In the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, the ground has been behaving strangely. In some places, it is sinking; elsewhere it “heaves”—bulging upward, according to satellite data released this week. Before it became a conflict zone, the Donbas has long been Ukraine’s coal country, and the earth is riddled with hundreds of miles of tunnels underneath cities, factories, and farms, many of them abandoned. Recently, those shafts have been flooding, causing the surface to shift and carrying toxic chemicals that now threaten the region’s water supply. One of those mines, the site of a nuclear test in the 1970s, remains potentially radioactive. Ukrainian scientists have warned that the risks to the region could be “more deep and dangerous than Chernobyl.”
Since 2014, when Russia’s annexation of Crimea sparked fighting in the Donbas, the region has been the site of a parallel ecological catastrophe. It involves not only the mines, but toxic leaks from industrial facilities that have fallen into disuse and contamination caused by shelling and munitions. That’s partly due to the chaos of a drawn-out war: In a contested region, who should bear the costs of pumping groundwater out of abandoned mines? At other times, the environment has been wielded as a weapon of war, such as when militants shelled chlorine stocks at a wastewater plant, threatening to ruin the local water supply.
The health effects of these kinds of wartime incidents are likely to be felt long after the physical conflict subsides, says Doug Weir, director of research and policy at the UK-based Conflict and Environment Observatory. But for that same reason, they are often overlooked, because the damage unfurls in slow motion, long after the bombs have stopped falling and the world’s attention has moved on. Now eight years into that conflict, last week’s Russian invasion will escalate the environmental harms of war across the rest of Ukraine.
“It's an extension of what we’ve seen in the Donbas, where you have a conflict amidst this super concentrated amount of heavy industry and this grim environmental history,” Weir says. Much of the fighting is now occurring in urban areas like Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol, where industrial facilities, military installations, and radioactive waste repositories have come under fire from Russian planes and artillery. Those weapons have the potential to leave not only immediate destruction, but a longer tail of polluted air and water that will be felt by nearby residents long after the conflict subsides.
Since the mid-1990s conflict in Kosovo, the United Nations has tried to reel in the environmental harms in conflict zones and hasten cleanup in the aftermath. But some countries, including Russia, have pushed back on setting up guardrails, Weir notes. “They take quite a fatalistic approach to environmental damage in conflict as the cost of doing business,” he says. As the conflict drags on—seemingly longer than Russian forces anticipated—Weir fears that as the Russian military gets more desperate, the environmental damage will not just be collateral, but a tool of force against Ukrainians.
Not that issues like pollution are top of mind while air raid sirens are ringing across the country, notes Andriy Andrusevych, an environmental lawyer based in Lviv, Ukraine. The country is currently flying blind in terms of watching industrial emissions, he adds, since pollution monitoring systems are largely offline or going unchecked. But as a heavily industrialized country, Ukraine already had a baseline of bad air. “They were already one of the worst air quality areas in Europe prior to this,” says Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “If some of these industrial sites are being targeted or accidentally hit and burning, that's going to put a lot of toxic substances into the air.”
This air pollution will be wildly complex, due to the nature of modern war. Missiles, shelling, and tank rounds are chewing up pretty much the entirety of the built environment. Explosions fling a wide array of materials into the air, from heavy metals in industrial sites to the concrete, cables, and piping in roads, to asbestos from buildings. (The material, which is linked to lung disease and cancer, was only recently banned in Ukraine.) And that’s to say nothing of the heavy metals and various carcinogens in the explosives themselves.
Put another way, soldiers and civilians are inhaling a much more complicated variety of air pollution than, say, the exhaust from a highway. “Any time you destroy something with the modern chemicals that we use, not just the petrochemicals, but asbestos—all of these chemicals—there will be toxics put into the atmosphere, including lead and mercury,” says Neta C. Crawford, codirector of the Costs of War program at Boston University. “It's a toxic stew that's been aerosolized. And then, of course, some of that will get into the soil and groundwater.” It’s certainly not helping matters that as the war disrupts electricity generation across Ukraine, people may switch to backup generators running on diesel, adding those fumes to the mix.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
No particulate matter is good to have in the lungs, not even natural materials like dust. Our lungs have evolved to clear these foreign objects—when you cough up mucus, that’s your body expelling the intruders—but PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers) can slip past these defenses and get deep into the lungs, eventually passing into the bloodstream. That delivers heavy metals all over the body, which then persist in tissues.
