How chemical weapons from the first world war never went away

ON A bright day in late April, dignitaries gathered in the Belgian town of Ypres for a little-noticed commemoration: the hundredth anniversary of the first modern use of chemical weapons. Under a clear sky, representatives of the 1997 treaty banning such weapons – signed by almost every nation – reaffirmed the unacceptability of their use “anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstances”. As they spoke, there were reports that the Syrian government was dropping chlorine on civilians and ISIS was resurrecting another first world war relic, mustard gas, probably a leftover from the 1980s. So a century after Ypres, are chemical weapons coming back? Despite these recent atrocities, the global ban largely holds. Last year, treaty inspectors confiscated 1300 tonnes of mustard and nerve gas from Syria, largely unopposed. All countries except North Korea, Egypt and Israel have in principle declared their chemical weapons and almost entirely destroyed them, a unique achievement in disarmament. But that doesn’t mean the world is nearly free of chemical weapons – far from it. In many places, there are old, abandoned weapons that weren’t in formal stockpiles when the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1997. These forgotten relics still kill or injure people. Some could even be refurbished and reused. The good news is that countries are finally paying attention. Next year, in installations around the world, several former chemical warriors will start erasing their pasts. The bad news: we have little idea how much more of this stuff is out there. “There is no good global database of old and abandoned chemical weapons,” says Paul Walker of environmental group Green Cross International. This is partly because there are few incentives to own up. The convention states that old weapons buried before 1977, or dumped in the sea before 1985, can stay where they are – but if you dig or fish them up, you must destroy them. That is difficult and expensive, so many turn a blind eye. A visit to Poelkapelle near Ypres shows how daunting the problem can be. In a small military facility, rows of sheds hold nearly 5000 rusting first world war shells, many filled with still-lethal chemicals. With a practised eye, Sven Devroe, operations officer for the Belgian military’s bomb-disposal unit, points out German, French and British shells – and rapidly stops me from touching one. Despite all precautions, these antiques can leak. A few years back some mustard hit a worker’s arm, raising an ugly yellow blister. There are a lot more like these. An estimated 1.4 billion shells were fired in the first world war, of which 66 million were chemical. Of those, about 30 per cent failed to explode. Most of the duds ended up buried along the western front, 800 kilometres of trench that stretched from the North Sea to Switzerland. A further 13 million were never fired. When the war ended, Belgium was riddled with unexploded and unused shells, and started dumping them in shallow water near Zeebrugge. In 1980, it dumped more in the Atlantic. Then a global treaty stopped sea dumping and by 2000, some 27,000 suspected chemical shells had accumulated at Poelkapelle. The base has destroyed nearly 19,000 since then. But farmers and builders keep finding more, 700 on average every year with no sign of it stopping. Last year, a farmer near Passchendaele uncovered a cache of 771 German shells, most containing mustard gas. Destroying them is tricky. The failed charge can still explode, and working out what is inside isn’t easy. The team at Poelkapelle uses X-rays and neutrons to identify the contents.


Some turn out to hold solid arsenic-based sneezing and vomiting agents that both sides used to force enemy soldiers to remove their gas masks before firing mustard or phosgene at them in a second salvo. The team wraps those in explosives and blows them up in a controlled detonation chamber. The heat destroys the explosive charge and chemical agent, and the toxic waste gases are removed in scrubbing stacks. The debris goes into an industrial incinerator. Others are filled with liquid – mostly chlorine, phosgene and mustard. The small ones are also sent into the chamber. Until 2012, the larger liquid-filled shells were drained, then the explosive charge was cut off and detonated, and the toxics incinerated. But that August, a German shell that had looked chemical in tests turned out to be packed with explosives. Cutting caused it to detonate. “No one was hurt, but we won’t be using that equipment again,” says Devroe. In 2016, Poelkapelle will install a large static detonation chamber that can handle the biggest chemical weapons. It will be entirely automated, and use heat rather than explosives to destroy the whole shell. France, in contrast, has destroyed none of its first world war chemical legacy. It had the longest stretch of the western front and its store at Suippes now holds about 17,000 chemical shells, all X-rayed and identified. The collection is expanding fast as shells are uncovered during the construction of a high-speed railway along the old front line. So France, too, is installing a controlled detonation chamber that will operate from next year. The current stock of chemical weapons at Suippes alone will take 10 years to destroy, but the facility must also take care of weapons arriving from sites where shells are thought to be buried. “I am afraid that France will not be able to clear those sites for a long time,” says Dominique Anelli, head of chemical demilitarisation at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which enforces the chemical-weapons treaty. Countries that didn’t fight the first world war in their backyards have less of a problem. The UK and Germany had both finished destroying their leftovers by 2007 – although Germany is still cleaning the soil on a military base in Lower Saxony, where in 1919 a train loaded with unused chemical shells bound for France blew up. The use of chemical weapons was banned by the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Countries still made and stockpiled them, but only Japan used them extensively in the second world war. That war’s unused stockpiles were therefore easier to find and dispose of. Even so, a lot may remain. Some 500,000 tonnes of Nazi and Soviet chemical weapons may be buried in Russia or sunk off its coast, for example. The US is the only country so far to have surveyed and declared all the places it suspects old chemical weapons might be buried. In 2007, it listed 194 potential sites. The US Army Corps of Engineers has only started clearing a few of them. They have been neglected partly because the main demand of the 1997 treaty was the destruction of all post-1946 stockpiles, which is still work in progress. In July, Russia said it had destroyed 85 per cent of the 40,000 tonnes it declared and would finish the rest by 2020. The US has incinerated 90 per cent of its declared 33,600 tonnes. It plans to finish the job, using detonation chambers, by 2023.


