WMDs in Our Backyards

The toxic legacy of lewisite


Fifteen years ago, Spring Valley was a peaceful community in Washington, DC with large brick colonial homes and beautifully landscaped lawns, surrounded by woods. Since then large excavations, mounds of dirt, construction equipment, and workers wearing “moon-suits” have disturbed the tranquil surroundings. Why?WMDs in our backyard; the toxic legacy of lewisite

During World War I (WWI), American University, adjacent to the site that would become Spring Valley, was the headquarters for all of the research and testing that was performed by the Chemical Warfare Service. Work was done not only on campus, but also throughout the surrounding area, covering over 500 acres and constituting the American University Experimental Station. Here scientists conducted extensive outdoor tests on poison gases. Some of these tests exposed animals to chemical agents. Others included forming poison gas clouds and testing their duration in the atmosphere. Thousands of these tests were performed, and after the war, the testing areas were bulldozed over with dirt, burying exploded and unexploded chemical warfare munitions. Bottles, barrels, and laboratory equipment were similarly buried in large pits. The remaining chemical agents were probably poured into the ground. One of the most toxic agents tested here was lewisite, an arsenic-based compound thought to be carcinogenic and mutagenic, and that has dangerous residues that can remain in the soil indefinitely. Lewisite was not used during WWI, but it became a commonly produced chemical warfare agent during the early and middle parts of the 20th century. North Korea may still produce it.

For a few years after WWI ended, there were anecdotal reports of new homeowners in the area surrounding American University finding their backyards pitted with shell holes, but eventually even the residents of the area forgot their neighborhood’s history. Thus it was a surprise when, during the construction of a new home in 1990, some of the workers experienced skin burning and eye pain severe enough to warrant a visit to the emergency room. One suffered from black spots on his skin, which was considered consistent with exposure to a blister-causing agent such as lewisite. The workers unearthed antique laboratory equipment, broken jars and a 55-gallon drum. An environmental firm hired to investigate the situation attributed the workers’ symptoms to the presence of a herbicide in the soil.

In January 1993, workers digging a utility trench about a mile from that house uncovered rusted bombs. The Army Corps of Engineers began an operation to locate and remove all WWI-era chemical agent munitions and equipment from Spring Valley; their work continued through 1994. In total, 141 munitions were recovered, including 43 shells suspected of containing poison gas, as well as glassware and other lab equipment. Some of the recovered materials tested positive for lewisite and its arsenic-containing degradation products. As part of this investigation the Army Corps tested soil samples and in 1995 concluded that all poison gas related materials had been removed, and that Spring Valley was now safe.

But some people were justifiably skeptical of the Corps’ remediation efforts. In June 1996, workers planting a tree on the grounds of American University President Benjamin Ladner’s property were overcome by odors and suffered severe eye burning. Subsequently, the workers found broken bottles and glassware containing liquids, and an environmental firm confirmed the presence of arsenic in the soil at 28 times permissible levels. Still, nothing was done for a few more years until the Army Corps agreed in 1999 to examine one other site, the South Korean Ambassador’s residence, two houses away from Ladner’s property. The Corps found extremely high levels of arsenic (up to 1,000 parts per million [ppm]) and unearthed 250 shells and 175 bottles. Soon after, another excavation at a different residence unearthed 380 shells, several 50-gallon drums and 40 bottles, most containing mustard gas or lewisite. Arsenic levels at the site were found to average 241 ppm The American University experimental station, c. 1918. Photo courtesy of the authorswith a high of 498 ppm. These findings eventually led the Army Corps in 2001 to expand its efforts and agree to test every property in Spring Valley. Any property that had a soil sample exceeding 13 ppm of arsenic would have additional samples taken; any that were higher than 20 ppm would have the soil removed and replaced. As of June 2004, 139 properties have been found to have arsenic levels higher than 20 ppm. Over $100 million has been spent by the Army Corps thus far, and the Corps estimates that four more years will be required to complete the remediation work.

Are the chemical agents that remain in Spring Valley detrimental to the health of its residents? Rare diseases are not so rare in this community. One survey showed that in 61 houses, there are or were 171 diseases including 55 cancers, 33 blood diseases, and at least nine diseases of the thyroid. For example, in one home, the occupant’s husband died of esophageal cancer, her older daughter has Irritable Bowel Syndrome, her youngest daughter has Graves’ disease, a tenant suffered from multiple sclerosis, and her dog died of a blood disease.

