Defining TRW III: Classifying substances by source

Defining TRW III: Classifying substances by source

In the previous blog posts in this series we introduced the concept of TRW and means of determining whether a substance is a TRW. A provisional classification of TRW was established based on the level of harm caused. In this final post in the series the classification of TRW by source is considered.


Back to basics
From the working definition, TRW are ‘substance(s) used in or resulting from military activity’ that form an environmental or health hazard. Substances ‘used in’ military activities broadly defines munitions and their associated emissions (e.g. heavy metals from shells, hydrazine from rocket propellant). On the other hand, substances ‘resulting from military activities’ could mean substances released due to activities of the military, but not necessarily the use of munitions (e.g. pollution caused by military bases or the massive transport needs of the military). Based on the definition, five types of military activity that can be sources of TRW are identified and discussed below.

Another important dichotomy is whether a substance is released into the environment directly, a primary emission, or created after emission because of chemical and physical transformations into a secondary product. Secondary products of pollutants can also be a cause for environmental and health concerns. For example, RDX and TNT are known to be toxic, as are some of their degradation products (ATSDR, 1995; Brannon and Pennington, 2002; ATSDR, 2012).


TRW and military activity
An overview of the scientific and legal literature and post-conflict environmental assessments results in five broad types of military activity that could be sources of TRW. The table below outlines the five TRW sources and specifies whether they are more likely to exist during or outside conflict. These distinctions of time are important with regard to the applicability of international humanitarian law (IHL) and the laws of armed conflict (LOAC).

As mentioned in previous posts, many substances that are used in munitions may have implications for human and environmental health, though this is dependent on the quantity used, how and where they are used and the substances’ environmental behaviour and toxicology. The obscurant white phosphorus is known to be toxic in humans if ingested but has not been assessed for inhalational toxicity, a more common route of exposure (National Research Council, 1999).  Other examples of toxic substances in munitions are rocket and missile propellants such as hydrazine, and heavy metals including depleted uranium and certain tungsten alloys found to be toxic and carcinogenic when tested in animals (Kalinich et al., 2005) and with suggested potential for toxicity to humans depending on the exposure route (Kalinich, 2011).


Infrastructure bombardment
Intentional or inadvertent attacks on industry and civilian or military infrastructure have been a highly visible source of widespread environmental damage. During the 1991 Gulf War, the uncontrolled oil well fires had regional environmental impacts, although widespread damage was expected to spread as far as south Asia, this was an overestimation according to Biswas (2000). Another example is the NATO bombing of industrial facilities in the Balkans (e.g. Pancevo) leading to the release of 1,2-dichloroethene, vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), a dioxin precursor, and mercury amongst other toxic pollutants (UNEP, 1999).

Smoke from burning oil wells set alight by Iraqi forces in 1991. Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.

Stockpiled and abandoned munitions
Stores of munitions form hotspots of pollution if not managed and disposed of appropriately; this is in addition to the pre-existing risk of explosive harm. After the Second World War the complexity and expense of weapons disposal meant that states resorted to dumping surplus stockpiles of chemical munitions at sea, while disregarding the associated environmental problems. Sea dumping of munitions resulted in a UN General Assembly resolution on the subject in 2010. Examples of toxic hazards from stockpiles of conventional weapons are hydrazine from missile fuel and the leaching of explosives such as RDX, TNT, HMX and their decomposition products.


Military bases
High concentrations of toxic chemicals such as TCE, benzene and PCBs have been systematically found in and around military bases in the US. The environmental burden from military bases is clearly recognised in the US and is subject to a cleanup effort coordinated by the Federal Facilities Restoration and Reuse Office (FFRRO), an umbrella body that includes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Regulatory control of military facilities in the US has not always been consistent, in fact at times lax environmental management of bases and has drawn the attention of concerned campaign groups such as the Military Toxics Project.

Military bases overseas have particularly lax environmental controls and are commonly exempt from the environmental laws of the home and host countries (Renner, 2000). Contamination from bases leaves a legacy of concentrated contaminated land and groundwater that can persist for years after the end of base operations.

In the case of bases in the US, the existence of powerful regulatory bodies such as the EPA and an informed and relatively more affluent population increases the likelihood that pollution will be dealt with eventually. In post conflict states, the lack of effective environmental controls and administrative infrastructure, in addition to more urgent post conflict needs, means that the toxic legacy of bases (and war) can be more persistent.

The use of ‘burn pits’ for the open air incineration of waste is a recent example of lax environmental management on US bases overseas. Burn pits on military bases in Afghanistan and elsewhere have been criticised on the grounds of public and environmental health. Furthermore, a recent leaked memorandum suggests that the US military was aware of health risks related to burn pits.


Munitions manufacturing and testing
The manufacturing and testing of munitions raises similar concerns to those discussed above in relation to military bases, in particular lax environmental management and regulatory oversight. Weapon testing is additionally problematic because of the uncontrolled and concentrated nature of emissions in specific areas for prolonged periods. The testing of munitions and rockets at Salto di Quirra, Sardinia is thought to be behind a cluster of cancers in the surrounding locales; and there is an ongoing legal investigation into the public health impact of weapons testing at the range. Analysis conducted for the investigation found traces of thorium and cerium in the bodies of exhumed local shepherds, providing tentative evidence of health problems caused by the weapons testing.


Future work
This concludes the introductory series on defining TRW. The breadth of the approach is evident from the different types of activity that can be a source of TRW. The distinction with regard to military activities outside and during times of conflict is important from a legal perspective and could form a defining aspect of the TRW approach. While the laws of armed conflict (LOAC) will predominantly apply to issues raised by the use of munitions, there may be post conflict situations where LOAC will also apply to the toxic legacy caused by military activities. Furthermore, case studies of substances, ecosystems and populations affected by military activities outside times of conflict can form an important analogue for conflict scenarios that would be difficult to study directly.

Future advancement of the TRW approach requires a focus on specific substances of concern from the activities specified above. An expanded group of substances will be subjected to the eco-toxicological analysis outlined in previous posts on TRW. The case studies of substances will be valuable in testing the extent of the risk posed to public health, in addition to ascertaining current best practices for the management of such pollution. It must be noted that useful analogous work in this vein has been conducted by the US Department of Defence Chemical and Material Risk Management Directorate.


Mohamed Ghalaieny is a researcher on the TRW Project.



Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, (1995). Toxicological Profile for 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia.

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, (2012). Toxicological Profile for RDX. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia.

Biswas, A.K., (2000). Scientific Assessment of the Long-Term Environmental Consequences of War. In: Austin, J.E. and Bruch, C .E. eds. The Environmental Consequences of War: Legal, Economic and Scientific Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Brannon, J. M., and Pennington, J. C. (2002). Environmental fate and transport process descriptors for explosives. ERDC/ELTR-02-10, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Vicksburg, Minnesota.

Kalinich, J.F., Edmond, C.A., Dalton, T.K., Mog, S.R., Coleman, G.D., Kordell, J.E., Miller, A.C., McClain, D.E., (2005). Embedded weapons-grade tungsten alloy shrapnel rapidly induces, metastatic high-grade rhabdomyosarcomas in F344 rats. Environmental Health Perspective, 113, 729-734.

Kalinich, J.F., (2012). Heavy Metal-Induced Carcinogenicity: Depleted Uranium and Heavy-Metal Tungsten Alloy. In: Banfalvi, G. ed. Cellular Effects of Heavy Metals. Springer, London.

National Research Council, (1999). Toxicity of Military Smokes and Obscurants Volume 2. The National Academies Press, Washington DC, 1999.

Renner, M., (2000). Environmental and Health Effects of Weapons Production, Testing, and Maintenance. In: Levy, B.S. and Sidel, V.W. eds. War and Public Health. American Public Health Association, Washington.

UNEP and UNCHS, (1999). The Kosovo conflict: consequences for the environment and human settlements.

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