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Toxic Legacy

In 1888, early Angelino settlers Arcadia Bandini de Baker and John P. Jones deeded the VA land to the government “to establish, construct and permanently maintain” a National Home for Disabled Volunteer from the Civil War. By the early 1930s, the Veterans Administration had formed. Parts of the original grant have been used to contain the Los Angeles National Cemetery, the West Los Angeles Federal Building and Post Office, and Department of Defense facilities. Even with the San Diego Freeway bisecting the old land grant, 91 structures ranging in age from 3 to 106 years still sit on the remaining 387-acre site with 2,807,039 square feet of space.

The VA is bisected by Wilshire Boulevard with the north side of the facility referred to as the Brentwood campus, home to many of the buildings used to provide domiciliary care for veterans. Much of the property today seems to exist in a time warp preceding World War II. Vast tracts appear deserted and others are covered in palm trees. Forty two buildings on the property built before 1950 are considered ‘historic’ including the Governor’s Mansion and the Wadsworth Theatre. The charming and historic building was constructed in 1939 in the Spanish Colonial/Mission Revival architectural style with a stucco finish and red clay tile roofing. A renovation of the building was completed in 2002 and includes restoration of its original Art Deco interior. The Wadsworth has played host to numerous Broadway shows, movie premieres, concerts and community meetings.

On Sept. 22 a raucous CARES community meeting took place where hundreds of residents and veterans decried commercial development of the VA. Just one of the dozens of speakers, many of them decorated veterans from World War II and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, said anything about the nuclear and chemical dump on the property. Nor did anyone say anything about the facility being part of ground zero in America’s Cold War nuclear research that resulted in the radioactive waste in the first place. It was clear that this controversial past has faded away.

It began with the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb began in 1942 that resulted in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The Atomic Energy Commission was sanctioned by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 and assumed operations of the Manhattan Project in 1947. The AEC was created to regulate and control the development, production and use of atomic energy for war and peace. Even before the AEC officially assumed responsibility for all things atomic a medical advisory group, led by former Manhattan Project medical director Stafford Warren, began planning a large-scale postwar biomedical research program that would continue wartime radiation affects experiments upon human subjects.

In 1947, the director of the VA’s medical programs, Major General Paul Hawley appointed Warren, who was the head of UCLA’s fledgling medical school, to tackle human health issues related to deadly radiation. Warren was well aware of the effects of radiation on people – he was the first American physician to survey Hiroshima and Nagasaki after their annihilation. According to “The Human Radiation Experiments,” a 1996 government report of the President Clinton’s Advisory Committee, “[B]y 1974, according to VA reports, more than 2,000 human radiation experiments would be performed at VA facilities, many of which would work in tandem with neighboring medical schools, such as the relationship between the UCLA medical school, where Stafford Warren was now dean, and the Wadsworth (West Los Angeles) VA Hospital.”

These experiments and many others on myriad animals helped contribute to radiation refuse in Brentwood though no one is exactly sure what’s in it or how much. What is known is that no amount of low-level radiation exposure is safe. In late July 2005, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences came out with a milestone report that confirmed this. “The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionized radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial,” said Richard R. Monson, the panel chairman and a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

Existing records show that the most prevalent radionuclide at the VA dumpsite is tritium, which is “heavy water” or Hydrogen-3. It’s the “H” in H-Bomb. It has a half-life of 12.3 years, meaning it halves itself during that time due to ionization. Tritium has plagued the groundwater of Boeing’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory above the San Fernando and Simi valleys. The discovery of tritium in the lab’s groundwater at four times the U.S. EPA’s standard for drinking water made headlines in 2004. In 2005, tritium levels registered fifty percent higher than the year before and were topping out at six times the water standard safety cutoff. Even with a half life of only a dozen years, the tritium polluting Boeing’s lab is still a lethal and perplexing headache after a half century of its release into the environment.

Current Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules are stringent and exacting regarding this dangerous substance. For tritium to qualify for being dumped properly, the material has to be sealed in glass ampoules that are embedded in cement inside of steel pipes, which are then welded shut and put into special plastic containers. Secured tritium of this type and other U.S. rad waste debris, like glassware, syringes and animal carcasses, are considered so hazardous that they are then shipped and entombed in a 230 million-year-old salt geologic formation converted to a mine in New Mexico. The $2 billion repository is 2,150 feet underground with 11 miles of tunnels designed to last 10,000 years.

The tritiated heavy water at the Brentwood site, however, was often just poured in holes dug at the site. It was also put in bags and barrels with other radioactive waste. These dangerous practices were forbidden eleven years after the dump had closed in 1968. In addition, liquid and solid waste were no longer allowed to be mixed together or simply tossed together with animal carcasses. “Do not mix radioisotopes of short and long half-lives, or gamma with beta emitters,” one West LA VA memo instructed November 26, 1979. New measures to strictly control and cease production of radioactive and chemical waste also took shape. Perhaps it was too little too late.

