NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 1, 2009

In the 1990's the U.S. Army introduced a new set of "green" training ammunition designed to be less toxic and more environmentally friendly than the lead-filled rounds used before.  But these new bullets may have left firing ranges contaminated and exposed soldiers to a new health hazard, and yet, more than 90 million rounds of the "green" training ammunition has been used in the United States.

The ammunition relies on a blend of tungsten and nylon, or tungsten and tin, giving the bullets the same density and firing properties as the original.  Tungsten was considered non-toxic and non-mobile -- unlikely to dissolve and travel, so it wouldn't get into the groundwater -- but new research by Mark Witten, a research professor of pediatrics at the University of Arizona, points to a different conclusion: tungsten may elevate the risk for cancer.

The Army is concerned enough that it has stopped making the tungsten ammo, but some training sites are still using the ammunition:

  • An October 2008 paper from the state and federal waste managers' group says that the "original position of the scientific community with regard to fate and transport, analytical testing and toxicology" of tungsten has "drastically changed."
  • Researchers note that many training sites are still using tungsten munitions.
  • Given that airborne tungsten is a potential hazard, anyone using a firing range with the "green" ammunition may have been exposed to a cancer risk.

Cleaning up the firing ranges and checking the possible health effects of the tungsten training rounds will be a big task, says Witten.  But there's a bigger task ahead.  Tungsten is used in a huge variety of combat munitions from bombs to missiles to tank shells, and replacing these will be a huge challenge.

Source: David Hambling, "Study: 'Green' Training Ammo Carries Cancer Risk," Wired, April 20, 2009.

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