In the short term, Ukrainians might see an increase in asthma exacerbation, Prunicki says, and the elderly might experience more pneumonia and acute bronchitis. Pollution raises the risk of infectious respiratory diseases. When you get particulate matter in your lungs, immune cells try to engulf those foreign objects—basically, they get distracted attacking air pollution instead of microbes. “But we also use those immune cells for fighting things like viruses,” says Prunicki. “So that's why you see an association with Covid rates and wildfires, or Covid rates and air pollution.” (Keep in mind that the world is still embroiled in a pandemic, and only a third of Ukraine’s population is fully vaccinated.)
Longer term, scientists know that the more you’re exposed to air pollution, the shorter your life expectancy. In the US, chronic exposure might shave two months off the average life, Prunicki says, while in a more heavily polluted place like Bangladesh, it’s years. “There's all types of different health impacts, long-term, like different types of cancers,” says Prunicki. “Lung cancer is associated with an increase in PM 2.5, neurologic-type problems. Pretty much, you name the organ, and there's some type of negative impact from exposure to even just PM 2.5.” (Smoke contains particulates in a range of sizes—PM 10, for instance, is still inhalable, but can’t penetrate as deeply into the lungs as PM 2.5.)
The survivors and first responders of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks—who are suffering much higher rates of cancer compared to the general public—may be a preview of what soldiers and civilians in Ukraine could experience years down the line. “That wasn't just the fires, it was the dust and everything else from the buildings themselves,” says Prunicki. “And I would imagine Ukraine would be somewhat similar, only in some areas you'd be dealing with old factories—metallurgical type factories—which would be even worse.” Plus, the chemicals used to suppress fires are known to be extraordinarily toxic. Once the attacks stop, the cleanup and reconstruction will begin, exposing still more people to toxicants.
Air pollution won’t just be localized to the area around a given attack. Consider that wildfires on the US West Coast have grown so powerful that they’re now sending smoke all the way to the East Coast, 3,000 miles away. That’s because the heat of a wildfire propels the particulate matter from burned vegetation high into the atmosphere. Explosions and fires in Ukraine are doing the same, only not for organic material, but for those complex mixtures of synthetic materials, chemicals, and heavy metals. Depending on the prevailing winds, extremely small particles might travel hundreds or thousands of miles—the very specks that are the biggest threats to respiratory health because of their ability to move the deepest into the lungs and bloodstream.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
In Ukraine, observers say the destruction to the environment is likely to get worse before it gets better, especially as Russian efforts to take the country’s major cities escalate. The increasing attacks on civilian infrastructure over the past several days “indicate that these conditions will exponentially worsen,” says Kristina Hook, a professor of conflict management at Kennesaw State University who has conducted extensive research in eastern Ukraine. Early this week, Hook was monitoring heightened attacks on civilian infrastructure in cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv, including strikes allegedly targeting water systems. Particularly worrisome, she notes, is Russia’s alleged use of a thermobaric weapon—a so-called “vacuum bomb” that creates a huge pressurized blast and vaporizes the material it strikes.
In the midst of war, environmental damage is difficult to track and measure. Andrusevych, the Ukrainian lawyer, notes that the conflict has already raised acute concerns, like at Chernobyl, where the status of monitoring and maintenance is uncertain after sensors recorded high gamma radiation levels there last week. He also points to explosions at an oil reservoir in the town of Vasylkiv, just outside of Kyiv, which has been spewing unknown toxicants into the air. The government is working on identifying key environmental issues and reestablishing air pollution monitoring systems, he adds.
The full toll will likely only become clearer in the aftermath of the war. And then the question is what will be done about it. “I think one thing we can say for certain is that things don’t get cleaned up after conflicts pretty much anywhere,” says Weir, referring to conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Syria. “It’s not a particularly rosy or cheery situation for whoever takes over.”He fears that will be true not just in the Donbas, where it’s uncertain whether whoever takes control will have the political will and funding to prevent the creeping disaster caused by the flooded mines, but across Ukraine. Governments can balk at the often extraordinary expense of removing toxic materials from soil and water; health systems reeling from handling the casualties of war may struggle to keep up with the chronic health problems that follow. Once the bombs stop falling on Ukraine, there is another kind of war ahead.
More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!Driving while baked? Inside the high-tech quest to find outYou (might) need a patent for that woolly mammothSony's AI drives a race car like a champHow to sell your old smartwatch or fitness trackerInside the lab where Intel tries to hack its own chips👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database🏃🏽♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphones