War Pollution Can Last for Generations

War pollution is an on-going menace to millions of people.

There's no doubt that war can leave a terrible legacy of pollution behind, a legacy which may affect future generations long after the conflict has ceased. This page outlines some of the main causes and effects of war pollution as it occurs today.

War and the aftermath of war

There are still numerous wars and conflicts taking place across the globe. Some of these are long-running conflicts which are not classed as wars but involve frequent small scale incidents and attacks. Others are active conflict zones where military hardware - such as bombs, missiles and tanks - is in frequent use.

Then there are recently finished wars where attacks still occur, such as in Iraq. Many of the now peaceful areas have suffered pollution from arms used during the conflict.

In March 2010 it was revealed that the people of Fallujah in Iraq were suffering a huge increase in children born with severe deformities; the likely culprit is the weapons which US troops used in their pursuit of military objectives. War aftermath is an enduring problem which does not always reach the news headlines.

There are countries where conflicts have ceased but there is still a lasting legacy of damage and pollution form war-time activities. Some sites of military pollution are even from wars which ceased many years ago. In Europe bombs from the Second World War are still being discovered from time to time.

All these types of war result in war pollution. This page takes a look at some of the main types and examples of war pollution. At the bottom of the page are a few resources for anyone who wants to help undo the damage.

Old wars

Shells from the First World War containing sulfur mustard and other toxic ammunition are still turning up in France and Belgium. Conventional explosives are found, too. Sulfur mustard was the active agent in mustard gas and causes severe blistering and burns on contact. Active canisters of this material have been found in the Baltic Sea in recent years.

The battlefields of northern France still pose a problem for the authorities, 90 years after the end of hostilities. There is an "iron harvest" from the places where trench warfare was concentrated. The Département du Déminage recover around 900 tons of unexploded bombs and other munitions every year. Every year farmers ploughing their fields unearth bombs, barbed wire, bullets and weaponry. The land is still poisoned by excessive amounts of iron in the soil from rusting ordinance.

In 2001 the town of Vimy, site of the Canadian war memorial, had to be evacuated as mustard gas was leaking from shells collected by the French authorities. Disposal is an on-going problem and recent environmental laws make it harder for disposal to be carried out. It is now illegal to dispose of such material at sea, for example.

Builders making renovations to a property in Hove, England, uncovered a haul of unexploded Second World War incendiary bombs in 2009. They were safely destroyed by army personnel using controlled explosions. Another incident, also in 2009, involved a 500 pound live bomb from an aircraft discovered in a Yorkshire field. This kind of find is now becoming fairly rare, fortunately.

More recent wars have more obvious and terrible effects upon survivors and their descendants. Yet even wars which happened generations ago have their war aftermath which blights lives and landscapes.

Oil spills and other neglected wastes

The US had military bases in the Philippines for almost one hundred years, since the Spanish American War of 1898.

Problems left behind by US military include oil spills, pesticide contamination, and left over wastes and ammunition. Leukemia, cancer, respiratory problems, and skin diseases affect victims of this pollution - and many have died without redress or compensation.

Oil spills have been a frequent cause of pollution on Japanese bases used by US military, too. At Onna air base cadmium, mercury, PCBs, lead,and arsenic have been found. All these are pollutants with a heavy toxic load for humans and wildlife.

Military aircraft are a large source of pollution in the shape of fuel use and spillage. Military activity such as bombing raids accounts for more pollution - as bombs generally cause fires and debris from smashed buildings. Oil refineries and stored chemicals may be targeted, compounding the pollution.

The USS Arizona, damaged and sunk during the raid on Pearl Harbour in the Second World War continues to leak oil into the harbor to this day.

"War is a racket. ...It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives."

                                    - Smedley D. Butler 

Modern warfare chemicals

Depleted uranium is a considerable source of pollution and constitutes a major health threat for affected populations.

