Families Against Cancer & Toxics
Stop cancer before it starts
June 29, 2004
Army's new 'green' ammunition, may pose health hazards too
By AMANDA LEHMERT
STAFF WRITER, Cape Cod Times
CAMP EDWARDS - In 1997 when the Environmental Protection Agency called a cease-fire at Camp Edwards, it marked the first time in U.S. military history that training was halted because lead and other chemicals from munitions threatened public health.
In 1999 on Camp Edwards, the National Guard received its first 108,000 rounds of tungsten-nylon bullets, which, it was believed, would solve pollution problems posed by the lead-based bullets once used. The tungsten wouldn't break up in soil and seep into groundwater, it was thought.
Anxious to make sure similar cease-fire orders were not issued across the country, the National Guard switched to rubber bullets until the Army developed a "green ammunition" - a tungsten-based bullet that was thought to be environmentally friendly because it did not break down in soil.
Now, four years later, the tungsten bullets may not be as green as everyone had hoped. And federal health officials are studying whether exposure to large amounts of tungsten causes childhood leukemia.
A recently published study found that tungsten can break down in soil just like its lead predecessor. In the Cape's environment, once the tungsten breaks down, water from rain and snow could potentially carry it into the aquifer. The aquifer is the primary source of the Cape's drinking water.
It is still too soon to say whether the metal is collecting in the soil on the Upper Cape base ranges. The bullets used there are made of a tungsten-nylon mix and the military has not yet studied how that mixture reacts in different soil conditions.
April 1997: The EPA orders the military to stop firing lead bullets on base.
1999: Tungsten bullet proposed. EPA declines to label it "green." Massachusetts military receives its first shipment.
2001: The CDC probes a spike in childhood leukemia in Nevada. High levels of tungsten and arsenic found in residents' urine.
2003: Manufacturer stops making tungsten bullets after quality issues. Military begins search for another bullet.
But the tungsten issue, raised locally by base Environmental Officer Mark Begley, has been a test of the Environmental Management Commission, a group created by state law in 2002 to monitor military activity on the 22,000-acre base to make sure the environment is not damaged.
Commission members have not called for a halt in the use of the tungsten ammo but they are looking closely at the new research.
"What I see is the process working. Environmental management is always an ongoing process," said commission Chairwoman Virginia Valiela, who is also a Falmouth selectman. "It's necessary to ask probing questions."
National Guard officials have already met with the commission to talk about the new information on tungsten bullets and how the Guard plans to manage the firing ranges now.
EPA's cease-fire For decades, many Cape residents have been concerned that military munitions polluted the Cape's sole-source aquifer, the top of which is under Camp Edwards' former artillery impact area and firing ranges.
To address this concern, then EPA Regional Administrator John DeVillars ordered an end to live firing at the base in April 1997 under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Officials were concerned that toxic residue from artillery and mortar shells or lead bullets could infiltrate the region's drinking water.
The bullets National Guardsmen fire at Camp Edwards' ranges enter a berm behind the targets. Military officials are researching range management systems to keep bullet remnants from making their way into the Cape's drinking water supply.
Since the cease-fire, the Army has spent about $5 million removing lead bullets fired at 17 of the base's small-arms ranges. Lead was found up to 19 feet deep in some places. And a study of the impact area revealed that perchlorate and toxic chemicals from explosives have made their way into the aquifer.
In addition, thousands of soldiers from New England who have trained at the Massachusetts Military Reservation have fired alternative bullets since that order. But military officials contend that firing rubber bullets is an inferior practice because it doesn't give soldiers the same experience as firing lethal, combat-style bullets.
At the time, Massachusetts National Guard officials were optimistic about the Army's development of a better "green" bullet.
In 1994, the Army had already started to look at alternatives to lead-based ammunition under the green ammunition program.
Tungsten, with the highest melting point of any metal, had already been considered as a replacement for larger depleted uranium munitions used by the Navy and for lead bullets in areas where bullet remnants could be deadly to water fowl.
Tungsten had virtually no known toxic effects and was considered to be insoluble, or incapable of being dissolved, according to Army research at the time.
Beyond the environmental concerns, the key question was whether it was a worthy combat ammo that would allow soldiers to train as they fight.
The Army spent $12 million to develop two 5.56 millimeter rounds, one made of a tungsten-tin alloy and a second made of a tungsten-nylon mixture, for the M-16 rifle and the M2-49 machine gun.
The bullets each cost about 15 cents more to manufacture, said John Middleton, the technical executive for small-caliber ammunition production at Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picantinny Arsenal, N.J.
A political solution? The Army estimated the bullets would cost less over their life cycle when the cleanup costs associated with lead bullets were factored in. The fact that the bullet did not contain lead was a "significant improvement," DeVillars told the National Guard in a letter at the time.
But DeVillars also wrote that because information about how the bullet would interact with the environment was lacking, the EPA would not certify it as "green." In a 1999 letter, he urged the Army and the National Guard to review the bullets' environmental effects.
Peter Schlesinger, a Bourne resident and a member of the community group that monitors the Army cleanup, said introducing the green bullet was a political solution that came before the science.
"The science wasn't in as to whether it was safe," he said.
With or without the environmentally friendly label, the new bullets did not violate the EPA's 1997 order, which banned lead ammunition.
In 1999, when the first 108,000 rounds were sent to Massachusetts, Army officials were on the verge of a green ammunition revolution, with aspirations to have the bullets in widespread use by 2003.
