University of Georgia ecologist James W. Porter was appointed to the International Scientific Advisory Board on Sea-Dumped Chemical Weapons, which advises the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, at a recent meeting of the OPCW held in Vilnius, Lithuania. The OPCW, headquartered in The Hague, Netherlands, implements the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention.
Porter, Meigs Professor of Ecology at the UGA Odum School of Ecology, has conducted extensive research into the environmental impacts of unexploded munitions on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. He will present “The Ecology of War” Oct. 12 at 4 p.m. in room 248 of the Miller Learning Center as part of the UGA Willson Center for Humanities and Arts Science for Humanists lecture series.
In addition to the Willson lecture, Porter will present his Vieques research to the 68th United Nations General Assembly in New York in 2013.
Porter became interested in the ecological effects of warfare when he surveyed the coral reefs surrounding Vieques and discovered carcinogenic compounds were leaching from unexploded ordnance.
“High explosives should probably be regulated much more carefully than they are, not just because of their detonation hazard, but also based on their carcinogenic threat,” he said. “‘Out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ can’t be our weapons disposal policy.”
Vieques was used as a bombing range by U.S. and Allied forces for 63 years after World War II, Porter said, adding that when the U.S. Navy left the island in 2003, they “left behind tons of unexploded ordnance. These unexploded munitions are corroding and leaching carcinogenic materials into the marine environment.”
Porter has documented the movements of these carcinogens throughout the coral reef ecosystem.
“Island residents have 30 percent higher cancer rates, 45 percent higher levels of diabetes, 95 percent higher incidence of cirrhosis [liver disease] and suffer 381 percent higher rates of hypertension [heart disease] than Puerto Ricans living on the mainland,” he said. “The concern is that carcinogens present on the coral reef offshore may be causally related to health problems on land.”
Following World War II, base commanders were ordered to scrap their unused munitions. Large amounts of explosive materials were dumped in U.S. territorial waters and along the coastlines of every maritime nation.
“Often this meant simply rolling it off the dock, as was discovered this year in Seattle, Wash., or barging it to dump sites in shallow waters off Savannah,” he said. “Considerably less than 1 percent of manufactured munitions are ever discharged on the battlefield. The disposal of unused munitions is a huge problem.”