That’s the warning from a new study that has found evidence of heavy metal pollution from bombings in France during world War 1 — more than a century ago. Soils sampled from craters along the western front were found to contain high levels of lead and copper, which can inhibit plant growth. Researchers refer to the long-term effects on the ground of explosive ordnance as “bombturbation”.
According to the article’s author and soil scientist, Dr Naomi Rintoul-Hynes of Christ Church University in Canterbury, Kent, the findings in France suggest long-term ramifications stemming from the current conflict in Ukraine.
“In addition to the short-term impacts on agriculture through crop supply chain issues, these fields can be dangerously contaminated by long-term munitions.
“Maybe for 100 years or more.
“This could impact food security not just in Ukraine, but potentially globally.”
In 2021, Ukraine produced around 80 million metric tons of wheat, corn and barley – representing 6% of all calories traded on the international food market – but this year the country is expected to harvest less than half that amount.
Dr Rintoul-Hynes continued: “In Europe, the First World War left a legacy on the environment due to the extensive and intense use of artillery during this period.
“In a process called ‘bombturbation’, significant physical changes have occurred in the landscape under artillery fire, resulting in divergent development of the ground within the craters.
“Concentrations of heavy metals in the ground did not differ in the craters compared to the flat landscape.
“However, enrichment in lead and copper was observed above the reference values for the region.”
The study site, according to the researchers, has not been decontaminated or redeveloped.
They take 22 cores from the center of eleven bomb craters and compare the soil taken with that taken from 50 cores taken from flat, relatively undisturbed ground.
The researchers found that lead levels in the disturbed soil were above safe legal limits set by both the UK and the European Union.
This, said Dr Rintoul-Hynes, is likely to have had “ecotoxicological and human health effects.
“Although copper was below the threshold for UK and EU soils, some samples had lead concentrations above these limits.
“Therefore, this needs to be taken into account when considering a change in land use, i.e. to agriculture.”
She added: “Environmental damage has been a by-product, and sometimes a deliberate strategy, of warfare since the ancient world.
However, Dr Rintoul-Hynes continued: “The scale of warfare reached an industrial level in the 20th century.”
Fighting along the western front, the ground expert said, resulted in an “unprecedented concentration” of weapons, with an estimated 1.45 billion shells fired.
It is estimated that 30% of this ordnance did not explode – French demining teams destroying an average of 467 tonnes of unexploded ordnance each year.
The full results of the study have been published in the European Journal of Soil Science.
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