Environmental contamination and Warfare


Environmental contamination as a collateral damage of warfare

The production of weapons, the destruction of buildings and oil fields, fires, military transport movements, chemical spraying, the presence of bombs and landmines still remaining unexploded, the disposal of munitions and the lack of care in its manufacture caused by the urgency of production are all examples of the destructive activities that may have undertaken during wartime.

The aggressive nature of these actions gives us a good idea of the importance of the legacy of contamination that military conflicts leave behind.

World War One artillery

World War One artillery continues to be discovered in north-east France (3)

On top of the great loss of human life, irreversible degradation of ecosystems, soil and marine sediment erosion, deforestation, destruction of agricultural land and water pollution are some examples of the devastating effect that armed conflicts may have on the environment.

Potential contaminants of concern found to be linked to historic war sites  (such as the Wrexham and Bishopton Royal Ordnance Factories) include lead, copper, zinc, arsenic, chlorinated solvents and nitroaromatic explosives (found in shells and ammunition).(1) Additionally, radioactive contamination derived from luminescent radium paints used on the dials of aircraft can be traced  to areas of aircraft crashes, airfields and/or aircraft graveyards.(2) Furthermore, the environmentally negligent practice of burning military waste in open pits has been recorded as a source of potential areas of contamination.

Very little evidence has been published on this type of contamination; mainly due to the restrictions established by Governments in the access to war effort related material. However, recent incidents have begun to reveal the substantial legacy of contamination that warfare has left over the places where these conflicts have taken place.

World War I

Seven farms, located in northern France, were ordered to destroy this year’s harvest due to pollution caused by World War One armaments left in the soil on these farms. Amongst the produce destroyed was some €150,000 (approx. £110,000) of milk (3) The Mayor of a town situated in proximity to one of the aforementioned farms said that the decision to scrap the goods was made after a tonne of old artillery was discovered in the area earlier this year.

Northern France was an area where many of the battles of the Western Front occurred during WW1, and where more than a billion shells were fired. It has been estimated  that 30% of them did not explode. Although France destroys an average of 467 tonnes of unexploded ordnance a year, many are yet to be uncovered in north eastern area of the country.(3)

Not only WWI but also WWII

In September this year, an oil slick was discovered on beaches in Pembrokeshire as a result of destruction caused by a massive Luftwaffe air raid on nearby oil refineries ordered by Hitler 75 years ago.(4) The damage to the oil tank farm was so significant that the fuel was contained behind large earthen walls around the devastated refinery. The pollution is believed to have been contained since 1940 but Natural Resources Wales believe that the heavy rain over previous days overwhelmed the earthen-wall pollution defences at the site and washed out the oil slick onto Fort Road beach. A council spokesman said: “All contaminated seaweed and materials have been removed from the site and any globules of oil on the beach and rocks cleaned up”. (5)


Items found in Welsh beaches after the oil slick (4)

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War had significant environmental implications as chemical agents were extensively used to destroy vegetation in strategic areas. During the war, the Vietnamese military found an advantage by remaining invisible through blending into dense vegetation. This tactic drove opposing armies to target natural ecosystems.(6) An estimated 35 percent of southern Vietnam’s inland hardwood forest was sprayed with chemicals at least once. Some areas; those bordering roads and rivers, around military bases, and along the forested transport route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail-were hit up to half a dozen times.

The US sprayed more than 20 million gallons of herbicides as part of its herbicidal warfare programme during 1961 to 1971 with the aim to defoliate forests, clear growth along the borders of military sites and eliminate enemy crops. These operations have not only caused damage to the vegetation being unable to regenerate even years after the end of the conflict, but also to the wildlife. The uncertain long term effects of these herbicides are now being discovered by looking at modified species distribution patterns through habitat degradation and loss in wetland systems, which absorbed the runoff from the mainland.(8)
In addition to the use of chemicals, studies have revealed that close to 16 million tons of munitions were used in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. These are responsible for the creation of more than 30 million craters averaging 30 feet in diameter that are infertile due to the lack of topsoil. The craters also damaged the drainage patterns of the area because they fill with water. These craters become home to disease-bearing organisms (predominantly including protozoa, bacteria and different types of intestinal parasites) further impacting the ecosystem. The craters are not the only impact bombing had on Vietnam’s ecology – the bombs released sharp metal scraps, known as shrapnel that killed not only enemy forces but large numbers of wildlife.(9)


