University researchers help battle the bomb damage in Ukraine

14 December 2023

As well as the daily humanitarian damage caused by the weapons deployed in the Ukraine Russia conflict, the long-lasting pollution to the Ukrainian farmland, from contamination by heavy metals in the Russian bombs, could have devastating impact on human health long after the war has ended.

But British and Ukrainian academics, working together at the UK’s Royal Agricultural University (RAU), are already working looking at ways in which they can identify levels of pollution in the farmland and soils as well as what they can do to fix the problem.

And today (09.00hrs PST, Thursday 14 December 2023), they are sharing their results with other scientists and seeking further collaboration and funding to help continue this vital work in the “Environmental impacts of armoured conflict” session at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual meeting 2023 taking place in in San Francisco.,

Professor Nicola Cannon, Professor in Agriculture at the RAU, said: “Initially understanding the contamination helps to avoid spreading contaminated soil across a wider area which could have devastating effects for future productivity and food safety.

“The plan is to test bomb craters of different shapes and sizes left by weapons over the whole of Ukraine to evaluate them for contaminates and particularly for heavy metals which could have serious environmental consequences and devastating impacts on human health if transferred into the food chain.”

Academics and researchers at the RAU have been working with colleagues at Sumy National Agricultural University (SNAU) in Ukraine since the Russian invasion in March 2022 and one of their SNAU colleagues Associate Professor Olena Melnyk, who is now based at ETH Zurich, a public research university in Switzerland, is leading the project. 

A sampling protocol for evaluating the craters was developed by RAU staff and tested, with Ukrainian colleagues, on Salisbury Plain. The soil samples are then analysed using specialist equipment from the RAU’s Cirencester campus. 

Olena said: “We are so grateful for all the support we are receiving. In conjunction with the RAU and The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) we have been able to deliver a month-long training programme to teach trainers, in Ukraine itself, the protocols and skills required for sampling the craters and analysing the soil. 

“These trainers will in turn teach others to reach our ambition of sampling all the bomb craters to avoid further damage to our country. This will also help us to map the contaminated farmlands of Ukraine and develop a comprehensive strategy to revitalise Ukrainian agriculture and to build back better.”

Work is also taking place on the ground in Ukraine where researchers have initially evaluated 28 craters in three previously occupied regions in north and north-eastern Ukraine. Analysis of the soil in some of these craters showed elevated levels of a dangerous range of heavy metals including lead, copper, nickel, and antinomy. 

Nicola added: “The farmers in Ukraine are remarkably robust and, where possible, they have continued to farm which has, in turn, helped to keep food supplied to the Ukrainian population.

“However, these farmers cannot afford to wait until the end of the war to correct land which has been damaged and contaminated by bombs. They need immediate, and ongoing, help to know what parts of their land are safe, and unsafe, to use for crops.”