Disposal of Chemical Weapons in Oceans?

Since World War I, the U.S. Armed Forces have routinely discarded conventional explosives, radiological waste and chemical weapons in the oceans. When this was publicly revealed by the Department of Defense in the 1960's, massive public outrage ensued. At the time it seemed that the safest method for disposing chemical weapons was by dumping them into the ocean. The rationale was that if chemical agents were released in seawater, they would be diluted to safer levels and then be broken down. Nerve gases are indeed quickly broken down by reaction with water, but other chemical agents, like mustard gas are more stable and can pose a serious threat to human health. Experts argued that since chemical weapons are denser than seawater, they would sink to the bottom and pose little threat. Not only did they overlook the potential risks to the environment and marine-life, they failed to consider the temperature of the seawater. Colder temperatures at the ocean floor slow down the rate of degradation! This means that the chemicals remain in solution for much longer times and can be distributed by ocean currents to other locations.

The sheer numbers are shocking! During WW II more than 15,000 bombs, 115,455 gallon drums of arsenic trichloride, 375 tons of arsenic-loaded smoke candles, 75, 852 mustard shells, 56,000 smoke canisters, 23,000 smoke projectiles, 20,000 pound hydrogen cyanide bombs, 1,162, 500 cyanogen chloride bombs, 1, 704, 984 pounds of mustard bombs and 30,917 mortar mustard shells were dumped in various locations in the oceans and seas. Once these extensive records were exposed, Congress was pressured to pass the Ocean Dumping Act in 1972, which prohibited the disposal of wastes in the ocean waters off the U.S. coast. The army complied. The last documented instance of chemical weapon disposal occurred on August 18 1970, where 12,508 M55 sarin rockets, 3 sarin projectiles and an M23 VX land mine were dumped 250 miles off the coast of Florida.

Nowadays, incineration is the preferred method for disposing of chemical weaponry. It is a multi-step process where liquid agents are burned in a furnace at exceedingly high temperatures. The bombs or artillery shells need to be disassembled so that the chemical agents can be drained out and sent to a liquid incinerator where the disassembled projectile parts are also melted. Although the army greatly relies on incineration to dispose of chemical weaponry, many public health officials still question whether or not potential risks to human health exist from the weapons dumped in the oceans. The potential threat is serious because depending on the chemical weapon, the symptoms can range from burns, sores on skin, vomiting, mental and respiratory impairment, infertility, damages to immune and nervous systems and/or death.

Today, technology is available to circumvent dumping in the ocean. And it is being put to use to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons. A U.S. ship called the MV Cape Ray usually used for hauling equipment for the U.S. military has now been retro-fitted to neutralise some of the most dangerous chemicals in the world. The chemicals are loaded aboard and then the ship sails far from land where the chemicals are neutralized aboard the vessel instead of being dumped into the ocean. Of course if we lived in a sane world, chemical weapons would not be produced.

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