Mustard Bombs Off Pearl Harbor Investigated for Potential Health Hazards

University of Hawaii

Thousands of unexploded chemical weapons are sitting on the ocean floor about five miles off of Oahu’s famed southern beaches.

Research shows that the military dumped about 16,000 bombs filled with mustard agent, each weighing 100 pounds, off the coast of Pearl Harbor during World War II. At the time, it was a common method of disposal.

Now, decades later, with $3 million in funding from the U.S. Army, scientists at the University of Hawaii are investigating whether these weapons could be posing a risk to human health or the marine ecosystem.

For the past couple of weeks, a team of three scientists has descended hundreds of feet below sea level in a yellow, battery-powered submarine that’s equipped with glaring lights, nimble electronic arms and cameras to study the munitions.

It's the first major investigation into what impact the discarded chemical weapons may be having on the environment, according to J.C. King, the Army’s assistant for munitions and chemical matters, who spoke at a media briefing on Friday.

The survey is expected to provide a roadmap for future testing at other chemical weapons dump sites in U.S. coastal waters. Up until 1970, the military discarded millions of the weapons at sea, according to military records made public in recent years, and the potential health and environmental impacts of the ordnance, as well as their threat to offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, have become a matter of increasing national concern.

“We are basically writing the book,” said Terry Kerby, the operations director for the Hawaii Undersea Research Labs, who is piloting the dives. “It’s never been done before, this deep water investigation of these ordnance sites. We are basically establishing procedures that can be used for sites all over the world.”

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