Some residents filed a civil action suit against the Army for alleged health disorders associated with lewisite and other agents, but in 2003 US District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle ruled that the residents could not hold the government responsible because there is no evidence that the burial of chemical weapons violated Army policy at the time. To the contrary, such burials were common.

Spring Valley is not the only site with lewisite contamination problems. In the US, other suspected areas where lewisite equipment, munitions, and wastes from WWI were probably buried include Catholic University of America in Washington, DC (where lewisite was first discovered and purified) and Willoughby, Ohio (where a top-secret plant to produce lewisite was constructed). Lewisite contamination from World War II (WWII) occurred at Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado, Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas, and Huntsville Arsenal in Alabama. These three facilities produced approximately 20,000 tons of lewisite in 1942-43, with the lewisite waste being deposited in basins on the properties. In 1986 the US Department of Justice calculated (based on worst-case scenarios) that lewisite manufacture at Rocky Mountain Arsenal resulted in the deposition of 1,075 tons of waste into the basins. Most of the waste basins have been capped with topsoil and are monitored for leakage by state and federal agencies.

The Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah may also have lewisite-contaminated areas, and a site in Alaska is believed to contain at least 10 tons of buried lewisite.The most extensive continental lewisite contamination is in Russia, where numerous lakes, rivers, and land areas are believed to contain lewisite, lewisite residues, or lewisite munitions deposited deliberately or inadvertently. None of these sites has been remediated. The Soviet Union began producing lewisite in the 1920s, and from 1939 to 1945 produced at least 22,700 tons of lewisite and performed hundreds of tests with it. Thousands of Soviet citizens were involuntarily tested with lewisite and mustard gas, including scientists at sharashkas – Soviet scientific institutions that used forced labor of incarcerated researchers.

Vladimir Pankratov served in the Soviet military and now labors to reveal its transgressions. Pankratov is searching for the locations of some of the Russian terrestrial lewisite residues. He has extensively investigated Leonidovka, in the Penza Region about 350 miles southeast of Moscow, and the surrounding area. In the 1950s, 620 railway cars full of lewisite, mustard gas, and phosgene were incinerated or poured into nearby streams. Subsequently, a local lake that was once a pleasant place to visit, Lake Mokhovoe (Moss Lake), became known as Lake Mertvoe (the dead lake). A recent analysis of underground water in the area showed that the concentration of arsenic near the ground surface was 20,000 times higher than normal, and arsenic levels 10 times higher than allowable were found in streams that supply the reservoir for the nearby city of Penza. Pankratov has also shown that aerial bombs containing lewisite-mustard mixtures are buried just below the surface in an unmarked pine forest outside of Leonidovka. The forest soil has arsenic levels that are 15,000 times above permissible limits.

Potential dumping sites for chemical weapons - including lewisite - along Russia's northern coastline. Map courtesy authors

Similar toxic conditions exist near a former storage facility in Volgograd, about 650 miles southeast of Moscow. Here lewisite waste was stored in the open air or disposed of in a lake. In the spring of 1965, this lake overflowed into the Volga River, causing a notorious event known to local residents as the “white sea” accident. Thousands of fish were killed; their upturned bellies made the river look white. Further, in the southeastern Kuzminki district of Moscow, a birch forest is thought to be contaminated with lewisite. Barrels of lewisite are believed to have been buried in these woods near the shores of two swampy pools that Muscovites use to swim and sunbathe, and adjacent to where they pick wild berries and mushrooms. In 2000, Moscow’s mayor asked the military to clean up this area, but it declined, officially stating that there is no risk to swimmers.

Lewisite residues also exist about 600 miles southeast of Moscow at Chapayevsk, a WWII lewisite production facility. This facility’s untreated wastewater often spilled directly into the Chapayevka River, which flows into the Volga River. After WWII, 1,320 tons of lewisite and mustard were buried in the nearby village of Pokrovka. Recently, an analysis of soil near where the lewisite was manufactured showed arsenic levels 7,000-8,500 times higher than normal. A lewisite degradation product was also found in residential areas downwind of the facility, and in 1995 premature births and cases of hydrocephalus were found to be seven times higher here than in neighboring communities.