You might think that this were a relatively harmless product - the word "depleted" suggests that the material has lost much of its strength. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Depleted uranium has been used in active combat by US and UK forces and is highly toxic. It is used in combination with other metals to penetrate armour and when it does it often ignites, leading to a fine dust being spread around the affected area. This material has as much as 75% of the strength of enriched uranium, so it brings lasting health problems with it wherever it is used.

The Gulf War - and Gulf War syndrome

286 metric tonnes of depleted uranium were used during the first Gulf War (1991). It is just one of the likely causes of the raised cancer levels and increase in birth deformities in affected parts of Iraq today.

Depleted uranium is only one of a whole panoply of aggressive chemicals which may underlie "Gulf War Syndrome". About 20% of personnel were affected by debility, chronic tissue damage and a whole array of problems including muscle pains, respiratory problems, memory loss, vision and motor problems, to name just a few. Likely causes include solventsinsecticidessmoke and othercombustion products as well as large doses of immunisations given all at the same time. There is also a suspicion that they may have been exposed to chemical warfare products such as sarin.

At the close of the Gulf War the Americans burnt hundreds of tanks and bombed fleeing Iraqi troops. Iraqi forces torched a good many oil wells. The resulting pollution from these and other military activities caused as much greenhouse gases as 25 million cars on the road for a year, according to Oil Change International.

War and biodiversity

Wars can put pressure on scarce resources. While this might not be a source of actual pollution, the knock on effects are similar. In Rwanda, for example, returning civilians flooded back to the safer mountainous areas, which threatened the habitat of endangered gorillas.

Biodiversity may also be compromised by many of the types of war pollution already described. Many birds were affected by leaking oil during the Gulf War, for example.

Sanitation problems

Most wars result in populations on the move. Refugees set up temporary camps away from the immediate conflict zones and sanitation is often inadequate. Drinking supplies become polluted with fecal matter and disease spreads. Many war zones and refugee camps experience outbreaks of cholera, typhus and even plague.

The flu pandemic in the wake of the First World War killed more people than the conflict. It is thought to have been so severe because of the weakened state of people after five years of war.

Now, in Syria, disease is a constant threat brought about by large concentrations of people living in barely adequate conditions.

Unexploded mines and bombs

Landmines can pose a threat to civilian populations and wildlife long after the cessation of hostilities. This is a very real form of war pollution which makes whole areas of countryside inaccessible for years.

The Landmine Impact Survey (LIS) completed in 2005 in Eritrea showed that more than 10% of communities were affected by mines and unexploded ordinance (UXOs). UXOs include devices such as bombs, mortars, grenades and missiles. More than half a million people were struggling with the daily reality of unusable or unsafe land and constant danger to people and livestock.

As many as 84 countries were affected by landmines and UXOs in 2004, according to Landmine Monitor (http://lm.icbl.org). The figure for 2010 is 70, so progress is being made. United Nations projects to clear land of mines from 27 countries will cost in the region of half a billion dollars during 2010.

Terrorist attacks

The plume of smoke and ash from the twin towers and the aircraft which flew into them in New York, 2001, contained toxic elements such as asbestos, dioxins and PCBs. Children of women who were pregnant at the time are still checked for health outcomes from the toxic gases and dust generated.

Other terrorist incidents may involve chemical weapons and other toxic pollutants. Destruction of buildings in bombing by suicide bombers may also result in pollution.

The Iraq conflict

The Iraq conflict which toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein was responsible for more war pollution. In 2010 a massive increase in birth deformities and childhood cancers has been noticed, particularly in Fallujah. Fallujah is about 40 miles west of Baghdad. It was the site of what was probably the largest campaign of the Iraq war in 2004.

The problem in Fallujah is likely to be the use of bombs, shells and other military equipment but proof will be lacking until a full scale enquiry is carried out. The most dense clusters of cases are near to the river. Water is often a source of on-going pollution from war time activities as many chemicals filter down through soil and rocks and are washed into watercourses. Even mines can travel in this way.


