The Top 4 Most Common Toxins Found at Military Bases

The Top 4 Most Common Toxins Found at Military Bases

In the name of research and development, national security, warfighting, and even conventional safety standards, the military has exposed many service members to harmful toxins with repercussions we have only recently begun to understand. 

Though the full breadth and impact of dangerous toxins on our Veterans is still a developing area of research and discovery, Berry Law has compiled research and informational resources that address four of the most common toxins Veterans may have encountered on military bases. 

These toxins include PFAS (commonly known as forever chemicals), heavy metals, radiation, asbestos, and chemical exposures related to contaminated drinking water. Some of these toxins were only recently discovered to be present in military bases or to be toxic at all. 

What Is PFAS?

PFAS is a blanket term referring to several harmful chemicals which can build up in the body and have been linked to many dangerous and even deadly health conditions. Once these chemicals enter the body, no evidence suggests they ever leave, leading to PFAS designation as “forever chemicals.”

How Are Veterans Exposed To PFAS?

PFAS are commonly absorbed through skin contact. Veterans may have been exposed to PFAS in many ways during their military service. One prime example is the firefighting foam used by most branches of the armed forces. 

Military bases at home and abroad have adopted a foam that, while effective at choking out fires, also contains a massive concentration of PFAS chemicals. These chemicals are absorbed any time the foam or its residue comes into contact with a service member’s skin. They can also leech into the groundwater and contaminate entire water supplies. 

What Conditions Do PFAS Cause?

While conditions associated with PFAS exposure are still in the early stages of being understood, PFAS exposure in animals has now been associated with long-term health conditions, including reproductive difficulties, birth defects, and decreased thyroid function. 

What Are Heavy Metals?

Heavy metals like lead and cadmium are naturally occurring elements that contribute to many parts of the body’s natural functions in small quantities. However, long-term exposure to these metals can lead to many serious health issues. 

How Are Veterans Exposed To Heavy Metals?

Veterans are exposed to heavy metals in many ways. One of the most obvious sources of lead exposure may be the particles released into the air as a natural consequence of firing a weapon. Whether this activity occurs in training or an active combat zone, using conventional firearms almost always results in exposure to heavy metals like lead. 

A second common source of heavy metal exposure in the military comes from poor drinking water filtration or lead pipes, which were once an industry standard in indoor plumbing. As construction materials have evolved and modern understanding of health hazards have developed further, exposure through water filtration has declined. 

However, the aftermath of studies at military bases like Camp Lejeune indicates that lead poisoning continued to be a risk for our Veterans long after the danger was known worldwide. 

What Conditions Are Connected To Heavy Metal Exposure?

Heavy metals have now been connected to several neurobehavioral effects, permanent damage to the brain, decreased IQ, and kidney failure. These conditions may take years to develop after exposure occurs. Still, in cases like the water contamination at Camp Lejeune, Presumptive connections for certain conditions have been instituted by the VA. 

Radiation Exposure

Radiation Exposure is generally categorized as Ionizing or non-ionizing radiation. While non-ionizing radiation is a relatively harmless form of radiation to which we are constantly exposed through radio frequencies and even the use of household appliances, ionizing radiation is a high-intensity form of radiation to which many veterans were exposed. 

Where Are Veterans Exposed To Radiation?

It is a common misconception that you must have been near a nuclear explosion to be considered an “Atomic Veteran.” However, Veterans may have been exposed to harmful amounts of radiation at many points during their service in any Armed Forces branch. 

Radiation exposure can occur as a side effect of experiences common to Veterans, not just limited to nuclear testing done in the early Cold War Era. Unsafe levels of exposure may have occurred during routine military operations, including:

  • Use of or proximity to depleted uranium ammunition or tank armor releases small amounts of radiation upon impact and detonation. 
  • Exposure due to proximity to the Fukushima Reactor while deployed in Japan.
  • Exposure to harmful levels of X-ray radiation was a common consequence of deployment to US Coast Guard stations as recently as 2010.
  • Exposure as a part of many occupations in the armed services, including Nuclear technicians in nuclear submarines, weapons specialists, and even x-ray technicians. 