Lewisite residues also exist in northeastern China. Japan used chemical agents (including lewisite) during WWII on Chinese soldiers and civilians. From 1937 to 1945 Japan produced an estimated seven million chemical munitions, four million of which are still unaccounted for. The Chinese government estimates that two million chemical weapons remain in the northeastern Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning. However, Japan has acknowledged only 700,000 remaining weapons, most containing a mustard-lewisite mixture. These abandoned munitions have caused approximately 2,000 Chinese casualties since the end of WWII. On August 4, 2003, one worker in Qiqihar (a city in Heilongjiang Province) was killed when a WWII-era Japanese bomb, probably containing a mixture of mustard and lewisite, was uncovered at a construction site. The Japanese government granted approximately $900,000 to the man’s relatives. Today, farming and herding are considered two of the most dangerous occupations in Jilin Province because of the frequency of dislodging abandoned chemical weapons.

An agreement was made in the late 1990s between the Chinese and Japanese governments to remediate the chemical weapon residues, ideally by 2007. The Japanese government will pay the estimated $1.6 billion clean-up cost. In 2002 a Japanese team working in Heilongjiang Province uncovered 193 chemical shells and remediated 1.8 tons of contaminated soil, some presumably containing arsenic residues from lewisite. China and Japan agreed in April 2003 that a plant would be built near Haerbaling in Jilin Province to destroy the remaining chemical weapons. Currently, unearthed weapons are stored in warehouses.

The Japanese Army also discarded some lewisite within its own country. The Japanese government approved a financial aid program in 2003 for the residents of Kamisu, a town just north of Tokyo. This community’s drinking water has extremely high arsenic levels believed to be caused by lewisite munitions burial during WWII.

Most of the lewisite produced by the US and Soviet Union during WWII was dumped into oceans after the war. Known US ocean dump sites are in deep water, where the risks they pose are not well known. But the Soviet Union’s deposits in the shallow and sensitive Arctic Ocean (White, Kara, and Barents Seas) pose significant threats to human and marine life.

During the 1940s and 1950s, an estimated 40,000 tons of mustard and lewisite were dumped into the White Sea, and as much as 75,000 tons were dumped into the Kara and Barents Seas. Russian shipping charts label these areas as “Hazardous Dump Sites.” Of these 115,000 tons, 20,000 are estimated to be lewisite. There is concern that the arsenic degradation products will enter the food chain and in the late 1990s a CIA-sponsored scientific committee, MEDEA, investigated these concerns. MEDEA found that arsenic contamination in sea water from lewisite breakdown represents a major threat to marine life in the Arctic Ocean, and that as arsenic bio-accumulates in the food chain, people are put at risk by eating contaminated fish. Furthermore, arsenic in the sediments will likely reduce biomass and species diversity permanently. Finally, there was concern that humans working offshore, such as in fishing and oil- or gas-drilling, were also at risk.

The US government considers lewisite to be a weapon of mass destruction. Obtaining precise data on current lewisite production and disposition is difficult because of government restrictions (especially since 9/11) pertaining to information on such weapons. This secrecy impedes the ability of both public and private agencies to evaluate the remediation needs of areas that may be polluted with lewisite residues. The unwillingness of the US Army, for example, to release all documents pertaining to work at American University greatly hinders the remediation work at Spring Valley. There are no accurate estimates as to the quantity of lewisite and related compounds actually buried there, or locations of burial pits. This problem is not confined to Spring Valley or the US.

The precise risk to human and animal health of lewisite dumping is difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain and there have been few attempts anywhere to do so. However, the effects of low-level chronic arsenic exposure have been studied and include a wide range of symptoms such as excessive salivation, vomiting, a garlic-like breath odor, diarrhea, generalized itching, sore throat, nasal discharge, tearing of the eyes, numbness, burning or tingling of the extremities, skin inflammation, formation of white skin patches, hair loss, muscle weakness and aching, increased skin pigmentation, hardening of the skin and swelling, and finally seizures and possible death from generalized organ failure. Chronic arsenic exposure may also lead to diabetes and may cause cancer, especially of the skin, bladder, and lungs.

People living in lewisite- and thereby arsenic-contaminated areas will continue to wonder which, if any, of their health problems can be attributed to the dismantling of chemical weapon production programs, and the disposal of lewisite and its residues. Lewisite, a WWI-based poison agent rarely used in battle, may affect the health of peoples of the world for generations to come.

Pandy R. Sinish and Joel A. Vilensky are authors of the forthcoming Dew of Death: The Story of Lewisite, America’s World War I Weapon of Mass Destruction.

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