Assessing the Environmental Impact of Discarded Unexploded Ordnances

CEE/MES Associate Professor Loretta Fernandez explains the environmental risks of unexploded munitions and the toxic heavy metals they contain being left underwater. Lead and mercury, among other toxic chemicals, can leach into ocean water, ground water, and soil sediment.

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global News. It was published by Cyrus Moulton. Main photo: Unexploded ordnances can be in war zones, such as Ukraine (above) as well as in the Charles River, but may pose more than just a safety risk. Photo by Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via AP

Why unexploded ordnances pose physical — and environmental — risks

Two unexploded ordnance were fished out of the Charles River in Needham, Massachusetts, this week.

A sweep of the river by the state police bomb squad and a marine dive team didn’t turn up any more munitions.

Beyond the obvious safety risks, the old weapons and ammunition left underwater also present environmental risks, a Northeastern University expert says.

And they used to be put there intentionally.

“Until the 1970s, we were using the ocean to dump things,” says Loretta Fernandez, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Marine and Environmental Sciences at Northeastern. “We weren’t really thinking about how the compounds in these munitions might get out and start to mix into the water.”

Fernandez says while there is only limited and inconclusive data on the environmental effects of munitions, we know that they contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury and uranium.

“The metals themselves we know are toxic,” says Fernandez, who develops tools to measure chemicals from munitions in the environment.

Loretta Fernandez, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern, develops tools to measure chemicals from munitions. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Unexploded ordnances or munitions wash up on beaches, get picked up in fishing nets, and even bring the bomb squad out to the Charles River — a legacy of warfare, dumping and accidents.
“They’re out there,” Fernandez says. “It’s sort of like strolling down the beach and you see a piece of purple sea glass. It’s not everywhere, but you’re going to find it.”

In fact, Fernandez says officials estimate that tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of tons of munitions have been disposed of in coastal waters; and that does not count the munitions that have been dumped in the deep ocean.

Read full story at Northeastern Global News

Related Faculty: Loretta A. Fernandez

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering