What Is Napalm And What Are Its Hazards?
What Are The Relative Hazards Of The Fallbrook Napalm?
"Napalm" is a politically-charged word, due to its controversial use in the Vietnam war. Images of people on fire due to burning napalm are usually what comes to mind when the word is mentioned. However, political views are often extremely distorted ones, and I much prefer a scientific approach.
Actually, I don't consider napalm to be much of an issue at all, but I discuss it here because it clearly is an issue for a lot of people, and because of the errors contained in Daniel Kripke's sensationalist former webpage Fallbrook Napalm - The Problem (formerly at http://www.napalm.org/problem.html). (For a discussion of the errors and biases of that site, see Fallbrook Napalm - The Errors of That Website. As of 22 June 1999, Kripke's site fortunately doesn't seem to exist anymore.)
In the interests of full disclosure, here's my biases in the matter:
My conclusion, supported below: napalm ranks pretty low on the list of hazardous things, ranking well under the accepted hazard of transporting gasoline in tanker-trailers.
In any case, the napalm is currently being removed over a 2 year period starting March 1998, at a rate of about 100 canisters per day. The 34,123 canisters will require about 341 work days to be completely removed. See the article "End Begins for Navy's Napalm" in the SDUT, 3/8/98, B1.
Update (26 November 1998): as most readers probably know by now, a political- and media-induced hysteria derailed the original plan for disposal, causing a half-year delay in the disposal. The Navy has recently turned the bomb-draining plant back on, and the new disposal contractor, GNI Inc., in Deer Park, Texas, looks like it has just about solidified plans for the ultimate burning of the napalm. Shipments of napalm have resumed.
The current plan is to drain 60 bombs a day by mid-January 1999, and 100 bombs a day by February. (NCT 11/24/98, B1.)
Update (14 April 1999): In December 1998, Rhodia Inc. in Baton Rouge, La. signed a contract to burn the blended (thinned) napalm as a fuel in furnaces that regenerate sulfuric acid used by petrochemical companies. Legally Rhodia could have started burning the fuel in January 1999, but at the request of the Louisiana governor, delayed doing so "to address community concerns". Hence the Navy turned off the bomb-draining plant soon after it had turned it back on.
The main opposition came from Southern University (SU), which has experienced past industrial accidents from the large petrochemical industry in Baton Rouge. One past accident required evacuation of the university, so folks there are understandably concerned.
An agreement was reached between Rhodia and SU to install air quality monitoring equipment at SU along with a siren and loudspeaker warning system. Once that equipment is installed, in May or June 1999, Rhodia will begin burning the napalm.
Rhodia plans to use about half of Fallbrook's napalm in the next 18 months. As of April 1999, 178,000 gallons of napalm (6%) has been shipped from Fallbrook.
Rhodia is getting a good deal, since the Navy is paying Rhodia to burn the blended napalm to substitute for their normal fuel of natural gas. Wouldn't you love it if someone would pay you to substitute blended napalm as the fuel for your vehicle, which would work just as well as your normal fuel, including no increase in harmful emissions?!
Source: NCT 4/14/99, A1, A4.
Update (20 May 2000): The napalm removal is now in steady state. As of 3/31/00, 41% of the napalm has now been removed (1.30 million gallons out of 3.15 million gallons). All the napalm will have been removed sometime in 2001. (VN 5/18/00, 29)
Update (5 April 2001): The last of 34,563 canisters of napalm was drained, and will be shipped for recycling within a week or two. (NCT 4/5/01)
"Napalm" is actually now a general term for jellied gasoline. There are many prescriptions for how to jelly the gasoline, and hence the resulting products can differ dramatically. In particular, napalm made poorly or with incomplete mixing can end up being very similar to gasoline, with its attendant hazards.
Gasoline, being a volatile, easily ignited compound with a high energy density, was immediately used as a weapon in war. In World War I, both Germany and the Allies used it in flame throwers, but it burned itself too quickly to be very effective at igniting the target of the flame throwers. As you might imagine, intensive research to slow down the burning was funded by the U.S. government, and in 1942 Harvard University scientists and the U.S. army chemical warfare service found a way to jelly gasoline that worked quite well.
They found that mixing an aluminum soap powder of naphthene and palmitate (hence na-palm), also known as napthenic and palmitic acids, with gasoline produced a brownish sticky syrup that burned more slowly than raw gasoline, and hence was much more effective at igniting one's target. The napalm was mixed in varying concentrations of 6% (for flame throwers) and 12-15% for bombs mixed on site (for use in perimeter defense).
