit such,” Steiner said of the Navy’s response. “They contend that their marine mammal observers do a fine job, but I would note that this side steps the need for independent observation and verification. And their MMOs [marine mammal observers] could not even determine whether one whale was a baleen or toothed whale.”

According to Steiner, as a result of the Navy’s unwillingness to release more environmental impact information about their exercises in Alaska, which he calls a “continuing obscurity,” the public has no way of reasonably ascertaining the impact of the exercises.

In fact, on September 16, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski sent a letter to Secretary of Navy Ray Mabus, voicing her concern over the Navy’s lack of transparency regarding the impacts of its upcoming Northern Edge 2017 exercises in the Gulf of Alaska.

Senator Murkowski informed Mabus that her deputy chief of staff had been informed by briefers that, while the Navy had a number of proposed mitigation and avoidance techniques “in the works,” these could not be discussed with the stakeholder community due to a lack of “public affairs guidance.”

“This is extremely troubling to me,” Senator Murkowski wrote. “Also troubling are reports that the Navy denied Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by conservation biologist Rick Steiner who sought to verify the impact levels of Northern Edge 2015.”

Like Steiner and Murkowski, Stolarcyk takes issue with the Navy’s lack of transparency.

“If the Navy would be much more transparent about where they conduct activities and what exactly they use, that would be a huge step in the right direction,” she said. “Even though a large number of weapons are addressed in the EIS, classified weapons systems are completely excluded, even weapons that have since been declassified, like their mini-drones.”

Stolarcyk would like to see the Navy cooperating with an independent party, like a university, in order to establish a baseline of the Gulf ecosystem (establishing what the ecosystem looks like) before the Navy does anything, and then follow up with research on the impacts after each of their exercises.

“They should take water and air quality samples, report on fish, marine mammal and bird mortality and injuries,” she explained. “Establish whether or not the Navy is to blame (partly or fully) for the decline in pink salmon catch rates in 2015, the murre [seabird] die off, the 30 dead whales observed in 2015.”

The lack of information puts advocates in a very difficult position, in which it is hard to determine which of the wildlife impacts can be attributed to the Navy.

“As it stands, no one knows if the Navy had anything to do with it or not,” Stolarcyk said. “Their EIS lists all of these observations as possible results of their activities, but with no follow up research and no information released to the public, aside from the EIS, how are we supposed to know?”

After years of working to have the Navy be more transparent, however, Steiner is currently not hopeful about making progress on that front.

“They [the US Navy] continually ask us to trust them,” Steiner concluded. “Which, unfortunately, we can’t.”

Truthout has reported on several other actions the Navy has taken, or planned to take, that put US citizens in harm’s way, like drawing up plans to use civilians as pawns in its domestic war-gaming activities, and conducting electromagnetic warfare training in national forest areas and public highways.

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