Childhood leukaemias have tripled in the Basra area since the conflict. The damage may have resulted from the Iran - Iraq conflict but cases increased rapidly after the US and British involvement from 2003.

The Iraqi state under Saddam Hussein systematically poisoned Kurds living in the northernmost area of Iraq. Chemical weapons were used. One study showed that the lasting damage to the land and soil from this activity was relatively little. Many of the nerve gases break down in the soil into relatively harmless components.

Israel and Palestine

The lack of an effective peace settlement means that there are numerous instances of the use of toxic materials outside of Israel which affect Palestinian families. Factories in the occupied territories often discharge poisonous chemicals into water sources because there are no effective regulations to stop them. While this might not strictly be "war pollution", it is a consequence of unresolved issues.

Military activities have also had an environmental effect upon the landscape. The recent (2009) action against Palestinian insurgents meant that hundreds of buildings were badly damaged. War pollution of this kind can leave a lasting legacy which blights the lives of many. Some building damage was also caused by Palestinian Qassam rockets landing inside Israel.

The "Apartheid Wall" under construction by Israel involves the bulldozing of ancient landscapes and many olive groves have disappeared. Military roads cut across ancient landscapes and agricultural land is lost to the local population. Water sources may also be affected. Water is fast becoming another source of conflict as population pressure and inequitable access becomes an issue in Palestine.

The Afghanistan War

Afghanistan used to be fairly heavily forested. What remained of its forests have been further depleted by bombing and displaced people searching for wood for fuel.

Explosives used by the military can include cyclonite (RDX), a potentially carcinogenic substance. Rocket propellants include perchlorates, which cause damage to the thyroid gland, reducing uptake of iodine. This can result in growth and other developmental problems, especially for children and may be linked to ADHD.

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam war was notorious for the use of napalm and Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a defoliant. It was just one of a clutch of harmful chemicals the "Rainbow Herbicides" — Agent Pink, Agent Green, Agent Purple, Agent Blue and Agent White used in Operation Ranch Hand. The purpose was to strip trees of their leaves so that the enemy could be seen more easily.

These defoliants continue to cause death and environmental problems today. Agent Orange contained dioxin which is a one of the most potent chemicals. A large number of diseases have been linked with the use of Agent Orange; cancers and diabetes, peripheral neuropathy and spina bifida in newborns, to name just a few.

In Vietnam there are areas where the levels of dioxins in the soil still exceed internationally accepted levels by as much as one hundred times.

Operation Ranch Hand was a deliberate programmme of chemical herbicide use designed to kill the crops of the Viet Cong. The chemicals were sprayed from the air. The rainbow herbicides were part of the programmme and were supplied by chemicals giant Monsanto (of GM foods fame today) and the Dow Chemical Company.

Napalm also has environmental effects beyond the horrible damage it causes to humans. Napalm can include several different chemicals but modern napalm includes benzene and petrol. After burning napalm releases toxic amounts of styrene, which may be carcinogenic. Napalm was also used to set forests alight causing widespread and long-lasting damage.

Vietnam was another country which was also littered with landmines by the close of hostilities.



The Campaign Against Arms Trade works for stricter regulation of arms sales worldwide - and the eventual elimination of the international trade.


Mine action entails more than removing landmines from the ground. It includes actions ranging from teaching people how to protect themselves from danger in a mine-affected environment to advocating for a mine-free world.


Landmine Monitor is a civil society-based program providing research and monitoring on progress made in eliminating landmines, cluster munitions, and other explosive remnants of war.

Smedley D. Butler's War is a Racket: The Antiwar Classic by America's Most Decorated Soldier looks at the economic drivers of war.

Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Greg Mortenson is the inspiring story of a teacher in remote communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan who helped people to realise their dream of a good education for their daughters.


Sponsored links

War Pollution TOP

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