Russian Ecocide: How the Russian Invasion has Led to Heavy Metal Pollution in Ukraine’s Environment

February 6, 2023
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted also in environmental disaster.
Photo credit: Reuters

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted not only in numerous casualties, mass killings, torture, and destruction of civilian infrastructure and along with housing, but also in environmental disaster. According to the UNEP report, The Environmental Impact of the Conflict in Ukraine, the direct and indirect environmental damage stemming from war can lead to environmental consequences that can have harmful effects on human health, security, and well-being. Ukraine's Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources estimates that there has already been a minimum of $441 billion in environmental damage that will be demanded as a part of war reparations from Russia.

One of the biggest elements of environmental pollution is that which is directly created by the war, such as:

  • debris from munitions and ruined buildings,
  • destroyed military vehicles,
  • debris and remains of from explosive weapons (aerial bombs, artillery etc),
  • still-unexploded ordnance and mines.

Most of these pollute the environment with dangerous heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. For example, building debris can contain asbestos. Smoke from electronic devices (gadgets, cooking electric utensils, TV sets etc) that burn up as buildings are destroyed can contain  dioxins, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls, and mercury. People who are exposed to toxic smoke from burning buildings or military debris run the risk of different kinds of cancer, respiratory diseases, and problems with producing healthy children.

"During active hostilities, the best way to solve the pollution problem is to quickly clear the territory of the remains of construction debris and equipment. All residues have to be taken to a single storage place for further disposal. These steps have already been taken in Bucha and Irpin, and I am sure that if you ask the local authorities, they will provide an explanation as to where exactly this place is," says Anastasia Skok, Environmental director of the NGO Save Dnipro.

Destroyed military vehicles, of which there are a total of 20061 so far, contain toxic components such as batteries, tires, cables, fuel, and masses of now useless steel, titanium, depleted uranium, cast iron, aluminum, and other substances. Their exploitation leads to the emission of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, sulfur dioxide, and other harmful substances. Aircraft contain nickel-cadmium batteries, which are highly toxic and can affect various organs when released into the environment after helicopter crashes.

"Estimatesof the levels of these pollutants have mainly a local nature. When heavy metals get into the soil, they constantly migrate and form various chemical compounds. In order to measure the local impact, it is necessary to take soil samples, compare them with accepted MPCs (maximum permissible concentrations) and then define the degree of soil contamination. We assume that there is excessive contamination of the soil in the places where battles take place, but we cannot determine the exact scale until local measurements are taken. It could be much higher. To see the local impact of hostilities, you can look at our map in SaveEcoBot and compare the data for the period before and during hostilities," says Anastasia.

Explosivesspread these substances around affected areas and into the air. Depleted uranium and toxic substances that are used in the creation of explosives lead to skin irritation, kidney failure, and risk of cancer. More than 42,915 tons of these emissions have already entered the atmosphere, and the war is ongoing. Dangerous chemicals are also released from exploded rockets and artillery shells that are fired every day. All these substances fill the air, seep into the soil, and affect the state of water.

Unexploded ordnance poses a serious danger to future cleanup efforts and wildlife and makes huge areas of land unfit for agriculture or the safe movement of people.

Heavy metals and metalloids like lead (Pb), barium (Ba), nickel (Ni), copper (Cu), and manganese (Mn) are common components of ammunition. Decomposition of this metal waste can take up to 70 years as a result of its lead-sulfide anti-corrosion coating. These metals can also cause impaired brain development and other neurological problems.

Phosphorus bombs have also been used in Russia's war against Ukraine. The UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons prohibits the deliberate use of incendiary weapons against civilians and restricts their use upon military targets within populated areas. These kinds of weapons look like white wax which  glows in the dark and has a pungent smell. Phosphorus is scattered over an area of several hundred square meters. As it burns when exposed to oxygen, and continues until it completely burns out at temperatures that can exceed 800 degrees Celsius. The substance causes severe burns and can lead to excruciatingly painful wounds and death.

Apart from the environmental damage caused by heavy metals and the remains from ammunition, the constant risk of accidents at Ukraine's nuclear power plants has created a nuclear terror for the world. With their military occupation and exploitation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Russia blackmails the world with threats of nuclear disaster. The Russian aggressors impede the access of  international observers and experts to monitor the  plant's safety, and also sabotage the establishment of a Nuclear Safety and Security Protection Zone at ZNPP. This is not even considering the danger posed to the global environment caused by Russian combat activities at and around the plant.

Seas, rivers, forests, and fields are also falling victim to the ravages of the war. Flora and fauna, as well as underwater marine life, have been affected by the remains of weapons, sunken ships and missiles, munitions explosions and noise. Many habitats have been burned down or are constantly affected by fires and shellings, which kill or scare away animal inhabitants. One example is the dolphins of the Black Sea, who have suffered extensive wounds and burns, most likely received as a result of explosions, which have been found on the beaches of Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania.

The influence of war on the environment cannot be underestimated, as the consequences will be felt for years to come. Diseases, damaged flora and fauna, tons of waste, and contaminated soil, air, and water are the obvious outcomes -- not only in Ukraine, but in neighboring countries and around the world. Heavy metal contamination is a long-term problem that will need to be addressed by the world. The ecocide happening in Ukraine is yet another reason why steps must be taken to stop the Russian invasion and force Russia to bear responsibility for the mass destruction of Ukrainian communities, lives, and natural resources.

This article is produced within the project «EU Emergency Support 4 Civil Society», implemented by ISAR Ednannia with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Internews Ukraine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

Communicator at Internews Ukraine

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