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The Soils of War

Nov 1, 1999 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:35 AM


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During this spring's war in yugoslavia, NATO bombs struck industrial plants and electrical transformers, releasing thousands of tons of toxic chemicals. These emissions may be one of the war's most enduring legacies. They could endanger the health of millions of people for years to come, both in Yugoslavia and in surrounding countries.

Some of the nastiest chemicals released during the war were polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Banned in the United States since 1977, PCBs are still used as insulating fluids in Yugoslavian transformers and other electrical equipment. Widespread bombardment of such installations, intended to disrupt electrical power supplies, may have released large quantities of PCBs into the soil. PCBs are carcinogenic and can impair fetal development.

Also in the noxious brew: ammonia, vinyl chloride, and ethylene dichloride. An estimated 18,000 tons of these chemicals were discharged during the April 1999 bombing of a petrochemical complex in Pancÿevo, which lies on the banks of the Danube River and which once manufactured fertilizers and polyvinyl chloride. Ammonia can permanently damage the eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs. Exposure to vinyl chloride can lead to liver cancer. Ethylene dichloride, which can damage the heart, brain, kidneys, and lungs, was disgorged into a channel that flows into the Danube-the source of drinking water for millions of people in Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova.

"Even though the bombing was for the most part precision-except for missed targets and cluster bombs-the ecological effects will be pretty indiscriminate," says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland.

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