None of these backlogs, however, compares to that of China, where Japan stockpiled large quantities during its occupation from 1937 to 1945. China’s reports to the OPCW say that Japanese mustard, phosgene and arsenic agents have been found in more than 90 locations, buried or dumped in rivers and lakes. They have killed and injured countless people, and injury rates are rising as China’s building boom unearths more. More than 2000 chemical shells were found last year. Under the treaty, chemical weapons left from the first world war don’t have to be dealt with by the country that made them, partly because it is hard to attribute ownership. Those remnants are the responsibility of the countries where they lie. But chemical weapons abandoned in another country after 1925 are their maker’s responsibility. Japan has spent more than $1 billion cleaning up in China. Some 53,000 tonnes were first collected in cities across the country, and two mobile detonation chambers have destroyed 38,000 tonnes of that since 2010. Even that pales beside two huge pits at Haerbaling, where the Chinese buried an estimated 330,000 abandoned Japanese chemical weapons after the war. This year, Japan finished building two detonation chambers there. Full-time demolition starts next year, and the OPCW wants it cleared by 2022. But according to a joint Japanese and Chinese report to the OPCW in July, at current rates of destruction it will take 40 years. But this may be dwarfed by what is lurking in the ocean. Because the 1997 treaty doesn’t make countries declare chemical weapons dumped at sea before 1985, and dumping was banned afterwards, the data must be pieced together from historical sources. A recent map compiled by the James Martin Centre for Non-proliferation Studies in California shows 127 known ocean dumping sites. They include at least 147,000 tonnes in Russian Arctic waters and 220,000 tonnes of Nazi weapons in the Baltic Sea and Skagerrak Strait. The UK dumped 137,000 tonnes of second world war mustard and nerve gas shells in the Atlantic, and 1 to 2 million tonnes of mixed munitions in a trench in the Irish Sea. The US dumped at least 100,000 tonnes of chemical weapons off its own coasts, while Canada dumped thousands of tonnes of mustard gas off Nova Scotia. Some 15,000 tonnes, mainly mustard, were dumped off Australia. Old weapons in nets, especially oily globs of congealed mustard gas, have injured hundreds of fishermen over the years. It isn’t clear how ecologically damaging the dumps are.


The Helsinki Commission on the Baltic Sea has found that mustard and nerve gas are broken down by marine microorganisms. Arsenic, however, persists and may contaminate fish: research in the Baltic suggests that marine fauna are unhealthier near dumps. Dredging chemical weapons up for destruction could just make a worse mess, says Bob Mathews of Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group. “The best thing is to just let them degrade.” Whether sea-dumped chemical weapons are retrieved should be assessed case-by-case, says Anelli. Those with arsenic or other pollutants that won’t degrade, especially in shallow water near coasts and fishing zones, maybe. Those in deep water with only organic molecules that will degrade, maybe not. First, he says, we need a more detailed map. All this has a wider significance than just cleaning up historic pollution. The treaty is really about stopping proliferation, and there is still a real risk of that. Chemical weapons are cheaper than nuclear and, as recent events have shown, useful in urban warfare and for attracting attention. Apart from Syria, both Iraq and North Korea have developed them, and other countries are suspected of doing so. A ban on chemical weapons is hardly served by a world awash with them, even if they are old and abandoned. If nothing else, the expense of dealing with this mess shows that banning chemical weapons is a good idea. The last thing the world needs now is more ammo dumps full of chemicals designed to kill and maim.

New Scientist, 21 October 2015 ; ;