The Pacific Ocean is known for its surfable waves, beautiful beaches and vibrant marine life, but what if I told you that the next time you take a dip in its waters you are actually swimming in a massive chemical weapons dump?
Yes, weapons developed for chemical warfare have been deliberately dumped into and rotting away at our oceans’ bottoms.
Chemical weapons are devices engineered to kill or incapacitate. They have the ability to be converted into liquid, gas and solid forms and when used in armed conflict, usually result in mass civilian casualties.
Chemical weapons are now considered weapons of mass destruction by the United Nations. In 1997, 190 states adopted the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that banned the use, production, development, acquisition and stockpiling of chemical agents.
The CWC also calls for the destruction of all chemical weapons, including those left behind by states after the cessation of armed conflict. The disarmament process is monitored by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The first widespread use of these weapons took place in World War I (WWI). Although they only accounted for 4 percent of that war’s casualties, the world came to realize how dangerous these weapons are.
To eliminate chemical and biological weaponry, members of the League of Nations, including the United States, signed a treaty in 1925 called the Geneva Protocol. The accord prohibited use of chemical and biological arsenals in international armed conflicts.
Soon after the treaty was signed, many countries discarded tons of chemical munitions into almost every one of our oceans. Chucking these munitions into our seas seems completely irresponsible today, but back then, nations considered this a safe disposal method.
Between 1964 and the mid-1970’s, the U.S. military conducted an operation called “Cut Holes and Sink ‘Em.” According to Department of Defense (DOD) reports, during the operation, the U.S. casted thousands of tons of chemical weapons into the sea by loading them onto old ships and intentionally sinking them, as well as throwing ammunition overboard. U.S. dumping areas included spots off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the continental United States, the lovely coast of Hawaii and even in the Mississippi River in Louisiana.
DOD reports also indicate that the U.S. had dumped chemical weapons in various sites around the world at least 74 times.
Scientists have discovered about 16,000 mustard bombs dumped in at least three oceanic chemical warfare sites near the Hawaiian Islands.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Institute (MBAI) also recently found 32 chemical weapon dumps within U.S. waters and at least 754 items entrenched on the ocean floor close to Santa Cruz Island and along the Los Angeles coast.
Because caches of bombs are decaying at the bottom of the ocean, environmentalists have become concerned about the adverse effects leaked chemicals have on marine life and commerce.
Many of the weapons were jettisoned into frequently used shipping routes. From 1968 to 2012 there have been 740 reported incidences of fishermen trawling up chemical warfare weapons. The munitions included bombs and mortar shells, many of which contained deadly nerve agents tabun, sarin and sulfur mustard.
As a safety precaution, scientists have avoided diving into chemical waste dump zones because they may still be poisonous due to the leaked chemicals. But many scientists believe that chemical agents spilled into the marine environment lose their toxicity diluted when diluted by seawater.
But one of the most notable U.S. chemical weapons dumps isn’t even in the sea, but on a Panamanian Island located 60 miles off that country’s Pacific coast.
In the 1940’s, the U.S. tested chemical weapons on Panama’s San Jose Island and left behind at least 8- five hundred to one thousand pound bombs. What’s even more astonishing is the weapons were left there over 60 years ago and remain on the island today.
After the bombs were discovered in 2002, the Panamanian government requested that the U.S. remove them. The United States has promised Panama it will clean up the depot, but only under the condition it won’t be held liable for any environmental or health problems stemming from the dumping grounds.
Recently, the international community began to seize and dispose of Syria’s chemical munitions after there were reports that Bashar al-Assad’s regime used them against rebels in the country’s civil war. Instead of throwing the weapons into the ocean or burying them into the ground somewhere, the chemicals will be neutralized in a chemical process called hydrolysis so that they cannot be converted into weapons again.
Now that we are taking steps to be a little less careless about disposing hazardous materials, maybe that’ll give me some peace of mind the next time I go surfing. Or maybe I’ll just think about the bombs that I’m floating over. Who knows?
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