The military is built to keep citizens safe, but often, the environmental hazards associated with military operations pose unseen risks, not only to service members but also to civilians who live on base and in the vicinity. One of the many concerns is the prevalence of toxic substances discarded in these facilities.

The health risks for those working on a military base are obvious, but perhaps the risks to nearby civilian populations pose an even greater alarm. Over the last few decades, evidence has clearly shown that exposure to these toxins by military personnel can lead to acute health issues, like respiratory problems and skin irritations, among many minor conditions. 

More alarmingly, however, are the long-term exposure effects that have been linked to more chronic and devastating conditions like cancer, hormonal imbalances, and developmental disorders. 

These hazards manifest in various ways, including the waste produced during equipment maintenance, which can leach harmful substances into the environment. Additionally, the chemical runoff from weapon testing introduces dangerous pollutants into water sources, while jet and military vehicle fuels emit toxic fumes that degrade air quality. Pollutants from firefighting foams, which are used extensively in training and emergency responses, also contribute to soil and water contamination. Furthermore, the practice of the U.S. military deployed overseas of disposing of waste in burn pits creates airborne pollutants that can have far-reaching effects on health and the environment.

The Environmental Footprint of Military Operations

By their nature, military operations typically have a substantial environmental footprint–not just a byproduct of combat operations, but also from routine activities at the bases. For instance, if not managed correctly, the disposal of scrap metal and other waste materials can lead to soil and water contamination. Additionally, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), widely used in fire suppressant foams, are a pervasive issue.

A well-known and widespread example was the Camp Lejeune Water Contamination at the Marine Corps Base in North Carolina. From the 1950s through the 1980s, harmful chemicals contaminated the water supply. It not only impacted military personnel and their families but also civilians and their loved ones, exposing them to toxic substances linked to various cancers, birth defects, and other severe health conditions.

Using chemicals in maintenance and training exercises also contributes to toxic exposure and environmental contaminants. These substances can seep into the ground, impacting water supplies and harming local ecosystems surrounding the bases. 

A common occurrence is the disposal and recycling of tires for military vehicles. Often, these were disposed of in gigantic burning areas known as “burn pits,” which in recent years has been a controversial topic within the military community for their profound impacts on veterans’ health. 

Some of these burn pits, like the one at Joint Base Balad in Iraq, covered acres and acres of land, spreading dangerous and toxic smoke across the base and surrounding areas. 

While education about the dangers of military burn pits has prompted the closure of many across the world, there are still some that remain open today.

The Civilian Cost: Health and Safety Concerns

Civilians who are located near military installations often unknowingly face health risks. Unseen contaminants, such as PFAS from firefighting foams and heavy metals from scrapped equipment, not only contaminated soils and groundwater at the base but will spread beyond the military facility. At least 710 known military sites are impacted by PFAS exposures, including locations like Dover Air Force Base, Travis Air Force Base, Alameda Naval Base, Stewart Air National Guard Base, and more.

Not only are there increased risks for the same types of conditions veterans are facing post-service, but there are also psychological burdens on these communities stemming from awareness of living near potentially hazardous areas. The stress and anxiety associated with this knowledge can drastically impact mental health and quality of life.

Empowering Civilian Communities for Change

While there is an obvious concern regarding toxic exposures from military bases both for service members and civilians alike, knowledge and awareness provide power and should be the first step to changing these harmful practices. Knowing the nature of the substances prevalent in their environments and the potential risks they pose is the first step toward empowerment.

A collaborative relationship between the general public and military authorities is an effective approach to address these issues. One example is the Toxic Exposure Research Working Group, which was established to identify toxic exposure research studies and efforts

To effectively address concerns regarding toxic exposure from military operations, concerned citizens can take a variety of different steps to both safeguard their own health and that of their loved ones and help advocate for change.

Educate yourself and your community. Utilizing resources like the Environmental Working Group’s interactive map (EWG map) that highlights military sites where dangerous PFAS chemicals have been discovered can be an easy way for civilians to take charge of their safety and well-being. Resources like Military Toxic Base Maps can also help identify locations where exposures have been actively reported.

Advocate for policy change. Contact your local representatives to advocate for strict regulations on military waste management and the use of hazardous substances. Support legislation that fights to reduce toxic exposure and improve environmental practices within military operations.

Participate in community monitoring efforts. Join or help initiate efforts to monitor environmental conditions around military bases. This could include collecting samples for testing, documenting pollution incidents, or tracking health concerns within the community. 

By empowering civilians and military communities alike and pushing toward a joint effort for a solution, we can work toward minimizing the environmental and health risks associated with military bases. This ensures a safer present and paves the way for a responsible and safe future for us all.

About the Author

Claire Szewczyk, Digital Content Coordinator at the law firm Hill & Ponton, has dedicated her career to supporting the veteran community, from assisting Air Force pilots to working with the Veterans Administration. She helps veterans obtain disability benefits and raises awareness about the Camp Lejeune Water Contamination lawsuit, aiding those affected in seeking compensation.

By Earth911

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