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The Syrian Civil War Is a Toxic Catastrophe in the Making

A new report warns of the potentially long lasting health and environmental consequences of the civil war and criticizes the lack of international attention to the issue.
Photo par Hosam Katan/Reuters

The Syrian civil war's colossal destruction of infrastructure and years' worth of spent ammunition and discarded weaponry will likely leave a lasting and dangerous environmental legacy in the country, which could sicken its citizens for years to come, according to new research.

In a report released Wednesday, the Dutch non-profit PAX said the conflict will in all probability "have a disastrous impact on the environment and public health," but cautioned that determining its ultimate toll will require a concerted effort to track the devastation.


The report's author, Wim Zwijnenburg, compiled data remotely, using satellite imagery and existing reports from the United Nation and social media. The majority of the country's housing stock, he said, has been destroyed, leaving ruble that could be contaminated with hazardous substances including heavy metals and asbestos, in addition to what is left of the explosives and munitions that obliterated them.

The researcher said an unknown number of factories producing bullets and rudimentary explosives are known to use child labor — and those young workers may be especially susceptible to poisoning. Pregnant women, he added, were also particularly vulnerable to the war's toxic remains.

"If you look at a lot of domestic fire ranges of militaries, there's been a lot of pollution problems because of accumulation of heavy metals and the substances in explosives, which leak in to the environment," he said, predicting similar results, but on a much wider scale, in Syria.

Related: Researchers Withdraw Seeds From 'Doomsday' Vault to Address Food Crisis in Syria

But Zwijnenburg added that there was next to no monitoring of the environmental toll of the war, and noted that even in neighboring Iraq the long term ecological and health consequences of the American invasion — including use of depleted uranium munitions — was far from determined.

The report described a total breakdown in environmental services in Syria, an absence it said could lead to long term groundwater pollution and the mixing of industrial and medical waste. Attacks targeting critical infrastructure, oil wells, and industrial sites likely have and will continue to lead to leaks of dangerous chemicals, with unpredictable consequences.


Prior to the outbreak of war in 2011, the vast majority of Syria's pharmaceutical industry, for instance, was centered in three areas — Aleppo, Homs, and the rural outskirts of Damascus — all of which have been epicenters of fighting. Airstrikes, which now include Russian sorties in addition to Syrian regime and American coalition attacks, could continue to spread contaminants if they are directed towards infrastructure sites like manufacturing plants and power stations.

While the threat of pollution from the Islamic State's small scale oil productions — and their frequent destruction — is smaller relative to the oil fires set in Iraq during the first Gulf War, PAX reported that Syria's heavy crude oil is higher in potentially noxious substances, making it "a particularly problematic soil and water contaminant."

Practically none of the parties involved in the conflict, either directly, or politically, have raised concern about the long term environmental impact of fighting.

In September of last year, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, when asked about the ecological dangers of strikes on oil installations responded by saying, "I am not an environmental expert," but conceded "the possibility that there might still be some oil fires burning."

Zwijnenburg compared the mixture of debris spread across Syria's populated areas to the ruble left behind in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Many first responders and those who dug through the rubble of the World Trade Center towers have developed severe health problems, including cancer.


"In Syria, it could lead to long term exposure to toxic particles that are part of the conflict rubble, especially if it's fine dust, which is easily inhaled," he said.

Related: Climate Change Is Likely a Cause of the Civil War in Syria, Researchers Say

The security vacuum across the country leaves sites open to looting, which could further disperse contaminants. On a more immediate level, destroyed waste management systems have already led to deadly outbreaks of disease, including cholera. If Syrians burn their waste — as they do in many situations — the noxious smoke can lead to further health problems, wrote PAX.

Zwijnenburg called on all groups with any involvement in Syria to begin tracking environmental data as part of their work. He also said the Syrian regime should provide information on where potentially hazardous sites are located.

"Basically what we are looking at is the need for an international monitoring body that could collect all this information and disseminate it," he said. "Nothing has been shared so far."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

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