Warfare poses many environmental health threats, and not only to soldiers and civilians who are caught up in the fighting.

Bombs can destroy vegetation, pulverize soils and leave deep craters that limit the potential for future farming. Bombs and landmines that lay unexploded and hidden after a conflict has ended can render large tracts of land no-go areas.

There are many other dangers from toxic or radioactive materials that can linger for months or years and have been linked to a wide range of health impacts in local populations.

These include chemical weapons, pesticides, depleted uranium, and radiation caused by testing and use of nuclear weapons.

A famous case is that of Agent Orange, the defoliant chemical the US military used in its war with Vietnam (see case study in Birth Defects).

The chemical was contaminated with toxic dioxins which have been linked to large numbers of birth defects and cancer cases even decades after the war’s end.

Nuclear arms also pose major threats. Even a limited exchange of nuclear weapons would release significant quantities of radioactive material.

In 2009, France acknowledged that up to 150,000 civilians and military personnel may have been affected by its nuclear weapons tests in Algeria and French Polynesia.

The United States has paid U$1.6 billion in compensation to more than 20,000 of its citizens who were affected by its nuclear weapon tests. While some were involved in the tests or worked in uranium mines, more than half were simply living downwind of the test sites.

Chemical or biological weapons could also pose widespread threats if deployed, as they can travel by air and would not discriminate between military targets and civilians.

Chinese officials say more than 2,000 people have died from toxins leaking from chemical weapons that Japan left behind during World War II. In a rare case of an environmental cleanup after military action, Japan agreed in 1997 to locate and destroy some 700,000 abandoned weapons.

One of the bigger threats to emerge in recent years is depleted uranium, which is used to make armor-piercing munitions. Depleted uranium is a byproduct of uranium enrichment, a process used in generating nuclear power and making nuclear weapons.

Depleted uranium is a very effective in weapons as it is extremely dense and will explode on impact and burn at extremely high temperatures – hot enough to vaporize metals.

This creates tiny airborne particles of vaporized metal and radioactive uranium and when people inhale these particles, they can spread to various parts of the body.

There are growing concerns that this can pose serious health threats and experiments in rodents have linked exposure to depleted uranium to various diseases.

Depleted uranium was first used in quantity as a weapon in the 1991 Gulf War, and has since been used in conflicts in Bosnia, Serbia and Iraq. Concerns over the threats it poses to health have led some countries to calls for a moratorium on their use but other countries have blocked such a move.

Warfare and non-hostile military activities are linked to other environmental and health threats. In 1991 Iraq intentionally opened and burned oil wells in Kuwait during the first Gulf War.

This resulted in massive oil spills into the sea. The UN Compensation Commission forced Iraq to pay compensation for the environmental damage this caused.

Many former military bases are heavily contaminated with toxic chemicals, large quantities of leaked fuel and other waste.

The government of the Philippines says former US bases there are heavily polluted with heavy metals, fuel and asbestos. As reported by Stars and Stripes, this has been linked to health problems including cancer, birth defects and miscarriages among local people.

Lastly, warfare and the defense sector in general, make a massive contribution to climate change through their large fuel use which creates a large carbon footprint.

The UK armed forces are estimated to be responsible for one percent of the entire national footprint.

The Chemical Weapons Convention is an international agreement that outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.

While the convention has been effective at reducing domestic stockpiles of chemical weapons, it has had limited success at making countries clean up any toxic legacies of their military involvement in other countries.

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty bans all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996 but will not enter into force until all 44 countries listed in its Annex II have ratified it.

Nine countries on that list have not yet done so, including China, the United States, Israel and three countries – India, Pakistan and North Korea – which have tested nuclear weapons since the treaty was set up.

Various other multilateral treaties, including the First Protocol to the Geneva Conventions and the Environmental Modification Convention, have tried to limit the environmental consequences of war, but this had little effect.

Reporting on the environmental health impacts of warfare is a real challenge, given the danger of war itself and the secrecy with which governments and the private sector treat military matters.

One angle for journalists is to investigate the legacy of military action after it is over, by examining what is being done to clean up any toxic waste and assessing whether there are any increases in health problems of the kinds listed above.

The United Nations Environment Programme’s Disasters and Conflict Branch assesses environmental and health threats linked to conflict on behalf of governments that request such assistance. Its reports provide plenty of ideas that could inspire investigative journalism in other countries.

CASE STUDY – Side effects of Iraq’s recent wars
Tens of thousands of soldiers who fought in the 1991 Gulf War have reported a range of symptoms that are collectively called Gulf War Syndrome.

They include headaches, dizziness and muscle pain, and birth defects in the soldier’s offspring. These effects have been linked to exposure to toxic chemicals such as pesticides and chemical weapons, and to the use of depleted uranium.

While soldiers have been reporting health concerns for years, information about long term impacts of conflict on the civilian population of Iraq, has only recently come to light.

In 2009 doctors in Iraq reported a 15-fold increase in birth defects over one year, and a sharp rise in cancer cases, in the city of Fallujah where some of the heaviest fighting took place.

For more information, see this online and video report in the Guardian.

International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons
A collection of YouTube videos about depleted uranium
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Commission
Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
International Peace Bureau – The Military’s Impact on the Environment

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