Chemical Weapons in my Neighborhood

The land in DC occupied today by American University and the Spring Valley neighborhood was once used by the US Army in WWI as a testing ground for chemical agents, including mustard gas and various other things.  I live in Spring Valley and work at American University, so I have long followed the saga that began when a couple of the embassy residences doing construction a decade or so ago dug up some ancient chemical weapons bombs and bomb casings.

The story has it that the Army used to tether some goats on what was then pasture land and shoot mustard gas shells at them to see what would happen.  Some of the stuff left over got buried on site, and has been gradually discovered over the years.  This has included the rather lovely university president’s house.  (I’ve always followed chemical weapons issues fairly closely; I once had charge of a human rights forensic pathology team in Iraq after the first Gulf War investigating Saddam’s chemical weapons use against Kurdish villages.)

The contamination issues have been two.  One is the discovery of actual chemical weapons, containers of mustard gas, ancient shells, etc.  The discovery and removal issues have involved massive tenting over a couple of yards of now unoccupied houses, and big signs that say (I’ve always thought it would make a good name for a band) “Shelter in Place!”  And a twenty-four hour guard in a special guard house.

The other other issue, however, is not actual chemical weapons, but arsenic degradation products.  I am told by several eminent chemists, several of whom live in the neighborhood, that the topsoil removal program is quite excessive to the risk involved from arsenic – you’d have to eat a cup of so a day of the contaminated soil for years, although I can’t corroborate this and certainly haven’t tried it – and really represents the Army Corps of Engineers giving way to the Contingent Protection of Property Values of Anxious Spring Valley Homeowners.

Be that second issue as it may – I’m not a chemist – the discovery of new aging chemical weapons continues occasionally to happen.  A canister of mustard gas was discovered yesterday buried in the yard next to the university president’s residence.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has uncovered what could be a fourth major disposal area for World War I-era munitions and chemical weapons in the nation’s capital.

Digging was suspended April 8 as a precaution at the site in the pricey Spring Valley neighborhood near American University after workers pulled smoking glassware from the pit, project manager Dan Noble said Thursday.

Preliminary tests show the glassware was contaminated with the toxic chemical arsenic trichloride. Officials will review safety procedures before digging continues.

Workers also discovered a jar about three-quarters full of a dark liquid that turned out to be the chemical agent mustard. It was used during World War I as a weapon that caused blisters, breathing problems and vomiting.

This being about three blocks from my house, I am prepared, if need be, to Shelter in Place.

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