What Conditions Are Linked To Radiation Exposure?

The effects of radiation exposure are numerous. Ionizing radiation triggers rapid cellular death, deformity, and mutation in all life forms. Radiation exposure is linked to every type of cancer, birth defects, and the development of non-malignant tumors throughout the body. Radiation exposure can occur almost immediately, but the effects may not be felt until years after a Veteran has left the service.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos exposure is often overlooked as a toxin to which Veterans were exposed during their service. Everyone has likely heard the phrase associated with Mesothelioma victims and their loved ones. Still, this topic is normally discussed only in the context of the construction industry and civilian life. However, Veterans account for almost 30% of asbestos-related deaths. 

When Were Veterans Exposed To Asbestos?

Throughout much of the 20th Century, Asbestos was used in several applications. As an insulating material in buildings, as a binding material in flooring and roofing products, brake components in some vehicles, and cigarette filters. 

One of the major draws of using asbestos was that it was highly flame retardant. In fact, it was so prized for this quality that it was frequently used instead of alternative materials in military and industrial applications to prevent the spread of fire. No one questioned the risks associated with Asbestos until it was already a mandatory component in almost every military fixture in the United States. 

Essentially every Veteran who served from the Second World War until the War in Afghanistan is at risk for asbestos exposure. The time of exposure can be difficult to pinpoint since symptoms can take years to surface; however, if you or your Veteran loved one was involved in any handling of asbestos as a part of their service, they were likely exposed.

What Does Asbestos Exposure Cause?

Asbestos is a cancer-causing carcinogen associated with lung and throat cancer. Asbestos exposure also commonly causes a condition known as Mesothelioma, where tiny shards of the asbestos material make their way into the victim’s lungs. 

As these shards imbed, they create pockets of diseased tissue from which cancer spreads. Those diagnosed with mesothelioma rarely live longer than a year after diagnosis. 

What Were Agent Orange and Other Defoliant Agents?

Veterans involved in the Vietnam conflict are likely familiar with Agent Orange. As a defoliant agent frequently used to remove brush and other plant life from the outskirts of military bases since the ‘60s, this and other harmful chemicals like it have long been known toxins to which Veterans were exposed. 

What Contaminants Are Found in Agent Orange?

Like many other defoliant agents, Agent Orange was sprayed excessively to remove foliage believed to be used as concealment for enemy operations in Vietnam. Consequently, any Veteran who served at any point during the Vietnam War is presumed to have been exposed to the chemical. 

Agent Orange contains dichlorophenoxyacetic and trichlorophenoxyacetic acid, both containing the dioxin TCDD. TCDD is an extremely harmful carcinogen that can be absorbed readily through the skin or lungs due to its fat-soluble nature. TCDD influences gene expression, causing cell deformation, leading to cancer and birth defects in the children of those exposed. 


Agent Orange was primarily used in the Vietnam War as a defoliant, however, it was stored at or tested near military bases worldwide during its extensive use. If you were stationed in Vietnam at any point during the war, were stationed in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Guam, or were on a ship stationed near the coast of these countries, there is a high probability you were exposed. 

Wrapping Up

The materials and technologies employed by our armed services are often cutting-edge technologies, for which it can be difficult to predict or mitigate toxic hazards. Too often, however, Veterans bear the brunt of this uncertainty later in life. No matter what condition you are up against, Berry Law wants you to know you are not alone. If you or a loved one needs to appeal a VA decision regarding your disability benefits, contact us today for a free consultation.



Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS) Factsheet | National Biomonitoring Program | CDC

Are Internalized Metals a Long-term Health Hazard for Military Veterans? | PMC

Ionizing Radiation (IR) Information for Veterans and their Families | NRC

10 things every Veteran should know about Agent Orange | VA News

Agent Orange Exposure And VA Disability Compensation | Veterans Affairs

Berry Law

The attorneys at Berry Law are dedicated to helping injured Veterans. With extensive experience working with VA disability claims, Berry Law can help you with your disability appeals.

This material is for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the Firm and the reader, and does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and the contents of this blog are not a substitute for legal counsel.

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