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Chemical Exposure of our Military Personnel




  • Types of Radiation - There are two basic kinds of radiation: One kind of radiation is tiny fast-moving particles that have both energy and mass (weight) known as particle radiation. The other kind of radiation is pure energy with no weight. This kind of radiation is like vibrating or pulsating waves of electrical and magnetic energy. The radiation waves are called electromagnetic waves or electromagnetic radiation.
  • Ionizing/Non-Ionizing - Ionization is the process of removing electrons from atoms, leaving two electrically charged particles (ions) behind. Some forms of radiation like visible light, microwaves, or radio waves do not have sufficient energy to remove electrons from atoms and, hence, are called non-ionizing radiation. The negatively charged electrons and positively charged nuclei may cause changes in living tissue.
  • Radioactive Decay - Large unstable atoms can become more stable by emitting radiation. This process is called radioactive decay. This radiation can be emitted in the form of a positively charged alpha particle, a negatively charged beta particle, or gamma rays.
  • Fission or Nuclear Fission - Some elements can split as a result of absorbing an additional neutron. This is called fission or nuclear fission. Such isotopes are called fissile isotopes. One particular fissile isotope is uranium-235. This is the isotope used in commercial nuclear reactors. When a nucleus fissions, three important events occur that result in the release of energy. These events are release of radiation, release of neutrons (usually two or three), and formation of two new nuclei (fission products). (

Nuclear-related units were formed at Sandia Base and Kirtland AFB. The Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (later the Defense Atomic Support Agency, then the Defense Nuclear Agency) operated Sandia Base and provided support to the secretary of defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and military departments in matters concerning nuclear weapons, nuclear effects, and testing. ( Kirtland, Manzano and Sandia Bases merged in 1971, bringing together three installations under one command. Armed Forces Special Weapons Command (AFSWC) also constructed two operational sites. One of these sites was known as Site Able, located in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains, just east of Sandia Base. On February 22, 1952, Site Able was renamed Manzano Base, and operated by the Air Force. (

The Manzano Weapons Storage Area (Manzano WSA) at KAFB consists of 4 plants inside Manzano Mountain (used primarily for research activities) and 122 magazines, of which 81 are earth covered and 41 are tunneled into the mountainside. Type D facilities are tunneled into the mountainside, which provides significant earth overburden protection from penetrating aircraft. As many as 35 magazines have overburden greater than 9 meters (30 feet) and are potentially available for pit storage. Type D magazines have access tunnels that vary in length from 20 meters to over 30 meters (65 feet to over 100 feet). The main chambers are approximately 19 meters (61 feet) long. In addition, the main chambers are protected by two vault-like steel doors at both ends of the access tunnel. (

National Stockpiles Sites (NSS) of nuclear weapons (atomic and thermonuclear bombs) were stored, including buried radioactive dumpsites, at these bases. Two types of Q Areas existed historically: operational storage sites and main stockpiles. Although both types were mirror images of one another in their infrastructural components, the operational storage sites were alert facilities assigned the task of achieving a maximum war effort in a few hours. Original NSS : Manzano Base, Clarksville Base, Medina Base, Killeen Base, and Bossier Base. Original Operational Storage Sites (OSS): Caribou AFS (Loring AFB), Rushmore AFS (Ellsworth AFB), Deep Creek AFS (Fairchild AFB), Fairfield AFS (Travis AFB), Stonybrook AFS (Westover AFB). Q Areas typically included about 40 to 50 buildings, inclusive of an igloo nuclear weapons storage area comprising a large percentage of the grouping and distinctly sited within the larger segregated environment. Circumscribed by high, chain-link fences topped with strands of barbed wire, as well as by patrol and maintenance roads, the compounds evolved in three stages. In the initial phase, Q Areas focused on a minimal administrative group of buildings at the main entrance gate, with an underground command post; a weapons spares area with emergency power plant and buried radioactive dump sites; a semihardened, multi-part assembly plant interconnected by an underground vestibule (two plants, I and II—also referenced as A and B—at storage sites augmented for the thermonuclear [TN] weapon); an isolated, detonators (also known as pits or initiators) storage building, the A structure; a checkout building for the stored bomb components, the C structure; and, the igloo storage area. Key additions were the nuclear booster storage buildings, the A-2s, substantially bermed or completely underground; and, the S structure, a separate "surveillance" building used to conduct another level of quality assurance activities for weapon disassembly and maintenance. In 1959-1960, Q Areas expanded their assembly plants to accommodate new nuclear weapons technologies, also adding laboratory facilities for heavy metals studies at some locations. (

