WWII Chemical Weapons Still Seeking Their Prey
September 16, 2015
Nils Niitra / Postimees
Though chemical weapons were never employed in WW2, on European soil, they were massively produced. Once war was over, the allies tried to figure out what to do with the chemical weapons of Hitler's Germany. Some 170,000 tons of chemical weapons were drowned in the North Sea's Skagerrak Strait -- whole ships stuffed full of chemical weapons. 50,000 tons of chemical weapons (containing 15,000 tons of hazardous active substances) were sunk into the Baltic Sea.
ESTONIA (May 22, 2014) -- As assured by scientists in lands bordering with Baltic Sea, chemical weapons dunked during post-war days aren't too bad on the health of fish. Rather, the danger is there for the fishermen hauling up the occasional bomb or shell.
The "occasional" is not too unusual: in 2003, for instance, fishermen on 25 separate occasions pulled out a total of 1.1 tonnes of chemical weapons, the gas substance in which was still active.
In 2011, fishermen had two contacts with chemical weapons, and the year after that -- one; in Danish waters, mostly. Thus, in 2001 the fishing vessel Katrine Søe caught an object containing mustard gas.
Back in the port, they left the chemical weapon on the deck, and placidly performed repairs on the ship for three weeks. Before setting sail, they just threw the junk away. Alarm bells only got a-ringing as a port worker came in direct contact with the stuff and the initial symptoms appeared.
In January of 1997, Polish fishermen fared much worse. Having hauled out a five to seven kilogram object like a lump of clay -- that's the shape mustard gas assumes as it polymerises, and for a novice it's hard to tell the difference.
The fishermen cast the lump in a trash container; only the next day they developed serious skin damage and a feeling of burning. Some spent weeks in hospital.
Though chemical weapons were never employed in WW2, on European soil, they were massively produced. Into the Skagerrak Strait, North Sea, 170,000 tonnes of chemical weapons were drowned -- whole ships stuffed full of chemical weapons were sunk there.
Once war was over, the allies tried to figure out what to do with the chemical weapons of Hitler's Germany; just sinking 'em was thought to be the best option. So 50,000 tonnes of chemical weapons were sunk into the Baltic Sea, containing 15,000 tonnes of hazardous active substance.
Mainly, the stuff came from Third Reich arsenal -- much more "advanced" than that of the allies. The main burial areas of Nazi chemical weapons are near the Easternmost Danish island of Bornholm, and in the deep of Gotland. Mostly thrown there by allies post WW2, partly sunk by the Germans themselves before the war ended -- near Denmark.
The CHEMSEA project financed by EU and rallying Baltic Sea scientists delved quite deep into chemical weapons and the impact thereof.
As assured by the scientists, the chemical weapons in the seas are far from a topic of the past; starting with all kinds of cables and gas pipelines and ending with maritime wind parks, the pressure is rising on the Baltic Sea deeps -- threatening to pull up the toxic history.
In one issue the scientists stand as one -- bringing the stuff up would cause mean more problems than benefits. Therefore, the Nord Stream pipelines were simply directed past these places, rather than to upset the seabed.
A large part of the German chemical weapons did contain the very mustard gas; mostly, the stuff was placed in either 250 kilogram airplane bombs or in cannon shells. In addition to their own production, Germans collected chemical weapons from territories of occupied countries, ending up with close to 300,000 tonnes of these by the end of the war.
The "official" sinking spots were the Gotland Deep and the area near Bornholm; later, however, unofficial sites have also been discovered -- one near the port city of Gdansk, Poland. As a rule, the stuff was just cast overboard. It was near Bornholm where the Soviet army sunk over 90 percent of the chemical weapons left in the Baltic Sea.
Professor Paula Vanninen heads the Finnish Institute for Verification of the Chemical Weapons Convention at Helsinki University, which has also taken samples of the chemical weapons used in Syria.
According to her, initial information on chemical weapons in seas was collected from Baltic Sea states in 1994. "In the deep of Bornholm there lie about half a million chemical weapons containing the total of 11,000 tonnes of various poisons -- lion's share or about 7,000 tonnes thereof is mustard gas," said the scientist.
In addition to that, the tear gas adamsite, Clark I-gas, and other chemical weapons were dumped in the sea. Majority of the chemicals left in the sea have found their way out of the metal containers, and have dissolved in the environment.
"Still, we have found very large residues of substances resulting from decomposition of adamsite and Clark," said Prof Vanninen. "And that's no good news, as we have to do with arsenic."
According to the professor, the latest information says that marine organisms may indeed be contaminated with chemical weapons residue. At the same time the CHEMSEA study admits that while chemical weapon residue are found in seabed sediments, this means no significant effect on codfish or other sea creatures examined.
Still, the states are hiding information on where and what they have sunk. "Earlier, it was just rumors regarding the Gdansk area; by now, it has been proven," said Prof Vanninen. Thus, it is not excluded that here and there undiscovered burial sites exist.
"A part of the information is highly classified," admitted the professor. "In addition to chemical weapons, other kinds of armaments are to be found in the bottom of the sea, and that does not look nice -- At Bornholm, the entire seabed is covered with bombs and chemical weapons are only a part of that."
Sinking chemical weapons was only banned in 1985. "Possibly, all kinds of stuff was cast in the Baltic Sea before that; but the nations tend not to be open about it," said Ms Vanninen.
Sinking chemical weapons wasn't just characteristic of the Soviet army alone. Several states used to do that, led by the USA.
Though the maps say there are no known chemical weapons in Gulf of Finland, Ms. Vanninen said the public just do not know if there are any, and where. "I know that, after the war, some things have happened in the Gulf of Finland that have not been registered too well, but that might be of interest to us," said she.
As invited by foreign ministry of Finland, the author took part in seminars and meetings dedicated to the Gulf of Finland Year.
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