This mixture was a big hit with the allied forces, who used it extensively in World War II in flame throwers and fire bombs in the latter part of the war. (The incendiary bombs that rained on Dresden were probably mostly made with phosphorus, not napalm, but I have not been able to find an authoritative source online describing the incendiary material.) Napalm bombs burned out 40% of the area of Japanese target cities. In the Korean war, 165 gallon napalm bombs were dropped on enemy troops, with very effective "results".
Popular weapons continue to be refined and developed, of course, and napalm was no exception. With many more compounds available after World War II, a safer and just as effective napalm compound was developed. After all, gasoline is a pretty nasty substance, and of course is extremely flammable (see below). The safer napalm is known as "napalm-B", super-napalm, or NP2, and it uses no napalm at all! Instead, polystyrene and benzene are used as a solvent to solidify the gasoline.
Napalm-B has a huge advantage over the original napalm - its ignition can be well controlled. Hence soldiers smoking around napalm-B face no hazard at all. (I'm told that workers at the Fallbrook Naval Weapons Station used napalm to put out their cigarettes!) Yet a reliable igniter can be used to start napalm-B burning exactly when you want it to do so. Since the military would much prefer that the napalm burn opposing forces rather than their own forces, the military quickly adopted napalm-B, and it was this form of bomb-grade napalm which was used for aerial bombardment in Vietnam and which is currently stored in Fallbrook.
The above information comes from the Encyclopedia Brittanica article on napalm, and from Scott E. Harrigan, who kindly provided me with information about the various types of napalm as described in Incendiary Weapons by Malvern Lumsden.
The rest of this page talks only about the napalm manufactured for the Navy that is stored in Fallbrook.
To a first approximation, the Fallbrook napalm is basically gasoline, only less flammable due to the addition of plastics. Hence the basic hazard of napalm is less than the hazard of gasoline.
To be precise, the Fallbrook napalm is a mixture of 46 parts polystyrene, 33 parts gasoline and 21 parts benzene. Let's examine these items one by one.
Further, your house is filled with polystyrene products, since most polystyrene is used to make durable goods such as television cabinets, appliances, and furniture. This is the "normal" form of polystyrene, a hard, rigid plastic. Styrofoam is the "expanded" version, which is also used as protective packaging in the boxes in which these durable products made out of normal polystyrene come ("peanuts" and styrofoam molds). One third of all the plastic around you is polystyrene.
People die regularly from gasoline. They die horribly in fires ignited by gasoline in many different ways. People use gasoline as solvents to clean parts and die when a careless cigarette or a spark ignites the vapors. Open containers of gasoline catch fire in garages and workshops when vapors reach pilot lights. We all drive around with 10-20 gallon bombs of gasoline or diesel fuel in the fuel tanks of our vehicles. These bombs sometimes go off in automobile accidents that often cause people to die in accidents that would have otherwise survived.
It's worth mentioning another hazardous effect of gasoline that fortunately is going away. Lead pollution caused by leaded gasoline was so large, causing significant impairment of children's learning abilities, that the Reagan administration, not a known bastion of environmentalists, banned leaded gasoline and paint! (Remember James Watt, who single-handedly doubled the membership in the Sierra Club?)
Benzene is known to cause a specific form of leukemia in humans, but other than that, little is known about the effect of weak concentrations of benzene on human health. However, there are two ongoing experiments to find out the health hazards of benzene:
Because of the known leukemia connection, the latest clean air acts reduce the allowable percentage of benzene in gasoline to 1%.
Like thousands of toxic chemicals, benzene is found in small amounts as a naturally occurring metabolic product in fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meats, and eggs. Fortunately, our livers work quite well at detoxifying small concentrations of toxic chemicals. After all, our livers can even detoxify large amounts of toxic alcohol for years before succumbing....
We have seen above that the major hazard of napalm is that it contains gasoline. However, it is less hazardous than gasoline because it is less flammable.
In fact, napalm cannot be ignited by a match or even a road flare! Fallbrook firefighters of the North County Fire Protection District performed flammability tests on the Fallbrook napalm in the 1970s and concluded "We don't view it as a big (fire) risk" (Division chief Ralph Steinhoff in the NCT, 12/21/97, A9). A much bigger danger to the Fallbrook area is a natural wildfire along the Santa Margarita River during a Santa Ana wind condition.
