Dumping at Sea: Chemical and Conventional Munitions
Discarded munitions pose a serious long-term threat to the health of the oceans
After World War II, the United States and other European nations dumped 300,000 tonnes of chemical and conventional munitions into the ocean. These munitions shells may break open during the dumping operation or may corrode over time allowing the toxic agent to leak out. In
the period 1995-2000, a total of 11.3 tonnes of conventional munitions have been encountered by fishermen and reported in the German state of Lower Saxony. KIMO lobbies for the implementation of legislation to prohibit future munitions dumps into Europe’s seas. KIMO, in collaboration with the Irish government, highlighted the need for the implementation of a European ‘Independent Monitoring Programme’. This legislation now stipulates that encounters with dumped munitions are to be recorded in detail so that management options can be considered. KIMO is also working to highlight the under reported issue of iron-filing deposits in European waters.
Following World War I and II, a large volume of munitions, including conventional munitions such as bombs, grenades torpedoes and mines and chemical munitions containing mustard gases were dumped in the Northern Sea region.
"Estimates suggest that in excess of one million tonnes of munitions were dumped in Beaufort's Dyke (Irish Sea), some 168,000 tonnes in Skagerrak and some 300,000 tonnes in the North Sea...There are 148 individual dumpsites spread from Iceland to Gibralter."
In 2005, three fishermen were killed when a World War II bomb exploded on board their fishing vessel after it had been hauled aboard in their nets. These dumped munitions are causing environmental and safety concerns across Europe. It is worrying that there is an abject lack of reliable information on what type of weapons are dumped and where they are lying. This means divers and other maritime users may stumble upon any kind of life threatening munition.
"Direct physical contact or disturbance of munitions can occur with various marine activities, e.g. fishing, laying cables and pipes, sand and gravel extraction and diving...but the majority of encounters, 59% of all reported, were associated with fishing activities.
Based on the geographical location of munitions dumps, seabed fishermen in the southern North Sea are most at risk from encountering conventional or even toxic munitions. The munitions map to the right highlights the extent of munitions dumps with the red stars representing conventional munitions and the green stars chemical munitions. There is a serious risk of hazardous substances being released from such objects will have a negative affect on the marine environment and will eventually enter the human food chain. As time passes, munitions will continue to corrode making the output of dangerous substances inevitable. In addition, the lack of knowledge of the volume of dumps in specific locations makes the cleanup of this problem even more hazardous. Spontaneous explosions are also a serious problem which has the potential to kill marine mammals and damage passing vessels.
A threat to our health?
Research conducted by the University of Georgia has discovered that there is a link between dumped muntions and cancer. Data has revealed that the closer marine life was to unexploded World War II munitions the higher the level of carcinogenic materials.
"These findings will be presented at the Second International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions on February 25-27 in Honolulu. Data has been gathered since 1999 on the eastern end of the Isla de Vieques, Puerto Rico – a land and sea area that was used as a naval gunnery and bombing range from 1943-2003. Research revealed that marine life including reef-building corals, feather duster worms and sea urchins closest to the bomb and bomb fragments had the highest levels of toxicity. In fact, carcinogenic materials were found in concentrations up to 100,000 times over established safe limits. This danger zone covered a span of up to two meters from the bomb and its fragments.
According to research conducted in Vieques, residents here have a 23% higher cancer rate than do Puerto Rican mainlanders. Porter said a future step will be "to determine the link from unexploded munitions to marine life to the dinner plate."
KIMO in collaboration with the Irish government highlighted the need for the implementation of a European ‘Monitoring Programme’. This legislation now stipulates that encounters with dumped munitions are to be recorded in detail so that management options can be considered. The OSPAR Commission authored a report which outlined the new protocol for weapons monitoring; 'Convention-wide Practices and Procedures in relation to marine dumped chemical weapons and munitions'. This document provides clear guidelines to fishermen who encounter munitions.
Information and Resource Centre
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