• Is WWI Still Affecting Our Food? — Chromatography Investigates

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Is WWI Still Affecting Our Food? — Chromatography Investigates

Oct 02 2017

The Great War ended almost a hundred years ago. According to records there are no surviving combatants from the conflict that claimed the lives of an estimated 18 million people. With children of combatants likely to be in their seventh or eighth decades — it might seem to many people that the war only affects memories.

But as a recent paper in the journal Science of The Total Environment — Human health risks related to the consumption of foodstuffs of plant and animal origin produced on a site polluted by chemical munitions of the First World War — suggests, perhaps the effects of WWI are affecting more people than we thought.

Exploding tractors

The quantity of munitions used in the Great War is staggering. It is estimated that between 1914 and 1918, almost 1.5 billion shells were fired by the opposing armies, with a combination of explosive and chemical shells — including phosgene, mustard gas and chlorine — used. The bombardments were massive and lasted sometimes for hours, even days. Many shells didn’t explode, which means that subsequent bombardments frequently buried unexploded shells.

At the end of the conflict many unused munitions were destroyed, defused and buried. Over 100 years later, the consequence of this is still being felt. Belgian, French and German bomb disposal squads operate daily in the battlefields of Europe. Hundreds of tonnes of munitions are found each year, with several unexpected explosions each year. Over a recent three-year period, the Belgian government paid out over €140,000 in compensation for tractors and ploughs damaged by buried munitions. But what about any residual chemicals?

Contaminated site

Researchers from ANSES — French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety — have carried out work looking at the risks associated with eating foodstuffs from a munitions burial site close to the city of Verdun in the East of France. In the 1920s, over one million chemical shells and 30,000 explosive shells were destroyed on the site which covered over 100 hectares. Could the food grown on the site be affecting people?

Samples of various foodstuffs grown on the site were taken and analysed using various chromatographic techniques including: gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), high performance liquid chromatography inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (HPLC–ICP-MS), and ultrahigh-pressure liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (UHPLC–MS). A method to improve the data obtained from LC-MS is discussed in the article, Ion Suppression from HPLC Columns.

Previous studies had found that arsenic and nitrates were present in the soil — could these be found in the crops grown there? The study by ANSES concentrated on trace elements, nitroaromatic explosive residues and some organic compounds. Based on risk assessments for these compounds, the team found that crops grown on the site would be unlikely to cause health concerns. But they did report an increased level of arsenic in certain plots and recommended that cereal crops should not be grown in those plots.

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