Conflict rubble: a ubiquitous and under-studied toxic remnant of war

Conflict rubble: a ubiquitous and under-studied toxic remnant of war

Andy Garrity examines the potential health impacts associated with exposure to pulverised building materials from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The health and environmental risks and management of conflict rubble have been raised in several UNEP post-conflict assessments but little data on its post-conflict health impact is available.

The use of explosive force in urban areas poses a number of immediate and obvious risks to civilians. Increasing scrutiny is now being focused on the potential health risks from the toxic constituents of munitions but less well understood are the risks arising from exposure to pulverised building materials (PBMs), either during conflict itself or during their post-conflict management and disposal.

When buildings are directly impacted by munitions or damaged through pressure waves generated by explosions, building materials are pulverised, generating large volumes of dust. PBM dusts are typically a heterogeneous mixture of materials, such as cement, metals, PCBs, silica, asbestos and other synthetic fibres. Exposure to these dusts can have both physical and chemical impacts on health. Particulate matter (PM) less than 10µm in size or smaller than 2.5µm in diameter can pose significant health risks from respiratory illnesses and diseases as well as cancers.[1][2]

Concrete is a globally ubiquitous building material, commonly comprising Portland cement mixed with water and coarse and fine aggregates.[3] Portland cement is itself a mixture of oxides of calcium, aluminium, iron, silicon and magnesium. It may also also contain selenium, thallium and other impurities, depending on the source of the constituents and the manufacturing process involved[4], all of which can become environmental contaminants and a hazard to human health. As well as materials used in the construction of buildings there are a number of potential contaminant sources within the electrical hardware commonly found in buildings, such as the PCBs used in transistors and capacitors.


Buildings destroyed by Israeli air strikes during the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in the southern suburb of Haret Hreik. Beirut, Lebanon – August 20, 2006

Health Impacts from dust exposure

The immediate effects of exposure to dusts include eye, nose, throat and skin irritation. If inhaled and retained within the lungs, exposure to dusts can lead to pneumoconiosis[5], a more serious long-term threat to respiratory health. This illness is usually documented in occupational workers who are exposed to airborne dusts over prolonged periods of time. However acute pneumoconiosis can occur when there have been large scale releases of dust over a short period of time. Specific forms of pneumoconiosis include silicosis resulting from exposure to silica dusts (Respirable Crystalline Silica)[6]. Asbestosis can develop after prolonged inhalational exposure to asbestos fibres.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD) can also occur from extensive exposure to dusts. This constitutes a long-term health risk for civilians who continue to live in close proximity to conflict damaged buildings or rubble. COPDs can include asthmas, bronchitis and emphysema amongst other respiratory complaints.

A summary of the possible health exposures routes and health impacts of substances commonly found in building materials.




Potential health


Roofing, concrete,
sheeting for fire
Airborne fibres
Asbestosis, pulmonary
disease, lung cancer
IARC Group 1 carcinogen.
Banned from use in many
countries but still prevalent
in older buildings.
Portland cement
and concrete.
Airborne fibres
Upper respiratory
tract: irritation, cough.
Lower lung: silicosis,
fibrosis or scarring.
Synthetic Vitreous
Fibres (SVF):
Glass wool,
Rock wool,
Slag wool,
ceramic fibres.
Heat and sound
cavity walls
and roofing.
Airborne fibres
Upper respiratory tract:
irritation to throat, cough,
nasal congestion, eye
and skin irritation.

Deep lungs: pulmonary
disease and fibrosis

Replaced asbestos in
countries where it has
been banned from
production and use.
Insulation in

and capacitors.
dusts,water and soil.
IARC Group 1 carcinogen
Impurity in
Portland cement.
Airborne dust
Skin sensitiser: rash
and itching to skin.
IARC Group 1 carcinogen

UNEP post-conflict assessments

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has undertaken a number of post-conflict environmental assessments[7] and has consistently highlighted the need for building rubble removal and the effective management of PBMs.

