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BAE's 'Green killing fields'

UK arms manufacturer BAE Systems is bringing us ‘Green killing’ with a new generation of what it laughingly calls ‘environmentally-friendly weapons’. Apparently, it wants to reduce the dangerous compounds emitted by its jets, fighting vehicles and weapons, like depleted uranium (DU) dust, which it warns “can harm the environment and pose a risk to people”.

BAE’s initiative was welcomed by the UK Ministry of Defence, which has itself proposed ‘environmental impact assessments’ for all new weapons: quieter warheads to reduce noise pollution, grenades which produce less smoke, etc. There have even been experiments to see if explosives and landmines can be turned into manure.

BAE’s growing range of so-called ‘Green weapons’ now includes:

  • bullets with lower lead content because “lead used in ammunition can harm the environment and pose a risk to people”
  • armoured vehicles hybrid diesel/electric engines to reduce carbon emissions
  • weaponry which releases fewer toxins like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other hazardous and often carcinogenic chemicals
  • more stable artillery, which does not blow up accidentally and has a longer shelf life, reducing waste

Ed.- (i) As BAE reminds us, “no company, regardless of what they make, can now just make a product, bung it out there, and then forget about it,” and “we all have a duty of care to ensure that from cradle to grave products are being used appropriately and do not do lasting harm.”

(ii) Tungsten.
BAE has abandoned DU and returned to weapons-grade tungsten alloys to harden the tips of its weapons in 2003, allegedly due to environmental concerns. Environmental concerns aside, tungsten-tipped missiles are equally effective at piercing armour, but cost less. There is no question that weapons tipped with a weapons-grade tungsten alloy are preferable to weapons tipped with DU. The tungsten alloy used is not radioactive and does not vaporise on impact, spreading long-lasting carcinogenic radioactive particles over a wide area.

However, Tungsten is the third heaviest element and can be combined with copper, nickel, iron, and cobalt to form heavy metals. The body requires trace levels of some heavy metals (e.g. cobalt, copper, manganese, molybdenum, vanadium, strontium and zinc) to maintain good health, but even low exposures to other heavy metals (e.g. mercury, lead and cadmium) can lead to cancer and neurological damage.

Although virtually no safety research has ever been done, the toxicity of tungsten and tungsten alloys for human health has been seen traditionally as low. This may soon change. Researchers at the US Army Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland (US) embedded tungsten alloy pellets into rats to see what might happen to a human wounded by tungsten alloy shrapnel. They were surprised to find that every rat showed signs of cancer development after only one month and tumours within four to five months. The same may apply to humans. [1] So it is all a question of degree. Tungsten alloy shrapnel is as indiscriminate as DU dust, but does not spread as far.

(iii) Another study from the US Centers for Disease Control found childhood leukaemia clusters in the area around the once tungsten-mining towns of Fallon, Nevada and Sierra Vista, Arizona (US). [2]


[1] Kalinich,JF et al. Environmental Health Perspectives 2005; 113(6): 729-734
[2] Sun,NN et al. Toxicology and Industrial Health 2003;19(7-10):157-63

(12565) Jon Ungoed-Thomas. Sunday Times