“Green” Ammunition, eh?

This is disturbing. Popular Mechanics has a very short blurb on their web page:

Soldiers who survive battlefield wounds may be doomed to develop an aggressive form of cancer, according to a study published today in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Rats embedded with weapons-grade tungsten alloy–recently incorporated into munitions as a non-toxic alternative to depleted uranium and lead–developed tumors, which then quickly metastasized to the lungs. The findings raise serious concerns over the alloy’s potential health effects to humans, write the authors.–J. Bogo

I know the military has been switching to a tungsten core bullet, in part because of concerns about lead pollution and exposure.

The full report is available as a PDF here. It’s entitled “Embedded Weapons-Grade Tungsten Alloy Shrapnel Rapidly Induces Metastatic High-Grade Rhabdomyosarcomas in F344 Rats.”

(Edited to add:)

Here are some really disturbing excerpts from that paper, which was authored by government researchers for Walter Reed and other Army medical departments.

Previous work in this laboratory developed a rodent model system that mimicked shrapnel loads seen in wounded personnel from the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In this study, we used that system and male F344 rats, implanted intramuscularly with pellets (1 mm x 2 mm cylinders) of weapons-grade tungsten alloy, to simulate shrapnel wounds. Rats were implanted with 4 (low dose) or 20 pellets (high dose) of tungsten alloy. Tantalum (20 pellets) and nickel (20 pellets) served as negative and positive controls, respectively. The high-dose tungsten alloy-implanted rats (n=46) developed extremely aggressive tumors surrounding the pellets within 4-5 months after implantation. The low-dose tungsten alloy-implanted rats (n=46) and nickel-implanted rats (n=36) also developed tumors surrounding the pellets, but did so at a slower rate. Rats implanted with tantalum (n=46), an inert control metal, did not develop tumors. Tumor yield was 100% in both the low- and high-dose tungsten alloy groups. The tumors, characterized as high-grade pleomorphic rhabdomyosarcomas by histopathology and immunohistochemical examination, rapidly metastasized to the lung and necessitated euthanasia of the animal.

Advancements in metallurgy have led the military of many nations to replace DU in some armor penetrating munitions and lead in small-caliber ammunition with various alloys of tungsten. One motivation for such a replacement is widespread public concern about the health and environmental impact of continued use of these metals. However, to our knowledge, none of these militarily relevant tungsten alloys have been tested for potential health effects, especially as embedded shrapnel. There is a growing list of health concerns related to tungsten exposure. Although a definitive link has not been established, several cancer clusters in the United States are associated with elevated levels of tungsten in the environment. Those findings, along with the results presented in this manuscript, raise questions about the possible consequences of tungsten exposure. More importantly, it raises extremely serious concerns over the potential health effects of tungsten alloy-based munitions currently being used as non-toxic alternatives to lead and DU.

Tungsten-based alloys are currently being used as replacements for DU in kineticenergy penetrators and for lead in small-caliber ammunition. However, the health effects of these unique alloys have not been investigated, especially in the case of embedded fragments such as shrapnel wounds. In this study, using male F344 rats and a system designed to investigate the effects of embedded metal fragments (AFRRI 1996), we have shown the embedded weapons-grade WA [tungsten alloy] (91.1% W/6.0% Ni/2.9% Co) results in rapid tumor formation at the implantation site in 100% of the rats. The rate of tumor formation correlates with pellet number. Ni-implanted rats also develop tumors at the implantation site, although not as rapidly as seen with WA.

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a form of cancer most often found in children, and it’s aggressive and deadly. The survival rate after 5 years is about 50%. This ought to disturb the hell out of people.

Tungsten, by itself, appears to be mostly benign, but in alloy with nickel and/or cobalt it seems to be extremely carcinogenic. The alloy tested is that used in current military “green” ammunition. So I have to wonder if the workers at the ammunition plants where this stuff is being made are wearing environment suits, or else are suffering an epidemic of cancer.

(End edit.)

Here are a couple of articles on “Green ammo”:

U.S. Military “Green Bullet” (6/2000) Excerpt:

America’s military is about to lock and load with new ammunition that’s tough on enemies but easy on mother earth. It’s known as the “Green Bullet”, which is a new lead-free projectile that defense officials say is just as lethal as the standard 5.56mm without harming the environment. The Army led effort is designed to one day end the use of environmentally hazardous materials in small-arms munitions for all services.

The new round will replace the copper-jacketed lead core with a copper-jacketed tungsten tin or nylon core Military officials hope the program will soothe growing environmental and health concerns that have led to the closing of hundreds of live-fire training sites around the country.

Greening Service Ammunition for Individual and Crew Served Weapons (From the U.S. Army Environmental Center webpage) Excerpt:

For hundreds of years, soldiers have used small arms weapons in training and combat — and virtually all the projectiles fired from these weapons contained lead alloy. Lead bullets typically shatter upon impact with soil.

The resulting debris and corrosion products infiltrate the soil and can accumulate in sediment, surface water and groundwater.

The U.S. Army Environmental Center (USAEC) is working with the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) and other agencies to replace the lead in small caliber projectiles. USAEC is funding efforts to make bullets with materials that perform as well as or better than lead, but without the potential environmental effects.

So we get “green” target ranges, but wounded soldiers get to die of cancer?

“Unintended consequences” indeed.

One other thing. According to this chart, the U.S. imports the majority of its tungsten from one country: China – 530 of the total 1,090 metric tons of powdered tungsten in 2003 (up from 260 out of 642 metric tons the previous year). Do we really want to be dependent on imported materials for our ammunition needs?

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