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Aug-06-2009 21:00printcomments

El Toro Marines Exposed to Radiation

Marines who worked in a radiation contaminated portion of a hangar at former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro were exposed to Radium 226. No action was taken to notify any Marine veteran who worked in the hangar.
The hangars at El Toro photo by Tim King

(IRVINE, Calif.) - Marines were exposed to radiation in a huge maintenance hangar at former Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro, California. The number of Marines who worked in the portion of the hangar contaminated with Radium 226 (Ra 226) is unknown. The hangar was constructed in 1944 and continued to support operations until the base closed in 1999.

Radiation contaminant from a Ra 226 paint room was found during a radiological survey of the hangar by a Navy contractor. Even a low dosage of Ra 226 can cause cancer after several years delay. The Navy has not responded to requests to assess the risk of occupational exposure to Ra 226.

A Navy report from July 2002 indicated that areas of the upper and lower north mezzanine in the Hangar 296 were classified as having or had the potential for radioactive contamination based on site history or known contamination above established release limits. Remediation action was taken by the Navy.

The Naval Facility Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Southwest, San Diego, provided the July 2009 report to the State of California Department of Environmental Protection requesting the release of Hangar 296 and 297 for unrestricted radiological use. Information obtained by FOIA showed that the state released Hangar 297 but not Hangar 296.

Why the delay by the state in releasing Hangar 296? Where Marines in danger of exposure to radiation from the Ra 226 contamination in this hangar? Good questions; no clear answers from the state.

EPA Superfund

The former Marine Corps base, an EPA Superfund, was closed in July 1999. Two huge maintenance hangars in the most industrialized portion of the base were identified as the primary source of contamination in the groundwater. A trichloroethylene (TCE) plume originated from these hangars spread into the Orange County’s principal aquifer. TCE was used on the base for decades as a degreaser for aircraft parts. As a result of the TCE contamination, MCAS El Toro was placed on the National Priority List (EPA Superfund list) in 1990.

Millions have been spent by the Navy in the on-going clean-up at El Toro. Much of the former base was sold by the Navy for $650 million at a public auction in 2005 to a joint venture headed-up by Lennar Corporation, one of the nation’s leading real estate developers. The Navy touts the sale and cleanup as a major success story. So far it looks like it’s been a positive cash flow for the Navy.

North Mezzanine Contaminated

Based on our review of Navy records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Marines who worked in the north mezzanine of Hangar 296 in the Marine Wing Support Group 37 were exposed to Ra 226.

Ra 226 when mixed with zinc sulfide creates radioluminescent paint. The invention goes back to 1902 and was used early on to laminate watches and clock dials. By 1920, over 4,000,000 watches and clocks had been painted with radioluminescent paint. For the military, the obvious use of this paint for gun sights and later aircraft instruments and dials was readily apparent.

One of the Navy’s contractors with expertise in radiological surveys and remediation is Roy F. Weston, Inc. (Weston). Weston reported in May 2000 that “aircraft containing radioactive equipment and safety devices had been stationed and worked on at MCAS El Toro.” Based on interviews, review of records, site inspections and informal surveys, Weston concluded there was a “low potential for radiologically contaminated areas” at El Toro. Weston recommended 13 sites for additional investigation, including radiological surveys and, if required, sampling and/or remediation. Hangar 296 was one of these sites.

Weston reported in July 2002 that Ra 226 was the principal radionuclide used in a radium room on the base. Weston noted that “instruments and equipment containing radium luminous paint were cleaned and repaired in this area.” The exact date the Ra 226 paint room discontinued its operations is unknown. The space previously occupied by the paint room and supporting rooms was used for office space and workshops until the base closed in July 1999.

The Navy took appropriate steps to dispose of contaminated ventilation and plumbing off-base in a designated site for radioactive material. Hangar 296 is over 200,000 sq. feet in area. The area contaminated with Ra 226 was confined to portions of Hangar 296’s north mezzanine. Ra 226 was also found in the groundwater near several landfills on the base and near the hangar.

Ra 226 has a half life of 1,620 years. So even after 16 centuries half of the contaminant will still be active. Obviously, this is not something you want in your backyard.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is responsible for monitoring facilities under Federal jurisdiction. Since El Toro was designated for closure in 1999 and reversion to state control, the California Department of Health Services in May 1998 requested the Navy undertake a Historical Radiological Assessment for all base property.