"We were pretty hopeful," said Erik Hangeland, former chief of technology at the Army Environmental Center at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md.
The Upper Cape base was the first of about a half-dozen bases where the new bullets would be fired. More than 286,000 rounds were used by Massachusetts National Guard members last year alone.
But the popularity came at a price.
The contractor churning out the green rounds had trouble mass producing quality bullets, so the Army stopped production in 2003. Army officials went back to the drawing board in an effort to develop another environmentally friendly ammunition.
"It just made sense to go back and reopen the investigation," Middleton said.
Dissolving a myth As the Army was having problems producing tungsten bullets, some scientists at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., with the help of Army researchers, were getting unexpected results from experiments on tungsten alloys.
In work funded by the military, Christos Christodoulatos and his team studied what happens to tungsten in water solutions and soils with various pH levels, or acidity levels.
Their findings, recently published in the Journal of Environmental Forensics, reveal that tungsten and tungsten alloys dissolve in water and soil solutions - at rates that exceed the solubility of lead. The research appears to imply that tungsten bullets may be more polluting than the lead ones.
The people involved in the green ammunition program did an extensive literature review and determined tungsten was better than lead based on "the best available scientific information we had on tungsten when we considered it for use," Hangeland said.
The 2002-2003 Handbook of Chemistry and Physics also says tungsten is insoluble, said Col. Bill FitzPatrick, of the Environmental and Readiness Center at the Massachusetts Military Reservation.
The Stevens Institute team did a second study to determine what happened when tungsten was introduced in soils contaminated by lead. The research, which has not yet been published, used soils from Fort Irwin, Calif., and Fort Dix, N.J.
They found when tungsten was introduced at certain concentrations it was possible to make the lead move through soil faster than it did on its own. But tungsten's mobility decreased under acidic conditions.
Neither study considered a tungsten-nylon mixture, like the one used by the soldiers training on the Upper Cape base, so it is not yet possible to say if tungsten is leaching into groundwater, local officials point out.
Although there are literally hundreds of monitoring wells on the base and the water is regularly tested for metals, the Army and Air Force cleanup programs do not test for tungsten.
Possible link to leukemia By mid-2000 the tungsten-nylon bullet was a prevalent ammunition used by soldiers and police officers training at Camp Edwards. At the same time, five children in Churchill County, Nev., were diagnosed with leukemia.
Nevada epidemiologists said in a county that size, statistically only one child every five years should come down with the disease. But over the next few years, 16 children would be diagnosed with leukemia.
In 2001, Nevada officials called upon the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate what was causing the spike in childhood leukemia.
"We did not go there intentionally looking for tungsten at all," said Carol Rubin, chief of CDC's Health Studies branch.
Researchers found that the urine samples of children and adults living in Fallon, Nev., contained both arsenic and tungsten in concentrations higher than national averages, but not significantly different than levels found in urine from people who live in similar Nevada towns.
In Nevada, tungsten occurs naturally. But it was recently discovered the concentrations of tungsten in the environment there had increased by 50 percent. Scientists are still trying to figure out what caused the increase, and researchers from the University of Arizona at Tucson are starting to study the effects of human exposure to tungsten.
In one study, early results showed that tungsten could increase the growth rate of human leukemia cells, said Mark Witten, a research professor from the department of pediatrics.
The studies don't prove or disprove that tungsten was the cause of cancer, but the findings prompted the scientists to call for research into tungsten.
CDC officials nominated tungsten to be reviewed by the National Institute of Environmental Health for toxicological affects.
Hangeland said the Army is evaluating its ammunition inventory to find ways to make it more green.
"Tungsten hasn't totally been thrown out with the wash yet," he said.
Meanwhile, military researchers are exploring what happens to the tungsten-nylon bullets when they enter the environment. They plan to use soil from several bases where lead bullets have been fired, including soil from the Massachusetts Military Reservation, for more research this summer, FitzPatrick said.
Cape concerns While the jury is still out on the tungsten-nylon bullet, Begley, the Upper Cape base's environmental officer, isn't taking any chances.
About 4,000 people used the base ranges last year, according the annual report. Aside from the military-issue tungsten-nylon round, some police squads and groups from other government agencies use bullets at the base that may also contain tungsten, Begley said. Base officials do not keep specific statistics about other ammunition used at the base.
This month, Begley and FitzPatrick met with the Environmental Management Commission and the Community Advisory Council to discuss the latest information about tungsten.
"It's the water. The water is so important," Begley said. "Any training that could possibly impact water, we need to look at very closely."
The Science Advisory Council, which provides technical advice to the environmental commission, will discuss tungsten at its quarterly meeting this summer.
Environmental officials are aware the Army is researching tungsten. There are, however, no national standards for tungsten so there was little environmental officials could do to prevent the military from using it at the base, according to EPA spokesman Jim Murphy.
No matter what happens with tungsten, the Massachusetts National Guard could also adapt range management practices to prevent any substance - lead, tungsten or otherwise - from moving in the soil, FitzPatrick said.
"We could perhaps be shooting kryptonite in the future if we have the right capture system," Joe Materia of the Environmental and Readiness Center said.
The options include something as complex as concrete bullet traps or as simple as an "eyebrow," a structure that acts as an umbrella to keep rainwater from penetrating earthen berms at the ranges.
Costs of the systems vary, and so far the various bullet capture systems have been designed for use with lead bullets, not tungsten-nylon rounds.
FitzPatrick said the base may also be used to research new range control technologies. This summer, base officials will review the management practices for each range.