Thermite, which burns at 4,532°, is usually used to ignite napalm, which needs a tremendously high, constant source of heat to ignite. A road flare, which will not ignite napalm, burns at 3,632°. A hot forest or structure fire burns at 1,800-2,000°.
Flammability does not seem to be a concern, since none of the Fallbrook napalm bombs are equipped with triggers or fuses.
Please note that any napalm made with a different prescription could have much lower ignition temperatures, especially if the ingredients are not thoroughly mixed. In particular, since a cigarette will readily ignite unmixed gasoline, it is entirely possible that other napalm mixtures could ignite much more readily. However, just because some other napalm prescriptions ignite readily does not mean that the Fallbrook napalm would do so!
There are a total of 34,123 bombs, weighing 500 and 700 pounds each, at the Naval Weapons Station. The total weight is 23 million pounds, equal to 12,000 tons. (Source: NCT, 12/21/97, A1, A9.) Let's compare that with other collections of more flammable fuels.
The largest supertanker holds 4.2 million barrels of crude oil, which is 176 million gallons weighing about 1,400 million pounds, over 60 times more than the amount of napalm in Fallbrook. Since the energy content is roughly equivalent, these are equivalent to bombs 60 times bigger than the "bomb-equivalent" of the Fallbrook napalm. But I've never seen a web site devoted to stirring up fury against this hazard...
Gasoline stations typically have 3 underground gasoline storage tanks each holding ~15,000 gallons, for a total of ~50,000 gallons or ~0.4 million pounds. The Fallbrook napalm is thus equivalent to ~60 gasoline stations, the number typically found in a city with ~300,000 residents.
Assuming a typical car has about 10 gallons of gas in its tank on average, weighing about 80 pounds, 300,000 cars hold about the same amount of gasoline as the Fallbrook napalm.
Conclusion: a typical city of 300,000 people has twice the amount of much more flammable fuel than the Fallbrook napalm.
The Fallbrook napalm is stored over 68 acres, giving it a density of ~300,000 pounds per acre. The density of gasoline in underground service station tanks is 0.4 million pounds in an area of at most 1/4 acre, a concentration over five times higher than that of the Fallbrook napalm.
Even if the Fallbrook napalm caught on fire, it would be much easier to put it out than putting out a fire for a 15,000 gallon container, since the Fallbrook napalm comes in 500 and 700 pound units.
As with flammability, the biggest toxic concern about napalm is the gasoline content.
From the Gasoline FAQ:
There is little doubt that gasoline is full of toxic chemicals, and should therefore be treated with respect. However the biggest danger remains the flammability, and the relative hazards should always be kept in perspective. The major toxic risk from gasolines comes from breathing the tailpipe, evaporative, and refuelling emissions, rather than occasional skin contact from spills. Breathing vapours and skin contact should always be minimised.
Because napalm is a jellied material due to the plastic, there are virtually no emissions from the Fallbrook napalm. The measured concentration of benzene, for example, amongst the Fallbrook napalm is 5-10 times lower than you get filling up your car with gas (NCT, 12/21/97, A9).
It is notable that an endangered species, the kangaroo rat, has formed nests in the napalm crates, and is apparently thriving there!
The Fallbrook napalm is just not something to be worried about. Any smoker is regularly exposed to much more toxic chemicals. Any person who fills up their car with gasoline breathes much more toxic benzene from that source than they ever would from the Fallbrook napalm.
Furthermore, if you simply replaced the Fallbrook napalm with a normal human density found in the L.A. Basin, residents of Fallbrook would be exposed to a much higher risk for a lot of problems. For example, the emissions from the cars of those residents would be far worse than anything coming from the napalm. And if Camp Pendleton and the Fallbrook Naval Weapons Station were removed and replaced by people at the L.A. Basin density, the total amount of flammable fuel would be far higher, and the fuel would be much more flammable to boot.
For a discussion of the errors and biases of the former webpage Fallbrook Napalm - The Problem (formerly at http://www.napalm.org/problem.html), see Fallbrook Napalm - The Errors of That Website
For a humorous look at napalm, and some actual historical information about napalm, see Got Napalm? Be the first one on your block to own Napalm!. (I thank David Kelly for telling me about this site.)
See also the Navy's Napalm Removal and Disposal Project.
If you are interested in learning how to make your own napalm for whatever purpose, please do not email me. (;-)
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Copyright © 1998-2000 by Tom Chester.
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Last update: 13 July 2001 (Page created 1 February 1998, with only the listed updates, and a few minor updates, since then).