In July 2002, the Navy requested that the California Department of Toxic Substance Control release two hangars at the former base for “unrestricted radiological use.” The Navy’s review of historical records showed storage and repair of radioactive material in Hangar 296 and equipment containing radioactive material stored in Hangars 296 and 297.

For Hangar 296, Roy F. Weston, Inc. reported Ra 226 present in and above the radium room in the:
* Internal floor area in the common wall between the radium room and the adjacent standard paint room;
* Ventilation system ducting above the radium room; and
* Plumbing system piping below the mezzanine.

It’s now seven years later and Hangar 296 has yet to be released by the state for unrestricted radiological use. No information was available from the state for the delay other than concerns about the Navy’s radiological survey of Hangar 296. No other details were available from the state.

Navy Petition

On June 30, 2009, a petition from 108 families was sent to Captain Bruce Cohen, USN, Commander, NMCPHC. Among other actions, the petition requested the Navy to address the risks of occupational exposure to radionuclides at MCAS El Toro. One way to do that would be to do a chromosome blood test for Marines who worked in the north mezzanine of Hangar 296. The Navy has not replied to this letter.

The Agency for Toxic Disease Registry (ATSDR), a Federal government agency with responsibility for public health assessments of EPA Superfund sites, reported that: “Exposure to ionizing radiation may increase your chance of getting cancer. As with other health effects, how likely you are to get cancer depends on how much ionizing radiation you received, your age when exposed, and the type of cancer.” (See:

Why the delay by the state in releasing Hangar 296? Were Marines in danger of exposure to radiation from the Ra 226 contamination in this hangar? Good questions; no clear answers, yet.

Navy Can Provide Blood Test

Confirmation from the California Department of Public Health is that the Navy has not submitted a revised final status survey for Hangar 296 nor is there a date from the Navy when this revised survey will be completed. Pending submission and approval of the survey by the state, the hangar will continue to remain in a radiologically restricted status.

According to a CDPH official, “[the department’s] primary function is to ensure that the property is safe for FUTURE public use.” This official also noted that, “CDPH has no historic records on exposure in this area.” For these reason, the CDPH recommended that these questions be addressed by the Navy. So far, the Navy has not addressed the issue of exposure of Marines who worked and sometimes slept on duty watch in the contaminated space.

No veteran can sue the Federal government for any injuries sustained on active duty. A 1950 Supreme Court ruling known as the Feres doctrine prevents any such lawsuits. So there’s no lawsuit threat to the government from Marines who were exposed to ionizing radiation in the hangar. At most, the government may be liable for the payment of a VA Compensation and Pension benefit to an El Toro veteran who has a current disability associated with radiation exposure.

The major health risk from exposure to radiation is cancer. For Marines who worked in Hangar 296, a chromosome breakage blood test would indicate exposure to radiation. The Navy has the capability to perform this blood test. The real question is will the Navy offer the test to an El Toro veteran who was assigned to MWSG-37, the site of the contaminated hangar.

Marine veterans can obtain copies of the Navy’s Radiological Report on Hangars 296 and 297 and the petition to the NMCPHC by emailing me at

Here is a list of some of the articles that have been generated on the contamination of the former Marine Base at El Toro and at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina:

Follow this link to all of our stories about the Marine Corps and TCE

Bob O’Dowd is a former U.S. Marine with thirty years of experience on the east coast as an auditor, accountant, and financial manager with the Federal government. Half of that time was spent with the Defense Logistics Agency in Philadelphia. Originally from Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 19, served in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings in 52 months of active duty in the 1960s. A graduate of Temple University, Bob has been married to Grace for 31 years. He is the father of two adult children and the grandfather of two boys. Bob has a blog site on former MCAS El Toro at This subject is where Bob intersected with Bob served in the exact same Marine Aviation Squadron that Salem-News founder Tim King served in, twenty years earlier. With their combined on-site knowledge and research ability, Bob and Tim and a handful of other ex-Marines, have put the contamination of MCAS El Toro on the map. The base is highly contaminated with TCE, trichloroethelyne

  • . You can email Bob O’Dowd, Environmental and Military Reporter, at this address:

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