Defining TRW I: Identifying Toxic Remnants of War

Defining TRW I: Identifying Toxic Remnants of War

This project seeks to identify and classify those substances with the potential to cause pernicious health and environmental problems when released during military activities. Establishing the extent of the problem requires a systematic approach. From a general definition, a means of identifying potential TRW and classifying them according to harm, source and other factors will be developed. This is the first in a series of three posts giving an idea of our thoughts on creating a framework for addressing environmental and health concerns related to TRW.

Simple definition
A general definition is simple enough. A toxic remnant of war is “any toxic or radiological substance used in or resulting from military activities that forms a hazard to human and environmental health”. While broad, it will suffice for our ‘working definition’ of TRW. The general definition above is used to focus on the next step: identifying potential TRW.

Finding TRW
If a TRW is ‘any toxic or radiological substance’ used in war with potential for causing harm then the next step is finding a way to systematically identify substances that fall within the definition. Attention can then be focussed on the most environmentally and toxicologically relevant examples. There is a great emphasis on being systematic, since the range of potential TRW is great and only a systematic approach to this metaphorical mountain of toxicity can yield meaningful and workable results.

Extensive data exist on industrially produced chemicals and their toxicity within material safety data sheets (MSDS) and through regulatory and toxicological agencies such as the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There are fewer data regarding chemicals used by the military in the public domain, but these can be attainable either through freedom of information legislation, or from commercial suppliers of chemicals with military applications.

Database management
An initial form of enquiry into TRW would be by cross-referencing databases of industrial chemicals and lists of substances used by the military, combined with relevant keyword searches of toxicological and environmental significance (e.g. carcinogenic, mutagenic, persistent) . The result of such a database search would populate a TRW ‘hot list’ that then forms the basis of the next step of the TRW framework: a quantitative and qualitative assessment of TRW.

Assessment of TRW
The source pathway receptor (S-P-R) model is a basic tool of environmental toxicology. It determines the risk posed by chemicals in the environment based on their likelihood of reaching (pathway) and causing harm to living organisms (receptor). The TRW framework will be based on the S-P-R model (figure 1) with modifications to add a quantitative angle, for example taking into account quantities used, geographical extent and proximity to human settlements, environmental lifetimes, chemical transformations in the environment or during use and other factors.

Figure 1: The source-pathway-receptor model (adapted from Butler, 1978)

The general premise behind the model in figure 1 is to subject every substance to a similar analysis by asking the questions posed in the boxes. The strength of the answer for each question will inform the subject of the next post in this series (Classifying TRW according to harm). The qualitative nature of this analysis is a matter of concern, as with any qualitative analysis.  Adding a quantitative element such as including the quantities of each substance used, the geographical extent of contamination and other expounding factors will ensure that the qualitative aspects of the analysis is backed up with hard fact.

Parallels to the TRW approach
Evidence does exist of efforts by military planners to subject substances used in ammunition to toxicological risk assessments such as a 1983 US Army research document on “Information search for toxic free bullets”. However, the precaution shown in this document is less apparent in practice: the use of Depleted Uranium (DU) munitions and the dioxin-based Agent Orange chemical defoliant being prime examples.

Ultimately, the TRW approach could be informed by the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of CHemical substances (REACH) framework of 2007, which ensures that producers of goods take “greater responsibility … to manage the risk from chemicals and provide safety information on substances”.  If consumers who choose to buy goods are now afforded the right to know that the chemicals in the goods they buy are not harming them, then surely unwitting civilian victims of war have an even greater claim to such a right as they do not choose to be involved in wars in the first instance.


    1. Quora
      April 11, 2012

      What are toxic remnants of war and how should they be addressed?…

      Per The Toxic Remnants of War Project: A toxic remnant of war is “any toxic or radiological substance used in or resulting from military activities that forms a hazard to human and environmental health”.

    2. Toxic Remnants of War: Update on Berlin Legal Workshop and US Meetings | Toxic Remnants of War
      August 3, 2012

      […] important and recurring debate took place on whether the definition of TRW should be broad (i.e. encompassing military activities during and outside times of conflict) in […]


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