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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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The Military Enterprise as Global Polluter

Posted on November 4, 2010

By H. Patricia Hynes

This essay is in response to: What emerging environmental health hazard should be next on the policy agenda?

Environmental health policy on military issues has tended to focus on select human health impacts of war, such as Agent Orange exposure; on select weapons, such as landmines and nuclear weapons; and on discrete military-related hazardous waste sites. The military enterprise as a whole is generally untouchable and unaddressed. By contrast, environmental health policy on toxics has moved from targeting one toxic substance at a time to toxics reduction, healthcare without harm, clean technology, green housing, pollution prevention, and the Precautionary Principle. We need a comparable leap in policy that addresses our country’s heightened defense spending, trafficking in arms, and global military power projection. Why? Given the scale of the military-industrial complex (some call it an empire), the U.S. military is the largest single polluter on the planet.

Consider this: 

  • By the late 1980s, public data revealed that the Pentagon was generating a ton of toxic waste per minute, more toxic waste than the five largest U.S. chemical companies together, making it the largest polluter in the United States. According to the 2008-2009 President’s Cancer Panel Report, nearly 900 of EPA’s approximately 1,300 Superfund sites are abandoned military bases/facilities or manufacturing and testing sites that produced conventional weapons and other military-related products and services. (And what of the nearly 1,000 U.S. bases worldwide where our military is not held to current U.S. standards of environmental protection?)

  • By 1994, nearly 5,000 contaminated sites at DOE nuclear weapons and fuel facilities had been identified for remediation. The now-closed Hanford nuclear weapons facility which recycled uranium and extracted plutonium is the largest nuclear waste storage site in the country and may be the world’s largest environmental cleanup site. The waste on the 600 acre site includes nearly five tons of plutonium and more than 53 million gallons of plutonium-contaminated waste in underground tanks, much of which is leaking into groundwater adjacent to the Columbia River, a regional source of salmon, agricultural irrigation, and drinking water supply.

  • Between 2002 and 2008 approximately 400 facilities and 15,000 people were handling biological weapons agents in sites throughout the country, in many cases unbeknownst to the local community. The rush to spend more than $57 billion since 2002 on bioterrorism research has raised many grave concerns, among these the militarization of biodefense research with the risk of a biological arms race. In March 2005, 750 top microbiologists, comprising over 50% of scientists studying bacterial and fungal diseases, wrote the NIH to argue that the agency’s emphasis on biodefense research had diverted research away from germs that cause more significant disease. Between 1998 and 2005, grants for biodefense research increased 15-fold. During the same period, grants to support non-biodefense germs that cause major sickness and death (such as TB-resistant microbes and influenza) dropped 27%.

  • Author Barry Sanders estimates the U.S. military’s “armored vehicles, planes and luxury planes consume one-quarter of the world’s jet fuel and close to two million reported gallons of oil every day.” By his calculation, our military contributes 5% to world global warming. Researcher Michael Renner estimated in 1989 that the military industrial complex consumed almost double the oil equivalent energy as the U.S. military. Thus the entire military enterprise is far and away the largest single climate polluter and contributor to global warming.

The pieces of the federal budget that fund education, energy, environment, social services, housing, and new job creation, taken together, receive less funding than the defense budget. If, as many contend, the principal threat to world security in the 21st century is environmental degradation (through climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and resource scarcity), then the acute damage to the environment and usurpation of resources for war preparation and war itself must become a paramount concern in environmental health policy. It’s time to make the policy case for turning swords into plowshares by bringing our war dollars home.


Richard Weiskopf said ..

Thank you for writing this. I agree it is an extremely important issue. PSR can do much education on this. The who issue of our obscene spending on "Defense" is a difficult one to tackle, but we need to.

November 7, 2010
Robert Kole said ..

It;s not just our military but all the major world powers that endanger our planet. Spent uranium now is a poplar addition to make weapons pierce tanks better but makes the troops sick who march through the battlefield. How can we sell peace and disarming when the military industrial complex controls our congress.

November 4, 2010
Adam Lake, MS4 said ..

I feel that this issue makes the others pale in comparison. As a single country, we are generating a huge amount of resources to our military, and if those resources are contributing to pollution to this extent, we need to address this first. The other issues I also feel deserve attention, but military needs drive research, and pressure to 'green' the military will ultimately swing more grant money to those ends.

November 4, 2010

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