US airplanes spraying herbicides (7)

The Gulf war oil spill

At the end of January 1991, reports of a huge oil spill in the Persian Gulf began to surface. Iraqi troops retreating from their occupation of Kuwait set fire to desert oil wells and opened the valves on oil rigs and pipelines, releasing between five and ten million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf. (10) The slick reached a maximum size of 101 miles by 42 miles and was 5 inches thick in some areas. Detailed studies carried out both by government and private researchers estimate that the volume spilled ranged between 480,000 m3 and 720,000 m3 and between 240,000 m3 to 480,000 m3 respectively. (11)

Recent scientific researches like the one carried out by the German geographer Dr. Hans-Jörg Barth, suggest that several coastal areas still show significant oil impact and, in some places, no recovery at all. Experts in the field warned that the salt marshes, which occur at almost 50% of the coastline, will certainly need many more decades to be free of contamination. (11)

These are only some examples reflecting that, the legacy of war is not just devastating to human condition and memory but it leaves a long lasting scar on the environment.  In just a few months or years ecosystems can be altered for ever. Fortunately, this is now considered in the international legal frameworks and some of the aforementioned incidents could be considered violations of international law. The Geneva Convention places restrictions on methods of warfare which are intended, or may be expected to cause widespread long-term and severe damage to the natural environment.



  1. The Toxic Remnants of War Project: exploring state reponsability for the toxic legacy of military activitites. Available at: http://www.toxicremnantsofwar.info/assessing-the-toxic-legacy-of-first-world-war-battlefields/ [Accessed 30th October 2015]
  2. Environment Agency (2001). Land Contamination: Technical Guidance on Special Sites, MoD Land. Avilable at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/290706/sp5-042-tr-1-e-e.pdf. [Accessed 30th October 2015]
  3. BBC News, 2015. French farm produced ‘ruined by WW1 pollution’. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34284473.  [Accessed 30th October 2015]
  4. Mail Online, 2015. Oil slick on Welsh beach is blamed on the Nazis – 75 years after Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombed coastal refineries. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3236732/Oil-slick-Welsh-beach-blamed-Nazis-75-YEARS-Hitler-s-Luftwaffe-bombed-coastal-refineries.html. [Accessed 30th October 2015]
  5. Wales Online, 2015. World War Two German air raid sees oil slick hitting Welsh beach 75 years on. Available at: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/world-war-two-german-air-10071356. [Accessed 30th October 2015]
  6. The Effects of War. Available at: http://theaffectsofwar.weebly.com/environment-effects.html. [Accessed 30th October 2015]
  7. DW Made for minds, 2012. US, Vietnam cooperate to clean up toxic Agent Orange. Available at: http://www.dw.com/en/us-vietnam-cooperate-to-clean-up-toxic-agent-orange/a-16152950. [Accessed 30th October 2015]
  8. Wikipedia, 2015. Environmental impact of war. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_war. [Accessed 30th October 2015]
  9. TeenInk. The devastating ecological effects of the Vietnam War. Available at: http://www.teenink.com/hot_topics/environment/article/4361/The-Devastating-Ecological-Effects-of-the-Vietnam-War/. [Accessed 30th October 2015]
  10. CNN, 2010. Lessons learned from the largest oil spill in history. Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/meast/06/04/kuwait.oil.spill/. [Accessed 6th November 2015]
  11. Wikipedia, 2015. Gulf War Oil Spill. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_War_oil_spill. [Accessed 30th October 2015]

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