The existing VA records from 1960 to 1968 also show that the second most widespread waste at the Brentwood dump is carbon-14. “The reasons that C-14 cannot be stored until it decays to a safe level is that its half life, 5,730 years, is so long – who can wait even one half-life?” said Dr. James Warf in an e-mail. He is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at USC and was a group leader in the Manhattan Project. Warf’s 732-page “All Things Nuclear” is in its second edition as a university-level textbook. “Most carbon-14 used in research is in the form of biochemically-active forms, and therefore if ingested, could be dangerous.”

Toxic chemicals were also dumped during the sixteen years that the VA dump was active. In 1981, UCLA admitted that it had ditched known and unknown chemicals at the site in 4 to 8 foot deep holes. The chemicals included toluene and dioxane. Toluene is an organic liquid with a sweet, benzene-like odor. The most common chemical use for toluene is to make benzene and urethane. Short-term human exposure to toluene over its government-mandated “maximum contaminant level” of 1 part per million can cause minor nervous system disorders such as fatigue, nausea, weakness, and confusion. Long-term contact can lead to spasms, tremors, and impairment of speech, hearing, vision, memory, coordination, liver and kidney damage. According to the US-EPA, toluene’s “breakdown by soil microbes is slow,” lending itself to the possibility that it’s still a problem lying beneath the Brentwood dumping ground.

Another chemical buried in the site was dioxane, a known carcinogen. Though chemical records of the dump were usually destroyed after two years, UCLA divulged in 1981 that it had dumped chemicals at the VA dump. “If someone were to dig down in the old site they might find intact containers of toluene or dioxane,” wrote former UCLA director of Research and Occupational Safety, William E. Wegst. “I suppose one could imagine various hazardous scenarios developing as a result of someone digging many holes and retrieving many intact bottles of solvent.”

Record keeping at UCLA of its radioactive waste disposal from the late 1940s to the early 1970s seems nonexistent. “We have searched high and low and still haven’t found anything in our waste records back that far,” said Rick Greenwood, adjunct professor of epidemiology at the UCLA School of Public Health and director of the UCLA Office of Environment, Health and Safety at the time of our interview. Greenwood is now Assistant Chancellor of the university. “We have gone through our records and we really don’t have anything, not even a hint of a record in the time period we had discussed.”

But records do exist and show that UCLA did use the VA dump to dispose of tritium and radioactive animal carcasses. These records were gleaned from the Committee to Bridge the Gap, the VA, and UCLA. A comprehensive examination of thousands of pages of AEC-funded experiments at the university, from the radiation program’s inception in 1948 to the mid 1960s, shows the use of at least 37 different radionuclides with half-lives of mere minutes up to tens of thousands of years.

While about half of the Brentwood dump’s waste is made up of irradiated animal carcasses, both the VA and UCLA also burned radioactive trash and animals to get rid of the material. For example, from January 1954 to December 1955, UCLA’s “Burn-All” unit incinerated 3,400 pounds of “rabbits, rats, mice, excreta, peat moss, paper, etc.” contaminated by twelve radionuclides including carbon-14, calcium-45 and chromium-51. Also burned were some to the most dangerous radionuclides, “mixed fission products,” which contains cesium-137 and strontium-90, two especially deadly substances with half-lives of 30.0 years and 29.12 years respectively. The average weight of the combustibles per each of the 286 days of burning was 12 pounds.

“Burning does not eliminate radioactive waste, but it reduces its volume by ashing the original materiel,” according to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. “Incineration does not destroy metals or reduce radioactivity of wastes. Radioactive waste incinerators, when equipped with well-maintained, high efficiency filters, can capture all but a small fraction of the radioactive isotopes and metals fed into them. The fraction that does escape, however, tends to be in the form of small particles that are more readily absorbed by living organisms than larger particles.”

UCLA’s radiological crematorium sat outdoors on a wood box and was outfitted with an elongated stack-flue designed to be a couple of feet higher than the building roof it was attached to. “A small sheet metal pan-like cover was hinged to the stack just above the top of the unit to act as a rain protector,” according to 1956 UCLA Atomic Energy Project report. The stack apparently had no filter, according to its specifications, meaning that gases from the incinerated radioactive material simply discharged unfettered into the air.

The UCLA-AEC document noted a range of radioactive gas releases emitting from the stack-flue. The highest reading for “volatile isotopes” measured escaping the chimney was two billion times higher than what Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows today for the same type of radioactive emissions. This nuclear crematorium operated for forty years in UCLA’s Health Science zone of the south campus.

The West LA VA was ordered by the AEC to stop burning radioactive animal carcasses contaminated with carbon-14 in a 1960 memorandum. “Hereafter no C-14 residues at any level will be disposed of except by burial,” the memo read. “This is on advice of Central Office issued at the Cincinnati meeting in December 1960 regarding incineration disposal. This means that at this Center no C-14 will be disposed of by incineration without permission from the AEC, in writing.”

UCLA, however, continued burning radioactive medical trash in the middle of the Westwood campus until 1994. “They had a program to dump ashes at sea for the willed body program,” said Greenwood who put a halt to the incineration. “Medical waste was getting mixed in with that. It became an inappropriate disposal of medical waste. My concern was it couldn’t be operated properly. There were just a lot of issues with having something in the middle of Westwood that had improper controls so we just stopped it. The animal wastes, the carcasses, went to one of the disposal companies down south.”

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