NBC Weapons: Gassed In Flounders Fields



June 24, 2010: Last April, a construction project was halted outside Washington, DC, when a 90 year old chemical weapons dump was found. Among the items removed were glass containers of toxic chemicals, that were still dangerous after nearly a century in the ground. These included mustard gas, in liquid form, that was still deadly. Over a ton of noxious chemicals, and contaminated soil, was removed and destroyed.

What was unusual about this chemical weapons dump was that it was unknown. There were three other similar sites in the Washington area, where chemical weapons from research organizations was disposed of, via burial, after World War I (1914-18). The locations of these were known, and the stuff was subsequently cleaned up. But this fourth one was apparently material from nearby American University, where there was some chemical weapons research during World War I. Apparently it was considered more convenient, or safer, to bury the stuff in an unofficial dump near the campus, rather than transport it to one of the three official dumps.

From World War I to the 1970s, the U.S. disposed of most unneeded chemical weapons by dumping them at sea. During that period, the U.S. dumped chemical weapons off U.S. shores 32 times, and off foreign shores 42 times. The foreign dumps were largely captured German or Japanese chemical weapons. All this amounted to over 50,000 tons of chemical shells, bombs and barrels full of the stuff.

Growing concern over the side effects of these chemical toxins seeping into the sea water (and sea creatures that might be eaten by people) brought an end to the practice. This was hastened by growing incidents of fishing boats (using new methods) bringing up some of the disposed, and still dangerous, chemical shells and bombs. This happened recently off Massachusetts. Once the dumping at sea was halted, new methods were developed to incinerate unneeded chemical weapons. This approach was subsequently adopted worldwide.

These unpleasant discoveries are only a small part of a much larger problem. Every year, several thousand tons of World War II munitions are unearthed. Despite the efforts of skilled technicians, some of this stuff explodes, killing or injuring hundreds of people each year. A lot of that is the result of civilians, especially kids, finding this stuff and playing around with it.

While the deadliest stuff is aircraft bombs that failed to explode, most of the explosives unearthed are smaller items like grenades, mortar shells, rockets and mines. Many of these weapons (over ten percent, for some manufacturers) did not explode when they were supposed to, but just buried themselves into the ground. The bombs and shells are still full of explosives, and often have a fuze that, while defective, is often still capable of going off if disturbed. Other munitions were left in bunkers, or elsewhere on the battlefield, and got buried and lost. There they degrade, and become more dangerous to handle. Most of these lost munitions eventually get found by farmers, or anyone digging up the ground for construction. Most large cities, Europe and the Pacific, that were heavily bombed cities during World War II, still suffer from construction crews unearthing unexploded bombs.

 The problem goes back farther than World War II. Unexploded munitions from the World War I (which ended in 1918), and the American Civil War, which ended in 1865, are still showing up, and some of them are still deadly. But the biggest source of these discoveries is Europe, where over a thousand World War II munitions are discovered each year in Europe (along with a few hundred from World War I, and far fewer from late 19th century conflicts).




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