Decision to base F-35s in Madison ignores public health concerns

The Cap Times  |  29 April 2020  | 


original letter 


“Today we are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Our federal, state and local government officials have been working hard to contain the pandemic, and the public has followed social distancing instructions to “flatten the curve” until effective testing, treatments and vaccines can be developed.

Here in Madison, another public health threat looms: the Air Force’s plan to base a squadron of F-35 fighter jets at Truax Field. State Rep. Chris Taylor, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and City Council members have opposed this plan based on projected negative health, environmental and economic impacts, especially on low-income residents and communities of color. But U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson and many state lawmakers have supported the F-35s. They have failed in their duty to advocate on behalf of Madison residents.

So what exactly are the public health and safety threats posed by the F-35s?

Firefighting foam used at Truax Field has already contaminated water and soil nearby with polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS. Wells 9, 15 and 23 in east Madison and the Starkwater Creek watershed have high levels of PFOS and PFOA as well as 11 other PFAS compounds for which the EPA and Wisconsin Department of Health Services have yet to set groundwater standards. PFAS compounds have been linked to high cholesterol, thyroid hormone disruption and cancer.

There has been no attempt at PFAS remediation by the Air Force.


And the new firefighting foam the Air Force began using in June 2018 might actually be more harmful than the foam it replaced.


The F-35 receives frequent coats of a special composite material to help make it invisible to radar detection systems. We do not know what this material is composed of, how toxic its components might be, nor how the Air Force plans to keep these chemicals from polluting the surrounding soil and water.

The Air Force’s decision to base F-35 fighter jets in highly populated areas of the country will expose city residents to dangerous levels of sound. In adults, excessive noise is linked to increases in stress hormones, blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. In children, it can result in small birth weights, delayed speech development, reduced concentration, and decreased math and reading comprehension.



The F-35 fighter jets consume large quantities of fuel because of their reliance on afterburner engines for takeoff and acceleration. The more fuel that is used, the higher the emissions of ultrafine particles, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, nitrogen and sulfur oxides. These air pollutants are linked to cancer, heart disease, stroke and respiratory diseases.

The F-35s have had three major accidents while in development, all of which involved fires. They are heavy planes and must carry large quantities of fuel to feed afterburner engines used for takeoff and acceleration. What if a pilot needs to discharge a large amount of fuel over Wisconsin lakes to prevent a crash? What if there is a crash inside city limits? Tens of thousands could be exposed to fire and toxic smoke containing microscopic fibers and plastics that the Air Force itself admits can cause acute illness, cancer and genetic mutation.


Finally, these jets have been developed to be part of a first strike nuclear force. The Air Force currently says the F-35 jets in Madison will not be given a nuclear mission. But if the mission changes, the Air Force is not required to inform the public. If these jets are deployed to areas of conflict for use in a “preemptive” or aggressive nuclear attack, their attack could trigger a nuclear war.

Shouldn’t our safety and well-being be the primary mission of our elected officials and the U.S. Air Force? The bed-down of F-35 fighter jets in Madison and other heavily populated areas of the country appears to outrank the rights of Americans to clean water, clean air, safe noise levels and safe skies.

Bruce Barrett M.D. and Paula Rogge M.D. are members of the steering committee of Physicians for Social Responsibility Wisconsin, an organization of health professionals promoting environmental health, climate change solutions and nuclear disarmament. 

Physicians for Social Responsibility Website

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