It was a secret World War II project with an urgent mission. Develop a powerful new bomb to fend off the Germans, who were threatening the European continent. British scientists tried to perfect a chemical bond they referred to as “research department explosive” or RDX — nearly twice as powerful as TNT. RDX, most powerful explosive in existence. It’s so dangerous in the raw state, thatit must be stored underwater. But they needed thousands of tons to win the war, and they couldn’t make it fast enough. That is, until American chemists figured out a way to mass produce it. A team of scientists secretly assembled by the government invented a new process to manufacture these “super-explosives,” churning out hundreds of tons in a day. RDX transformed weapons overnight. It enabled the world’s first handheld rocket launcher to pierce armor. It was packed into a 10,000-pound underwater bomb. And it was disguised as pancake mix in an operation called the Aunt Jemima project. RDX spawned the greatest period of military manufacturing in history. But half a century later, the ingenious chemicals that boosted the US military, are inflicting aftershocks in our own backyards. RDX is a dangerous pollutant that’s found
its way into our soils and drinking water supplies. And the Environmental Protection Agency has been tasked with figuring out exactly how much of a health risk it poses to us —
and how much of the mess the government needs to clean up. Here’s what we know about the unique environmental that is RDX: The first series of long-term experiments was conducted by the Pentagon in the 1980s. They fed high doses of RDX to rats and mice, and watched them for two years. As the dosage increased, the RDX made them agitated. Their hearts became enlarged, their eyes grew discolored, then opaque. Of the hundreds of animals they experimented on with the highest doses, about half died. Of these mice with moderate to heavy doses, one in six females grew rare tumors on their liver or lungs, roughly half of which were malignant. Liver cancer was also noted in the male rats. So it all added up to a statistically significant and alarming sign that RDX could cause cancer in people. But the studies were never peer reviewed or published. After the military shared its final reports with the EPA, the agency classified RDX as a “possible human carcinogen” in 1990…a warning that it was potentially dangerous and deserved more study. It came at a time when RDX contamination was cropping up at sites across the country. At bomb-making plants and testing ranges, it spread into the soil and water supplies. Take the case of Mapleton, Utah, with quaint homes and gardens where residents grew their own food. At least until 1997, when residents got a letter from the nearby Trojan plant, which was contracted by the military to manufacture and recycle bomb materials. The letter said, “Don’t be alarmed…” but if “you use the water from your well for culinary purposes, we ask that you contact us immediately.” For at least 20 years, the Trojan plant discarded waste, including pure RDX, into ponds and an unlined irrigation ditch. Six neighbors, all living within a quarter mile of that ditch, had developed cancer since living there. And they found out the Trojan plant was well aware of the groundwater RDX pollution years before they told the residents. But to hold the company accountable for their cancers — the residents needed to prove the dangers of RDX itself. A professor they hired linked two of the compounds
found in RDX with the type of cancer that several of the Mapleton residents had. He calculated Mapleton had twice as many cases of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and three times as many cases of Leukemia than would have been expected in the area. His team concluded that residents got their cancer by eating food grown with RDX-contaminated water. Vegetables seemed to concentrate the chemicals and amplify their exposure. Calculations suggested eating a carrot from one of their gardens was 286 times worse than simply drinking the RDX contaminated water. But the Mapleton case never made it to trial. In 2002, the plant settled with the families for an undisclosed amount of money, without admitting guilt. And several of the plaintiffs have died. Today the Pentagon continues to manufacture RDX, and uses it widely. And the number of communities that face environmental threats from it has continued to grow. RDX has been found everywhere from wells near Ft. Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, to the drinking water near Kingsport, Tennessee… and the groundwater across an old missile factory near Los Angeles. In fact, for the first time we know the extent of the US military’s role as a polluter. ProPublica got data pinpointing thousands of sites across the country where the government has identified pollution on defense properties. There are more than 150 cases with RDX contamination. For decades, as these cases were documented, the US military claimed immunity from EPA oversight and tried to evade environmental regulations which would force them to clean it up. But in 2012, the EPA decided it would re-assess the risk the chemical posed to people, and so they began a new review on everything we know about RDX. If the EPA decided to regulate RDX as a chemical contaminant, that would mean an enormous increase for the Pentagon’s environmental cleanup bill, which is already at around 70 billion dollars. The final results are still to come. But as the EPA conducts its review, there’s one thing that’s still missing: credible science. If the government wants evidence of whether RDX is connected to cancer, the best way is to replicate the earlier controlled experiments with live mice and rats. But that has never been done. Instead, the Department of Defense has conducted dozens of studies that cast doubt on RDX’ effects, and support the Pentagon’s position
that it poses little public threat. These studies were funded by the military, an agency with a stake in the outcome of the EPA’s decision. So there’s skepticism about the objectivity, but, that doesn’t automatically mean their research isn’t good science. Some were even validated through peer review. Even though the EPA appeared ready, in 2013, to label RDX a likely carcinogen, it is now poised to downplay its risk with a tag that says it’s merely “suggestive” of cancer. The agency is set to decide the fate of RDX next year. Now under the Trump administration, there are concerns that the sole agency responsible for informing the American public about environmental health risks is bowing under pressure from the Department of Defense and the chemical industry.