Weapons Manufacturing

The environmental impact of military activities begin long before conflict. Lax environmental standards have often led to significant environmental pollution problems and the health and environmental risks from manufacturing have often been compounded by the secrecy surrounding facilities. Emissions of military use substances and chemical wastes continue to affect the health of communities across the world.


Case study: Depleted uranium penetrator production, Colonie NY, USA.
The spatial distribution of depleted uranium contamination in surface soils surrounding the former NLI plant. It is apparent that prevailing winds (see wind rose, above right) controlled this distribution. Contamination was traced as far as 5.8 km from NLI. Author: Dr Nick Lloyd.

The spatial distribution of depleted uranium contamination in surface soils surrounding the former NLI plant. It is apparent that prevailing winds (see wind rose, above right) controlled this distribution. Contamination was traced as far as 5.8 km from NLI. Author: Dr Nick Lloyd.

National Lead Industries (NLI) was licensed by the US Government to manufacture armour-piercing depleted uranium (DU) penetrators at their site in Colonie, NY state, from 1958-1984. DU is a radioactive and chemically toxic heavy metal that has been shown to damage DNA and, if inhaled or ingested, is classified as a human carcinogen.

Waste DU from the manufacturing process was incinerated in the plant’s furnace, leading to prolonged releases of DU aerosols. With 95% of the emissions deposited within 2km of the factory, which lay in a residential area, both workers and nearby residents were exposed. A study undertaken 25 years after the plant’s closure found DU particles still present in soils of gardens, tree bark and in the basements and attics of houses. The community affected by the site is still seeking proper recognition and health support.

The cost of remediation for the site, which fell on the US taxpayer, was US$190m – a sum that far exceeds that for research into the civilian health risks from military DU use worldwide.

Key issues
  • The preparation for war can be as environmentally harmful as war itself.
  • These impacts are a global problem, and not restricted to conflict-affected states.
  • Domestic regulatory approaches to peacetime health and environmental protection from military-origin contamination can be used to inform regulation applied during and after conflict.
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