Environment Media Services – 2005-04-21 09:58:17
Environmental Impacts of War
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(October 7, 2002) — As politicians debate the consequences and merits of going to war against Iraq, researchers and defense experts contemplate the environmental repercussions of military action. The weapons used by either side in the proposed war on Iraq would undoubtedly cause damage to local environments. Arms experts point to the ignition of oil wells and deployment of weapons containing depleted uranium as two prominent environmental dangers. Chemical and biological weapons also pose environmental threats.
• In the Gulf War, Iraqi forces set 736 oil wells on fire before leaving Kuwait. The burning wells emitted soot into the air, changing the local temperature and contributing to acid rain (because of the sulfur released). See satellite images of Kuwait at right — click on the images to enlarge.
• While it would seem to make little sense for Sadaam Hussein’s government to similarly damage Iraqi resources, fire experts state that the size of the country and its oil wells would make it much more difficult to put out burning oil fields there. Moreover, some of the wells have a significant amount of gas in them, which increases pressure in the wells. Firefighters have much more difficulty controlling and capping these types of high-pressure wells, and toxic gas in the Iraqi wells poses a greater danger to firefighters. For more information on the impact of oil well fires, see our Gulf War section. See also: “The Fires This Time,” Newsweek, Jan. 29, 2003.
• Depleted uranium (DU) has been used in medical and industrial applications for decades but its use in military conflicts in the Gulf War and the Balkans has led government and nonprofit officials to raise concerns about health risks it may pose.
• DU is used in munitions because its high density and melting point enables it to penetrate tank armor. It is also used to make tank armor.
• People most likely to be exposed to depleted uranium are humanitarian workers and local populations living and working in areas contaminated by DU following conflict, according to the World Health Organization.
• A fact sheet released by the World Health Organization in January 2001 asserts that health risks posed by DU are generally not great, but says “young children rather than adults could be more at risk of DU exposure when returning to normal activities within a war zone through contaminated food and water, since typical hand-to-mouth activity of inquisitive play could lead to high DU ingestion from contaminated soil.”
• DU has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, and at least 600,000 pounds of DU and uranium dust was left around Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia by U.S. and British forces during the Gulf War, according to the International Action Center (IAC).
• Founded by Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general during the Johnson administration, IAC opposes the defense department’s use of depleted uranium. “Metal of Dishonor,” a book published online by IAC, documents “the genocide of Native Americans and Iraqis by military radiation, the connection between depleted uranium and Gulf War Syndrome, the underestimated dangers from low-level radiation, the legal ramifications of DU Production and Use, and the growing movement against DU,” according to the IAC website.
• According to a website maintained by the Department of Defense,
• the major health concerns about DU relate to its chemical properties as a heavy metal rather than to its radioactivity, which is very low.
• depleted uranium has chemical properties that can cause kidney damage, but levels of exposure necessary to present a health threat “are far above levels soldiers would have encountered in the Gulf or the Balkans.”
• According to the Center for Defense Information (CDI), U.S. forces have four weapons that rely upon depleted uranium that could be used in the future: the Air Force’s A10 aircraft, the Army’s Apache Helicopter (also known as the AH64), the Marine Corps’ AH1 (called the Cobra) and the Army’s M1A1 “Abrams Tank.” CDI provides a good survey of new high-tech weapons that might be employed in a war against Iraq.
• The United Nations Environment Programme maintains a page with links to many articles on depleted uranium use in the Balkans.
Chemical and Biological Threats:
• Because some of the chemicals used in war are highly volatile and thus have a time-limited impact, they can leave a smaller ecological footprint. The environmental consequences of using biological weapons poses a greater potential threat in some respects as it is harder to reverse the unleashing of a new organism into the environment.
• The Center for Nonproliferation Studies presents a chronology of biological weapons control and use.
• The Nuclear Threat Initiative maintains weapons overviews of various countries, including Iraq.
• The Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, which exists “to educate citizens about global security issues, especially … dangers posed by nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction,” published an article in 2001 about the potential environmental threat that biological weapons pose. The article focuses on historic biological weapons test sites in the Soviet Union, United Kingdom and United States, and suggests that pathogens at these inactive test sites may still pose a public health risk.
• British Prime Minister Tony Blair presented a dossier of information (PDF) in late September, outlining some of the weapons of mass destruction thought to be in possession by Iraq.