In Gaza, UNEP discovered asbestos at a number of sites where building debris was found with both blue (crocidolite) and white (chrysotile) asbestos present in samples[8]. All forms of asbestos are considered carcinogenic[9], with blue asbestos considered a more potent carcinogen than white asbestos. In Lebanon, white asbestos and asbestos cement were found at a number of sites, often originating from roofing materials. Following both assessments, UNEP recommended removal of the asbestos in accordance with common safety procedures in order to remove the risk of exposure.

In Lebanon the risk of dust exposure was considered a significant threat in the Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik[10]. The clearance of rubble was seen to be disturbing the PBMs and exacerbating the problem. It was at this site that fuel oil containing PAHs was also found from the small power generators used during the frequent blackouts. This had contaminated both soils and building rubble and provided a further health risk to those removing the debris.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) were found in samples from Lebanon, Kosovo[11] and Gaza following damage to electrical transistors and capacitors. UNEP recommended their proper removal and disposal in all of the sites that PCBs were discovered due to their carcinogenic potential[12].

In the case of bombarded urban areas in Gaza, UNEP reported that many civilians were still living amongst, or close to bombing debris, and effective waste disposal practises were not in place to reduce the risk of exposure[11]. Civilians remaining in close proximity to ruins and debris are at risk from prolonged exposure to various harmful dusts and PM, some of which may be chemically and physically damaging to respiratory health.

The majority of information available on the potential health impact of PBMs, mainly cement dusts and PM, has been sourced from occupational health resources. Similarities between demolition dusts and those generated during the bombardment of urban areas can be made with some confidence. However, the controlled nature of demolition differs to that of explosive damage, with the high temperatures generated during urban bombardment an important factor.

A study in Berlin compared demolition rubble to debris from buildings bombed during WWII. Researchers reported a slight increase in the levels of mercury, PCBs, furans and dioxins in the conflict debris[13]. The substances had been generated or mobilised by the higher temperatures involved. This suggests that conflict-origin PBMs are potentially more toxic and therefore potentially more harmful than construction and demolition dusts.

It is clear that dust and particulate matter generated from the targeting of urban areas during conflict poses a risk to human health and the environment. While peacetime regulations and guidelines for construction and demolition workers provide some guidance on the potential risks that PBMs pose to health, further research on conflict rubbles is required to accurately quantify these risks.


Even without further studies, it is clear that comprehensive conflict debris removal schemes are needed to protect public health. Such schemes require sufficient funding to ensure that the necessary training, management and equipment is in place to ensure operations do not exacerbate the exposure risks through resuspension of PM or the mixing of hazardous and non-hazardous materials. Scrutiny is also required over the ultimate disposal of rubbles to ensure that the hazards are not merely displaced.

The TRWP believes that improving the collection of air quality data, and data on the constituents of PBRs themselves, could help better determine the acute and chronic health risks civilians face from PBRs following the use of explosive force in urban areas.


Andy Garrity is a researcher at the Toxic Remnants of War Project.


[1] World Health Organisation (2013) Health Effects of Particulate Matter, Policy Implications for countries in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and central Asia.

[2] World Health Organisation (2013) Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution-REVIHAAP Project, Technical Report.

[3] Portland Cement Association USA, How Concrete is Made, PCA, Accessed June 2014

[4] Meo S (2004) Health Hazards of Cement Dust, Saudi Medical Journal, 25(9):1153-1159

[5] Pneumoconiosis, UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Accessed June 2014

[6] Control of Exposure to Silica Dust A guide for Employees UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (2013)

[7] UNEP Post-disaster Environmental Assessments Accessed June 2014

[8] UNEP ( 2009) Environmental Assessment of Gaza Strip following the escalation of hostilities in December 2008-Janmuary 2009

[9] International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (2012) Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans (100c) 219-309

[10] UNEP (2007) Lebanon Post-conflict Environmental Assessment

[11] UNEP-Balkans Task Force. Feasibility Study, Project, Proposals and Descriptions. Kragujevac

[12] International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (2012) Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans (100f) 339-378

[13] Mekiffer B, Renger M & Wessolek G (2000) Contamination of Urban Soils- First results from a databank. Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on soils of urban, industrial, traffic and mining areas, Essen (3):593-598, Burghardt W & Dornauf C (eds)

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