U.S. Dumped Chemical Weapons at Sea
JACKI LYDEN, host:
In 1975, the United States signed a treaty banning the dumping of chemical weapons at sea. Before this, though, the US and several other countries had disposed of tons of mustard gas and other chemical agents off coasts around the world. A series in the Newport News Daily Press this week documents the extent of the US dumping and the health problems it's caused. John Bull was the reporter, and he joins me now.
Welcome, John Bull.
Mr. JOHN BULL (Newport News Daily Press): I'm glad to be here, Jacki.
LYDEN: When did this dumping start and what kinds of chemicals were dumped?
Mr. BULL: The Army dumped chemical weapons mostly from World War II up until 1970 or so before we signed an international treaty to ban the practice. There apparently was some dumping after World War I. We're mostly talking about mustard gas and other related blister agents and many tons of nerve gas.
LYDEN: How many tons?
Mr. BULL: Conservatively estimated by the surviving Army records, at least 64 million pounds. The policy apparently was at the close of World War II to dump all our overseas stockpiles off the coast of whatever country they were in. That would include Australia, Japan, India, Pakistan, Norway, France, Italy. It's a long list.
LYDEN: So fishermen catch these things in their nets and then...
Mr. BULL: Yeah. Nerve gas lasts roughly around six weeks in the ocean and kills pretty much everything that it touches once it's released and it's kind of a time-delayed release depending upon when the shells corrode. The mustard gas, however, is much more lengthy and a bit more insidious in that it becomes a concentrated gel in the ocean, and it lasts at least five years rolling around with the prevailing currents. It gets crusted over. Fishermen pull it up in their nets. They don't know what they're touching. Then it's too late.
LYDEN: How many people have been killed?
Mr. BULL: Well, five have died off the coast of Italy since 1946, and 232 have been injured off the coast of Italy, 85 off of Japan and many, many, many hundreds of fishermen in the Baltic and North seas have been injured either by the United States or British-dumped chemical weapons after World War II.
LYDEN: Now understanding that the US wouldn't be under any legal pressure for munitions that it had dumped prior to signing this agreement in '75, is anything being done to clean up the chemicals?
Mr. BULL: No. I think it's worth noting that the Army does not know where it dumped all the chemical weapons. It has rough nautical locations for only half of the 26 known dump sites off the coast of the United States. Papers have been lost. It wasn't well documented at the time. At the time, the Army considered this basically taking out the trash. The ocean was very large. They figured if it was released, it would be absorbed by the ocean.
LYDEN: John, how did you find this all out?
Mr. BULL: I was working on another project and I happened to run across an academic notation in a scientific study about chemical weapons that had been dumped off the coast of Denmark and Norway and Sweden, and it made me wonder whether or not we had actually done that here. A year ago, a clamming operation off the coast of New Jersey had sucked up a bunch of ordnance. The Army had no idea that it was there, and the ordnance included some chemical weapons, mustard gas, and the clams were processed. The clam shells were chopped up and went into driveways in Delaware and Maryland. One of them was a mustard gas shell, and bomb disposal guys were burnt. So the Army I think was suspecting that somebody in the media would come knocking on the door at some point.
LYDEN: John Bull is an investigative reporter for the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia.
John Bull, thank you very much for being with us.
Mr. BULL: Glad to be here, Jacki.
LYDEN: And there's a link to the series John Bull has done at our Web site, npr.org.
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