Fort McClellan, AL, served as training and scientific research ground for some of the most volatile chemical, biological, and radiological materials used by the US military. As the US was gearing up to enter WWI, President Woodrow Wilson purchased the property, and it was utilized to train and mobilize troops headed off to the Great War. After the armistice, it served as a demobilization station until 1922 when it began its long history in the training of chemical warfare with the assignment of a Chemical Warfare Service Officer who inspected the installation’s suitability for chemical warfare training and demonstrations. In 1999, the installation was closed due to BRAC legislation. This legislation included a requirement for environmental cleanup before the transfer of the property to public domain status. Almost 100 years after the creation of Fort McClellan, in 2013, an Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) assessment stated that the property is “not expected to result in an increased cancer risk or other harmful health effects in people living in the neighborhoods outside the perimeter of the former PCB manufacturing facility (Monsanto).”
Fort McClellan’s toxic exposure history is long and involved outside industry as well as the US Army’s own chemical, biological, and radiological materials. Starting in the 1920s, Fort McClellan and Anniston, AL, were home to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mace, tear gas, mustard gas, white phosphorus, Cobalt (Co-60), uranium, plutonium, Cesium (Cs-137) Napalm-B, Agent Orange, nerve and blister agents. Over 600,000 troops were exposed between 1927 and 1999 to an array of toxins through direct exposure in chemical weapons training, or indirect exposure through the air, soil, and water that was polluted by the toxins from the installation and the nearby Monsanto plant. Monsanto settled a class action lawsuit with the residents of Anniston, AL in 2003, but veterans who lived and trained at the fort were not included in that lawsuit. Read about additional superfund cleanup sites at Army and Air Force bases in our blog “Is Jet Fuel Another Agent Orange?”
What Illnesses are Associated with these Toxins?
The toxins at Fort McClellan are shown to have numerous health issues connected to exposure. While none of these are presumptive as the VA has admitted that “some members of the U.S. Army Chemical Corp School, Army Combat Development Command/Chemical/Biological/Radiological Agency, Army Military Police School, and Women’s Army Corps, among others, may have been exposed to one or more of several hazardous materials, likely at low levels, during their service at Fort McClellan.” Exposure to the specific compounds listed on the VA website as specific to Fort McClellan and their potential effects are as follows:
- Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs): Skin conditions, liver damage/cancer, anemia, stomach and thyroid gland injuries, changes in the immune system, behavioral alterations, and impaired reproduction. Children of mothers exposed to PCBs had potential effects of lower birth weight, problems with motor skills, a decrease in short-term memory that lasted for several years, and changes in the immune system.
- Sulfur Mustard: Bronchitis, long-term respiratory problems, lower sperm count, and respiratory cancers.
- Nerve Gas Agents: tightness in the chest, excessive salivation, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, blurred vision, tremors, paralysis, and death. Most effects of nerve gas are immediate or manifest within 18 hours. It is unknown if there are long-term effects of nerve gasses.
- Agent Orange: Agent Orange exposure is not presumptive for Fort McClellan veterans despite the report of the U.S. Army Hygiene Agency that notes that between 1974 and 1976, nearly 30,000 gallons of herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D were used at Fort McClellan (Agent Orange is a 50/50 mixture of those two herbicides). Agent Orange exposure is linked to Parkinson’s disease, myelomas, lymphomas, Hodgkin’s disease, Diabetes Type II, Leukemia, Amyloidosis, Peripheral Neuropathy (early onset), Prostate Cancer, and respiratory cancers.
- Cobalt (Co-60): High levels of Cobalt exposure can cause changes in the genetic materials within cells and may result in the development of some types of cancers.
- Cesium: Large amounts of Cesium can damage cells in the body. There is also an increased risk of mammary tumors, birth defects in children born to exposed pregnant women, and decreased mental abilities.
- Uranium: Kidney damage from ingestion, increased probability of cancers.
- Plutonium: Cancers of the bones, lungs, and liver, impaired immune system.
There is still a lot we do not know about the long-term health effects of many of the chemical and biological agents that were used, not only at Fort McClellan, but that many of our troops have been exposed to over the years. Getting an independent medical opinion is vital in identifying the health conditions and having an expert find scientific links for those conditions to the toxins that veteran were exposed.
The Fort McClellan Health Registry Act was introduced to Congress by the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health. The act directs the VA to create a registry for veterans who served at Fort McClellan between Jan. 1, 1935 and May 20, 1999 and who:
- Applied for care or serviced from the VA;
- Files a claim for compensation on the basis of any disability which may be associated with their service at Fort McClellan;
- Dies and is survived by a spouse, child, or parent who files a claim for dependency and indemnity compensation on the basis of such service;
- Requests a health exam from the VA; or
- Receives a health exam from the VA and requests inclusion into the Registry.
The legislation has been awaiting since it was introduced on June 2, 2015.