The death and injury of hundreds of people in a rebel-controlled area of eastern Damascus on August 21st 2013 bears all the hallmarks of chemical warfare agent (CWA) use according to experts in that field. The resultant cruel loss of life is potentially a serious escalation of the conflict. The Toxic Remnants of War Project receives periodic queries on whether our work encompasses the use, demilitarisation or environmental remediation of CWAs. In short, and contrary to what the name may suggest, the TRW Project does not deal with these horrific weapons as will be outlined below.
The TRW Project was conceived to address the long term impact of incidental toxicity from weapons use and military activities. As such, given that the toxic effect of CWAs is their primary purpose the scope of our research does not encompass them.
Apart from TRW Project’s distinction between incidental and intentional toxicity, the acute short term devastating effects of CWAs has resulted in efforts to control them through the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
As the suspected use of CWAs in Syria demonstrates, these weapons are still not a thing of the past. The disposal of chemical weapons stockpiles by state parties to the CWC is not fully complete, meanwhile non signatories such as Syria continue to hold significant stockpiles. In Syria’s case there are notable concerns about their security and possible diversion in the turmoil of civil war. Finally, the dumping of CWAs at sea following the first and second world wars continues to pose an environmental problem that is being addressed by processes such as the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions (IDUM).
The level of international regulation for CWA prohibition, demilitarisation and clean-up has resulted in a strategic decision by the TRW Project to focus resources on matters of long term incidental toxicity from munitions and military activities that are as yet not sufficiently dealt with both before and after conflict. Military-origin contaminants such as heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants have been known to remain in the environment and are suspected to contribute to public health problems for years.
As an example, in connection to the ongoing civil war in Syria, the TRW Project is particularly concerned about the long-term environmental and health impacts of the prolonged bombardment of cities such as Homs, where the dispersed heavy metals and building materials could pose a long-term public health problem. While studies into the long-term environmental contamination from conflict origin materials are thin on the ground, environmental and human exposure studies in areas subject to heavy bombardment in Croatia have demonstrated higher concentrations of heavy metals associated with munitions in the environment and also in the hair, blood and urine of civilians living in the area.
The risks posed by TRW may seem less immediate than the acute health risks posed by CWAs, particularly given their uncertain nature. However, the strong suspicion that there are toxic substances with varying potentials for human exposure and harm contaminating the environment as a result of conflicts and other military activities requires investigation to exclude the possibility of harm, particularly given the mounting suspicions that increased birth defects and cancers in areas of Iraq are connected to military-origin contamination.