From Phosphorus to Uranium: Israel Releases List of Toxic Substances Soldiers Are Exposed To

The Defense Ministry document includes toxins that can cause severe illness, airborne particles that endanger the lungs, and even viruses

An Israeli soldier kicks a teargas canister during a protest near the West Bank city of Ramallah.
\ GORAN TOMASEVIC/ REUTERS

A Defense Ministry document updating safety regulations lists the hazardous materials and illnesses that Israeli soldiers are exposed to, including uranium, phosphorus, formaldehyde, lead, mercury, chrome and ricin.

The document is described as an order regarding “families of soldiers who died in battle (compensation and rehabilitation).” It was signed by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and is part of new regulations involving various government ministries.

The goal is to make clear the illnesses to be recognized by the military and the Defense Ministry as contracted as a result of exposure during service in the Israel Defense Forces.

The document addresses compensation and rehabilitation for anyone sickened by hazardous materials, but its 16 clauses also describe in detail the types of such materials soldiers come in contact with. These include toxins that can cause severe illness, airborne particles that endanger the lungs, and even viruses.

The document cites the name of the substance, the illness the soldier might contract, the job or activity during which soldiers could be exposed to the substance, and the levels of exposure that lead to a particular illness. The materials discussed in the directive are used by many troops including air force personnel, sharpshooting instructors, tunnel-search troops, tank and aircraft maintenance crews, and bomb disposal experts.

Sharpshooters, for example, may be exposed to large quantities of lead, and exposure for at least six months could cause lead poisoning and damage the heart, bones, kidneys, intestines, reproductive organs and nervous system.

The table of hazardous materials and resulting illnesses also mentions soldiers tasked with locating tunnels, like those built by Hamas that lead into Israel from Gaza. Such troops could be exposed to asbestos dust, silicon dioxide or talcum powder that are a risk factor for lung disease.

According to the document, soldiers who arrest or interrogate suspects run the risk of exposure to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and viral hepatitis, which are transmitted by body fluids.

Exposure to mercury, which is used to check the stability of explosives, can result in chronic mercury poison, which damages the nervous system. Exposure to TNT, which many combat engineering units use, can cause aplastic anemia.

Soldiers whose jobs include soldering armored metal are exposed to chrome, which the document states leads to lung cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, asthma and skin allergies.

Air force personnel risk exposure to strontium chromate, found in aircraft paint and a known cause of lung cancer. Flight crews may be exposed to formaldehyde, which was commonly used until it was recognized as a cause of throat cancer and leukemia. It is now restricted or banned, the document states.

However, is unclear in what connection soldiers are exposed to uranium, but it appears in the table as a cause of kidney damage.

Ricin, an extremely toxic substance – 6,000 times more toxic than cyanide – is also noted in the document. The KGB once used ricin for assassinations, as happened in 1978 when Bulgarian agents were sent to London to kill the dissident writer Georgi Markov, an opponent of the communist regime.

Another substance on the list is organic phosphorus, which after extensive exposure can cause the nerve disease peripheral neuropathy.