Weapons Testing and Training

More weapons may be used in testing and training than are used during conflict. Nearly all constituents of conventional weapons are toxic: explosives, heavy metals, smokes and propellants may all be dispersed on ranges, presenting a threat to the environment and human health. Training can take place on domestic ranges but also in countries affected by conflict during wartime, as well as in those supporting deployments adjacent to a conflict.

Case study: The US military in Panama
Abandoned US chemical weapons on San Jose island, Panama. Source: OPCW.

Abandoned US chemical weapons on San Jose island, Panama. Credit: OPCW.

The U.S. military controlled more than 75,000 acres of land in Panama until 1999. The military drawdown was agreed in 1979 but while the Canal Treaties included a commitment by the United States to “remove all hazards to human health and safety” by the time of its departure, this that was qualified by a “to the extent practicable” clause. Although this led to some surface clean-up of former ranges the work was far from comprehensive.

Increasing pressure to clear the jungle and use land once used by the military means that civilians are increasingly coming into contact with unexploded ordnance from weapons testing and the chemical contamination connected with it. Some sites saw a wide range of unconventional munitions and substances tested by the US, including mustard gas, phosgene, cyanogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, butane, napalm, nerve gas and depleted uranium. San Jose island, which lies beyond the canal area is still contaminated with chemical weapons, in spite of ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention by both the US and Panama.

Key issues
  • Weapons testing and training can lead to intense environmental contamination and the risks to human health are not restricted to those from explosive hazards.
  • Bilateral agreements between states may overlook responsibility for both explosive and chemical contamination on ranges, both in peacetime and following conflicts.
  • Poor record keeping and a failure to make data publically available hampers assessment and places communities at unnecessary risk.
  • Where pressure over land use leads to encroachment on former sites, civilians can face exposure to pollutants through groundwater contamination, agriculture and through scrap metal collection.
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