Radioactive decay of depleted uranium (DU), as well as smaller amounts of plutonium, americium, tritium, cobalt, cesium, and other wastes were disposed into pits. All radioactive, and each capable of inducing cancer under the correct circumstances. ( DU poses health hazards to people both as a radioactive substance and as a toxic heavy metal. DU emits alpha, beta, and gamma radiation, which can damage many parts of the body and cause cancer and genetic mutations. Tiny dust-like DU particles – formed when shells impact and burn – can be inhaled and lodge in the lungs, bones, and kidneys, where they damage cells and organs through radiation or toxic effects. Human and animal studies have linked DU exposure and damage to the kidneys, immune, nervous, respiratory, and reproductive systems, and to cancer and genetic mutation. Exposure to "depleted" uranium can occur by inhalation of DU dust; ingestion of DU directly or in contaminated food, soil, and water; embedding of DU fragments in the body; contamination of open wounds with DU dust; and absorption through contact with the skin. Injection of fragments and inhalation of DU dust are considered to be the routes of exposure most likely to cause health effects. However, there is a lack of data on DU exposure during and after conflict, and post-conflict civilian ingestion of DU is also considered a significant risk. External exposure to DU is not considered a significant health hazard unless a DU shell or fragment is kept next to the skin for many days. Radiation is the spontaneous emission of energy from an unstable atom – such as U-238 – resulting in the formation of a new element. Radiation can damage or kill cells, initiate or accelerate cancer, mutate genes, and cause a variety of other health problems. Radiation from "depleted" uranium is primarily associated with "stochastic" health effects caused by longer exposure to lower levels of radiation, rather than effects caused by acute (short-term, high-level) exposure. Lax handling of radioactive wastes – including DU – is common. For example, at the Sandia National Laboratory mixed waste landfill in New Mexico, tons of DU were dumped into shallow unlined pits and trenches that sit above Albuquerque’s drinking water aquifer. The large volumes of waste generated throughout the uranium life cycle, combined with the toxicity and radioactivity of these wastes and irresponsibly handling, have caused widespread damage to humans and the environment, particularly in Indigenous communities. (

Radon is a radioactive gas released from the normal decay of uranium in rocks and soil. It is an invisible, odorless, tasteless gas that seeps up through the ground and diffuses into the air. ( Radon is a form of ionizing radiation and a proven carcinogen. (

In areas without adequate ventilation, such as underground mines, radon can accumulate to levels that substantially increase the risk of lung cancer. Radon decays quickly, giving off tiny radioactive particles. When inhaled, these radioactive particles can damage the cells that line the lung. Long-term exposure to radon can lead to lung cancer, the only cancer proven to be associated with inhaling radon. ( EPA estimates that about 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the U.S. are radon-related. Exposure to radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. Lung cancer is the only known effect on human health from exposure to radon in air. (

Lung cancer is well documented in underground mines, where miners are exposed to the short-lived decay products of 222Rn (Radon) gas. The decay products are solids and although they are formed as atoms, the majority rapidly attach to the ambient aerosol particles. These particles are inhaled, and a fraction deposit on the bronchial airway epithelium, a thin layer where the target cells for carcinogenesis are located. The decay products have a very short half-life, ranging from 3.05 to 26.8 minutes, and therefore the decay products have the opportunity to emit alpha particles before bronchial clearance removes them. The most complete analysis of the health detriment to underground miners is published in the document "Radon and Lung Cancer Risk: A Joint Analysis of 11 Underground Miners Studies" (NIH, 1994). This work brought together the investigators from each of the 11 mining groups, and their data were analyzed jointly to provide the best information for estimating the lung cancer risk from exposure to 222Rn (Radon) and decay products. There were 2,701 lung cancer deaths among 68,000 miners accumulating about 1.2 million person-years of exposure. In all of the 11 cohorts, the excess relative risk (ERR) of lung cancer (the fractional increase in lung cancer) was linearly related to the cumulative exposure estimated in working level months (WLM). Thus, although other carcinogens may be present in mine atmospheres, a clear relationship was associated with exposure to 222Rn decay products. (