Russia’s invasion is contaminating crops and posing a serious long-term risk to human health.

On June 6, satellite images captured hundreds of craters left by artillery shells and a 40m-wide (131-foot) hole left by a bomb in fields around the eastern Ukrainian village of Dovhenke. It is just one of the sites left desolate by Russia’s invasion of its neighbour. And, while the war continues to exact a devastating humanitarian toll on those caught up in the conflict, it is also leaving a far less visible, toxic legacy on the land itself.

Heavy metals, fuel, and chemical residues from ammunition and missiles have seeped into the soil among Dovhenke’s pockmarked landscape and burned-out buildings.

Although the full extent of Ukraine’s soil contamination is unknown, There are fears that the conflict will have a long-term impact on the country’s agricultural productivity. Ukraine is a major producer and exporter of cereals and oilseeds, including corn, wheat, barley, and sunflower oil. The conflict’s widespread pollution endangers local wildlife and the health of communities, who risk eating contaminated crops.

The Ukrainian government has requested assistance from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in assessing the environmental damage caused by the conflict. Preliminary monitoring by the agency and its partners suggest that urban and rural landscapes could be left with a “toxic legacy for generations to come”.

Attacks in Ukraine have already resulted in the destruction of chemical plants or waste storage facilities, resulting in a slew of pollution issues. According to the most recent figures compiled by the UNEP in January, 618 industrial or critical infrastructure sites have been damaged or destroyed in the year since the war began. According to UNEP, these are conservative estimates that are indicative but far from conclusive. Actual figures are expected to be much higher.

“Many reports cannot be verified,” says Andrea Hinwood, UNEP’s chief scientist. “We don’t yet know which pollutants are in situ – at the moment, it’s not possible to access so many of these areas. Some remote technologies can be used to provide a visual overview, but we won’t be able to test for specific contaminants until the conflict is over.”

A special taskforce led by Ukraine’s Ecological Inspectorate is investigating environmental crimes such as attacks on water treatment plants, chemical plants, and nuclear power plants. UNEP warns that this impact assessment could be “a colossal task given the scale and geographical spread of reported incidents”.

Environmental groups are already meticulously documenting the damage in order to direct rehabilitation and cleanup efforts once the conflict is over. But can Ukraine’s desecrated crops and soil be recultivated? No one can say definitively at this point, but experts agree that it will take a massive effort and that there will be no one-size-fits-all solution because contamination varies by location. Microbes may be used to break down oil spills as part of cleanup efforts. or cultivating plants like brake fern and sunflowers to extract toxic chemicals or stabilise the soil.

According to Yevhenia Zasiadko, head of climate at EcoAction, a Ukrainian non-profit that is building a database documenting the environmental impacts of Russia’s war, some of Ukraine’s worst-hit areas are in the country’s southern and eastern regions, which also have the most fertile soil. EcoAction has documented 841 incidents to date using open-source data.

According to UNEP, physical soil pollution occurs when heavy machinery compacts the soil, explosions create craters and disrupt the temperature, or fires directly damage ecosystems.

Mines or missiles, military vehicle fuel and lubricants, and combustion products are all contributing to chemical contamination of Ukraine’s soils, according to Zasiadko. “Harmful substances can migrate into the plants growing on that land, making food poisonous to those who consume it,” she says.

When a variety of munitions are used, soil toxicity can be persistent and difficult to remove, so locations must be prioritised based on the level of damage, according to Hinwood. Excessive bombing in places like Mariupol, a port city with a variety of industries and urban development, poses enormous crop remediation challenges, she claims. “If there is damage to urban infrastructure, wastewater infrastructure, or possibly chemical manufacturing plants, there will be multiple environmental impacts,” she says. However, with so many lives shattered by the conflict, it may be difficult to ensure that enough attention is paid to the war’s long-term environmental costs, according to Zasiadko. She hopes that contaminated soils will not be overlooked after the war. “This must remain on the agenda. There is no evidence of [conflict pollution]. Even if the war ended now, there would be long-term environmental consequences; we must address this.”

“There isn’t much information about how the government will act right now,” she says. The Ukrainian Ministry of Environment did not respond to a request for comment from BBC Future.

Zasiadko hopes that some of the most damaged areas will be designated as nature conservation zones and allowed to recover. “[However], everything has to be decided on an individual basis, and it depends on the level of pollution and what it will be used for,” she says.

Monitoring is critical for directing remediation efforts to the highest priority sites, according to Wim Zwijnenburg, a senior researcher for Pax, a Dutch non-profit peace organisation. Pax has been identifying and mapping pollution incidents using satellite images and open source data, including 213 reported military actions on energy infrastructure.

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While contamination can have a negative impact on soil productivity, crops aren’t always visibly affected by stunted growth, according to Zwijnenburg. By detecting burned land, craters, and military movement, satellite images can reveal changes in healthy vegetation.

Although contamination is more difficult to detect without soil analysis, Zwijnenburg believes that sustained shelling of a specific area would indicate that the soil is saturated with military-origin metals and munition constituents such as the toxic explosive chemical TNT, necessitating further investigation.

During wartime, when there is no waste management infrastructure, waste piles up on the outskirts of towns and cities in unregulated or informal landfills, according to Zwijnenburg. “Then, because no one is collecting the waste anymore, leachate from household waste gets into the soil and groundwater,” he says. Raw sewage or untreated wastewater can be released into the soil if underground infrastructure is damaged during a conflict. Chemical waste may also be illegally dumped by industry without the usual infrastructure, warns Zwijnenburg.

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