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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Fighter Plane Chaff May Get Scrapped

Air Date: Week of February 13, 1998

To a U.S. combat pilot, chaff is a good friend. Chaff is a jumble of tiny metallic and silica fibers that can be ejected to confuse an enemy's radar-directed weapons. A lot of chaff gets used during training missions in the Western U.S., and now there are concerns about what happens when all this chaff hits the ground. Some people say the fibers may pose a health risk to humans and animals. So, auditors at the General Accounting Office are checking it out. And if the GAO decides that chaff is hazardous, the military may have to change the way it trains combat pilots. From Reno, Nevada, Willie Albright reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: To a US combat pilot, chaff is a good friend. Chaff is a jumble of tiny metallic and silica fibers that can be ejected to confuse an enemy's radar-directed weapons. A lot of chaff gets used during training missions in the west, and now there are concerns about what happens when all this chaff hits the ground. Some people say the fibers may pose a health risk to humans and animals. So, auditors at the General Accounting Office are checking it out. And if the GAO decides that chaff is hazardous, the military may have to change the way it trains combat pilots. From Reno, Nevada, Willie Albright reports.

(Plane engines)

ALBRIGHT: On most days it's not unusual to find Navy or Air Force jets engaged in mock combat in the skies over Nevada. Nevada is home to the largest fighter training ranges in the United States, and over 80% of the state is subject to some sort of military overflight. Most combat training involves the use of chaff for self defense. When air crews detect a weapons lock, they eject a chaff canister that creates a large cloud of reflective material, which resembles the aircraft on radar. Hopefully, the attacker will fire at the chaff instead of the aircraft. Air Force Colonel Fred Pease is Chief of the Airspace and Range Division at the Pentagon. During Operation Desert Storm, Pease flew 33 combat missions. He says he used chaff every time.

PEASE: I certainly would not want to be in a combat situation without chaff. And also trained on how to use it, too, because it's not just dropping it, you know, I mean, it's difficult to use very, extremely well. It takes a lot of practice.

ALBRIGHT: Colonel Pease says this is because the tracking radar looks for speed, but chaff decelerates rapidly when it's deployed. Pilots have to be able to simultaneously fire the chaff and maneuver at the last moment, and that takes practice. Chaff is made of tiny fibers of silica impregnated with aluminum. These fibers are so small that they could fall under Federal standards for particulates, which the Environmental Protection Agency regulates as a health hazard. A single canister contains half a million of these fibers. Ten trillion chaff fibers have been dropped on Nevada over the last 20 years. Clumps of chaff can be found throughout rural Nevada.

POTORTI: Well, it looks like angel hair.

ALBRIGHT: Grace Potorti of the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability, a military watchdog group, has a baggie of chaff collected in the Nevada desert.

POTORTI: It breaks down. At the bottom of the bag you can see where the fibers have broken into very minute small particles that sort of crumble. It just looks really nasty.

ALBRIGHT: Ms. Potorti has forged an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, miners, ranchers, and state officials, who are calling for studies into the possible health risks associated with chaff.

POTORTI: Chaff is an abuse because it's being dropped on rural people without their knowledge, first of all, and it's a potential health risk. There are no human health studies on what happens if you inhale or ingest a particle of chaff.

ALBRIGHT: Silica and aluminum are not considered toxic, but the small size of chaff fibers raises concerns that they can act as asbestos does when inhaled, causing cancer. Silica concentrations in water are also linked to gastrointestinal cancer.

(Plane engines running)

ALBRIGHT: The Federal Bureau of Land Management is also getting into the controversy because a large amount of chaff falls on public lands. David Loomis is an environmental planner with the BLM and an expert on military land use in Nevada. Standing outside an air base, Loomis says existing studies on the effects of chaff are sorely inadequate.

LOOMIS: The most widely quoted study was done by the Canadian Air Force back in 1972, and they fed some chaff mixed with molasses to 6 cows for 2 weeks. And the cows didn't die, so they concluded that there was no adverse effects of chaff on livestock. And that same study has been used to say that there's really no effects on any other kind of livestock, either, or on the wildlife, for that matter.

ALBRIGHT: Other studies have been equally limited in scope and duration. However, two 14-day studies of the Chesapeake Bay in 1977 revealed toxic effects to oysters. At a recent workshop of western region BLM officials, it was concluded that there is inadequate information about the effects of chaff, and that dropping chaff on public lands constitutes littering and should not be authorized because of its potential health hazards. Mr. Loomis says the existing chaff needs to be cleaned up, and that the military should develop a biodegradable chaff.

LOOMIS: The bottom line is that we need to make sure that this stuff is safe for the environment and safe for our own employees, and people who use these areas for recreation and for people who live in areas where chaff is being dropped. And without further study, we simply don't have enough information to reach that conclusion.

ALBRIGHT: In response to these concerns, US Senator Harry Reid of Nevada has directed the General Accounting Office to conduct its own investigation into how chaff is employed, and how well its effects on the environment have been studied by the military. Senator Reid says an independent investigation will if nothing else put the public's minds at ease.

REID: Even if they're right, it doesn't look right for them to be their own judge and jury. If we're ever going to get this resolved, we're going to have to have somebody other than the military do it, because they could run ten studies, all coming out negative and nobody would believe it.

ALBRIGHT: Senator Reid says he is awaiting the results of the GAO study before taking further action. If it is found to be a health hazard there may be a call to switch to a biodegradable chaff currently under development, but Senator Reid says this may be too expensive, and Colonel Pease says it will still contain silica and aluminum and pose the same risks if any. Other options might be to limit training with chaff, or to rely more on computer- simulated combat, but Colonel Pease says that would be no substitute for the real thing.

(Planes taking off)

ALBRIGHT: For Living on Earth, I'm Willy Albright in Reno, Nevada.

 

 

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