Targeting Populated Areas

The use of explosive force in populated areas is increasingly recognised for the immense human suffering it causes through death, injury and damage to property. Less well documented is the risk to public health from the complex mixture of pollutants generated as a result of attacks, which range from munitions constituents to pulverised building materials and combustion products, to contamination caused by damaged water and waste infrastructure.


Case study: Gaza 2006-2014 
A Palestinian searches through the rubble of his home destroyed by Israeli strikes in Khuza'a, southern Gaza Strip, August 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

A Palestinian searches through the rubble of his home destroyed by Israeli strikes in Khuza’a, southern Gaza Strip, August 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

Gaza has come under repeated aerial, naval and artillery bombardment during the past decade. In 2014 alone, 61,800 homes were destroyed, creating between 2.5 and 4m tonnes of rubble. In 2009, the UN Environment Programme established the presence of asbestos in rubble, together with combustion products such as dioxins and furans.

Bomb damage to sewage systems was found to have contaminated groundwater, as well as posing a risk to survivors. Electricity systems were also damaged, Gaza’s only power station had been attacked in 2006 and 2008, and in 2014, its fuel tanks were hit by artillery, igniting 3m litres of diesel. The subsequent fire released soot, aerosols and particulate matter of hydrocarbon combustion products such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and benzene.

There is insufficient data available to accurately predict the quantity of toxic explosives residues that may remain following intense bombardment. In 2014, it was estimated that 20,000 tonnes of munitions were expended in Gaza, with heavy metal contamination also a concern, while previous conflicts saw the use of toxic white phosphorous. Following each conflict, efforts to assess and remove environmental hazards have been slowed by the presence of unexploded ordnance.

Key issues
  • Intense conflict in populated areas makes human exposure to toxic remnants more likely, and exposure risks may persist for long periods after conflicts.
  • Pollution may be generated by the munitions themselves, and through the damage they cause to buildings and infrastructure.
  • Assessing environmental risks should be undertaken alongside efforts to address explosive risks.
  • More use should be made of environmental data in post-conflict public health surveillance.
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