Amid War in Ukraine, a New Looming Concern

Contamination of nation's water, air, and soil could take years to assess and clean up, experts warn
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 25, 2022 7:26 AM CDT
Amid War in Ukraine, a 'Huge Environmental Problem'
Residents stand outside their apartments as shops burn after a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on April 11, 2022.   (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Death and destruction isn't all that's been left in the wake of Russia's unrelenting war on Ukraine. Contamination of the nation's water, air, and soil are also now a concern, and it's an issue that could take years to remedy. Fires, explosions, building collapses, and even emissions from military vehicles are spewing toxic gases (think methane and carbon dioxide), asbestos, and heavy metals like lead and cadmium into affected areas, which experts say could lead to increased risk of cancer and respiratory diseases, as well as kids suffering from developmental delays. "We're facing a huge environmental problem," Stefan Smith of the UN's Environment Program tells the Wall Street Journal, which notes inspections being carried out at "sites of concern" around Ukraine.

Those sites include military installations, refineries, coal mines, water-treatment facilities, and nuclear power plants like the one in Chernobyl, with contamination especially problematic in and around cities such as Kyiv, Luhansk, and Kharkiv, a rep from the Ukrainian environmental group Ecoaction tells the Journal. But this isn't an issue only Ukraine has to worry about. The invasion "raises a host of unique and potentially profound environmental concerns for not only the people of Ukraine, but the wider region, including much of Europe," Carroll Muffett, CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, tells ABC News, which details how the pollutants could affect Ukraine's industrial, agricultural, and urban areas, as well as its wildlife and ecosystems.

Damage to Ukraine's nuclear plants is particularly worrisome, with 15 active nuclear reactors that could pose a danger not only in Ukraine but outside of its borders, Muffett says. "As we saw with the [1986] Chernobyl disaster, these impacts can last years to decades," he tells NPR. With inspectors still having trouble gaining access to certain areas in the war-torn country, it's an overarching conundrum that may take a while to fully grasp the scope of, and that could lead to other long-term ripple effects such as a malnourished population (due to the wrecked agricultural landscape) and delays in rebuilding as costly, complex environmental remediation efforts take place. "The environmental consequences of war are simply consequences in human impacts of war that can continue long after the shells have stopped exploding, long after the bullets and the guns have ceased," Muffett says. (More Russia-Ukraine war stories.)

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