The rapid development of military technology has led to a wide variety of substances being employed in offensive and defensive roles in contemporary conflict. Simultaneously, a move towards asymmetric warfare has seen civilian populations and infrastructure bearing the brunt of armed violence in recent years. Efforts are underway to reduce the impact of this shift, with the indiscriminate use of explosive and incendiary weapons under increasingly close scrutiny – but one element of civilian protection that has not been explored in great detail is the health burden stemming from the use or release of toxic or hazardous materials during conflict.
Military operations in civilian areas can leave a significant footprint of contamination, which in certain cases may result in a long term health hazard. Substances used in offensive operations include heavy metals, speciality alloys, propellants or explosives and obscurants and, while the toxicity and environmental behaviour of some will be well understood, there are likely to be many materials for which detailed hazard data is absent. In many cases a lack of transparency from the arms industry and militaries may prevent a full assessment of the content of certain weapons.
What hazard data there is available may have been gathered under ideal or controlled conditions and may not accurately represent battlefield use or, in the case of propellants, new compounds may be created during their use. Crucially, there may be little understanding of the interactions between different materials within the body and environment. Where exposure standards do exist for many military compounds, these may be the result of cost benefit calculations that, while arguably relevant for acute exposures among military personnel on active operations, may not be applicable to chronically exposed civilians.
Other potential sources of toxic emissions might include the deliberate targeting of industrial sites or dumping from military bases and installations. Military firing ranges, arms storage depots or demilitarisation facilities, while existing outside of a strict interpretation of conflict are of interest as the build-up of toxic compounds may be significant. As they often exist within domestic regulatory frameworks, they may provide useful data sets for environmental assessment or remediation techniques. Also of concern are dusts created from the destruction of buildings when explosive weapons are used in civilian areas: gypsum, quartz dust and asbestos are all known health hazards.
Assessing civilian harm
Mapping the health risks from the chronic exposure to environmental contaminants is notoriously difficult. The instability of post-conflict environments makes this particularly challenging and isolating a specific signal from a range of potential risk factors adds an additional layer of complexity. In some cases, major releases of a known substance will aid the development of an adequate response but in many others, where mixed contamination may be present at low, but biologically significant levels, a remedy may be hard for resource stretched administrations to justify solely on the basis of cost.
The assessment and remediation of contaminants can be technically challenging and costly. States recovering from conflict may lack the equipment and expertise to adequately manage contamination and chronic health and environmental hazards will often be a low priority for funding and political attention. If these factors are constants during conflict, could it therefore be argued that there should be a greater emphasis on avoiding the generation of TRW in the first place? Or do the special conditions found during conflict absolve states from any responsibility, be it moral or legal?
During the last decade, regulatory frameworks such as the European Union’s Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) system, have been developed as a means of improving the testing of chemicals in consumer goods and removing those that are most hazardous from use. Elsewhere, Protocol V of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) has sought to increase state responsibility for explosive remnants of war. One of the purposes of the TRW Project is to examine whether there is sufficient justification for the development of new law, or the application or modification of existing international or domestic legal standards to the issue of TRW. However, there is much work to be done first in exploring what is potentially a very broad issue and we welcome the input of organisations, academics or specialists with relevant expertise who may wish to contribute.
The concept behind this research project has been germinating for several years and is primarily aimed at reducing the health and environmental impact of conflict on civilian populations. The approach is informed by our experience researching the potential hazards from depleted uranium (DU) weapons and the post-conflict management of sites contaminated by their use, however it will be far broader than this one substance alone. Perhaps more so than other toxics projects, we will be constrained by access to data on the ground due to post-conflict instability. This will mean a greater reliance on laboratory data, however that could provide for a stronger focus on the role of the precautionary principle and it is likely that this will be a theme running through much of our work.
Another development that has driven this approach has been the move by militaries and manufacturers towards reducing the toxicity of weapon components, and technical improvements in laboratory testing and analysis. Inspiration has also come from the developing legal discourse over increasing the protection of the environment during conflict.
Finally, two case studies where military activities appear to have had a detrimental impact on civilian health stand out. The first is the Iraqi city of Fallujah, where the US has denied using DU munitions in the second and most intense assault but where reports of an increased rate of congenital birth defects have triggered international concern. This has resulted in the WHO and Iraqi Health Ministry developing a project to assess the rates in six Iraqi provinces and analyse potential risk factors. The second is a cluster of cancers around the Sardinian firing range of Salto di Quirra, where recent tests on the exhumed bodies of local people have found high levels of thorium. The tests also revealed high levels of the rare earth element cerium, which indicates that the thorium was of anthropogenic origin – potentially from a thorium capsule that forms part of the guidance system for MILAN missiles.
ICBUW, IKV Pax Christi and the TRW Project are grateful for the financial support of the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We are also very grateful for the forbearance of the website designers UHC Collective and would also like to thank Article36.org and the many other individuals and organisations that have offered their advice and help as we have sought to launch this project. We face an enormous task in developing TRW as a conceptual framework and warmly welcome input from interested parties as the project develops.
Doug Weir is Coordinator of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons and the TRW Project Manager.