Residues From The Use Of Weapons

Many conventional weapons contain materials that are toxic. From explosives and propellants to heavy metals and incendiary compounds, there has been little scrutiny of the risks these substances may pose to civilians living in areas of intense or repeated conflict. The assumption that everything disappears with the bang has been proven to not be the case on firing ranges. With a few exceptions however, there has been little research on the environmental legacy of munitions constituents in conflict and the contribution they may make to the complex polluted environments associated with warfare.


Case study: Croatian heavy metals, 1990s
Explosive ordnance disposal experts working under UN auspices in 1997 collect weapons bought from Croatian citizens for disposal. Credit: UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein

Explosive ordnance disposal experts working under UN auspices in 1997 collect weapons bought from Croatian citizens for disposal. Credit: UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein

Between 1991 and 1995, as Croatia sought independence from Yugoslavia, a complex conflict developed which saw widespread artillery and aerial bombardment of population centres and the laying of extensive minefields.

Recently, and as part of a nationwide study into the public health and environmental legacy of the conflict, researchers have studied whether pollutants linked to the use of weapons can still be identified in the environment and people living in proximity to areas of fighting.

Studies have compared areas of high and low intensity fighting and have successfully measured heavy metal contamination linked to the conflict in soils and food sources. The study sought to isolate contamination from other sources such as mining or industrial pollution. Biomonitoring of residents found continuing exposure 15 years after the conflict ended to arsenic, mercury, lead, zinc and copper.

Key issues
  • There is little scrutiny of the public health risks from contamination caused by the chemical constituents of conventional weapons in conflict settings.
  • Many of the materials used in conventional weapons are toxic and some are environmentally persistent and as such should be considered during environmental assessment following conflict.
  • Contamination data from the controlled conditions of firing ranges may not be analogous with those from the use of weapons in conflict settings and real world data is required, particularly where fighting takes place in populated areas.
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