D.C. Neighborhood's Chemical Weapons Problem


There are a few drawbacks to online home evaluations like Zillow's Zestimate. Like, for instance, they can't tell you whether a bomb is buried in a backyard.

Sure, it's unlikely an unexploded munition is a shovelful beneath your begonias, but in Washington D.C.'s Spring Valley neighborhood, the chances are significantly higher. That's because Spring Valley once was the site of the U.S. Army's chemical warfare research center and testing grounds, and since 1993 workers have uncovered all sorts of leftovers from this ominous chapter of history, including old bombs, chemical weapons, 50-gallon drums and more.

Just last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found a glass container, that, when unearthed, began smoking. It contained arsenic trichloride, which at the very least causes skin irritation, and at its worst can cause damage to the central nervous system and death. Since January, hazardous materials experts working on the front lawn of an unoccupied home on Glenbrook Road have uncovered liquid mustard and munitions as well, according to reports in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

Yet Spring Valley continues to attract new homeowners, and it's easy to see why: This is one of D.C.'s prettiest upscale neighborhoods, with manicured lawns, verdant woods, established landscaping and elegant homes. It's a community of powerbrokers and diplomats, including the president of American University, a former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh and the current South Korean ambassador to the United States.

"It's a very popular neighborhood, says Carroll Thornton-Chapin of Washington Fine Properties, who has a listing at 5012 Tilden Street NW.


In 2004 and 2005, the Corps of Engineers tested soil and groundwater in the neighborhood and found that 139 of its 1,600 homes contained elevated levels of arsenic. The Corps removed soil from those sites and brought in fresh.

The groundwater tests showed no evidence of chemical weapons but revealed low levels of perchlorate and arsenic contamination. A federally funded study reassured residents that no "apparent health hazard exists" and a May 2007 Johns Hopkins public health report showed that cancer and mortality rates are similar to those in nearby Chevy Chase, Md.

Still, some neighbors believe the presence of those chemicals is unhealthy. Kent Slowinski, a landscaper who grew up in Spring Valley and now gives environmental and historical tours of the area, says a toxic legacy has been left by the U.S. Army and the neighbors have suffered for it.

"Two instances of fatal aplastic anemia, decades apart, in the same house on Sedgwick Street. Multiple myeloma, pernicious anemia. These are health issues," he said.

Slowinski and neighborhood activitists say they'd like further studies on the longterm health effects of arsenic and perchlorate exposure. He believes that anyone buying a home should read all the available information on the area before making a commitment.

"The Army Corps does the job of reassuring people that if anything is found, they'll take care of it. What they don't say is that it might take five to 10 years to deal with it," Slowinski said.

Thornton-Chapin agrees that prospective buyers should research potential homes, but said the information is readily available.

"If you go to an open house in Spring Valley, you can get a report. All the homes have been tested," Thornton-Chapin said.

For more information on Spring Valley, check out the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers site, American University's site and "Bombs in Our Backyard", a website about a film created by Spring Valley resident and award-winning documentarian Ginny Durrin.

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