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The Impact Of War and Weapons On Humans And The Environment


Chemical Weapons

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The large-scale development of chemical weapons such as poison gases became possible by the 19th century. It was not until the Geneva Convention of 1925 that the use of poison gases and germ warfare was banned. This was after many thousands of deaths and perhaps a million casualties had been caused by the use of chlorine, mustard gas and other chemicals during the First World War (1914-18). However, the Convention only prohibited the use of these, not their manufacture or ownership. Many nations retained the right to respond in kind should they be attacked with chemical weapons and to use them against countries which had not signed the Convention.

Japan used chemical weapons against the Chinese during the years 1937 to 1945 and left stockpiles of these in China – some near water supplies. Most other combatants during the Second World War abided by the Geneva Convention.

A Chemical Weapons Convention, which forbade development and production of chemical weapons, as well as their use, was not signed until 1997. This was long after Iraq had used chemical weapons (mustard gas) in its war against Iran and against its Kurdish citizens in 1988. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was established by the Convention to convince more countries to join, to monitor the chemicals industry, and to check and confirm the destruction of chemical weapons. Chemical weapons are stored at several sites in the USA, which has agreed to destroy these by 2007.

Biological Weapons

Biological weapons can be defined as “micro-organisms or toxins derived from living organisms”. Biological warfare is the use of these with the intent to cause death or disease in humans, animals or plants.

The production, use and stockpiling of biological weapons is prohibited by the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention of 1972 but there are still no formally agreed measures to ensure compliance.

Throughout history, biological toxins and diseases have been used as weapons of war. When the British were colonising the US, they triggered an epidemic among Native American tribes by giving them smallpox-contaminated blankets.


Landmines were used during the American Civil War but they were first used extensively during the Second World War. Anti-tank mines were developed to counter tanks, and anti-personnel (AP) mines were used around the anti-tank mines to prevent their removal. Since then, mines have tended to be used against civilians with the deliberate aim of driving people away from their communities, making their land unusable and destroying local infrastructure. Small mines which could be scattered by air were used by the USA during the Vietnam War, as well as during more recent conflicts. Russia also used landmines in the 1980’s during its war in Afghanistan.

Landmines are relatively cheap to make. Human Rights Watch has identified nearly 100 companies, both in the Third World and in the West, which manufacture them at a rate of 5 to 10 million a year. Experts estimate that between 60 and 110 million mines are laid around the world and over 100 million mines remain in stockpiles.

The Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty came into force in 1999 and has been signed by over 140 countries. The US government, under the Clinton administration, announced in May 1998 that it would sign the Treaty but in February 2004 the Bush administration reversed this decision.

Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear bombs were developed at the end of the Second World War and in 1945 they were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The death toll and scale of destruction caused by these bombs shocked many, creating a real fear of their use, but Russia, the USA, UK and other countries went on to build increasingly larger bombs and to stockpile them during the Cold War period. Today there is less of a threat that they will be used but there is a possibility of accidental detonation. The USA has a large part of its arsenal on launch-on-warning status.

There is also now a possibility that the USA will develop small nuclear weapons to penetrate deep under the earth and destroy fortified bunkers. These mini-nuclear weapons have been nicknamed “bunker busters”. Conventional bunker busters have been used in Baghdad and Afghanistan but these were hydrogen bombs releasing large amounts of radioactive dust.

Depleted Uranium

Depleted uranium (DU) is a nuclear waste: it is a by-product of uranium enrichment for use in nuclear power and nuclear weapons. It has been used in several military conflicts since the Gulf War in 1990-91. It is especially effective in combat because its high density and melting point make it effective as an armour-penetrating weapon. However, increased rates of cancer among the populations of Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have raised concerns about the health risks that depleted uranium may create. Servicemen and women are also routinely exposed to depleted uranium.

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