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The forgotten explosives of World War I and II are increasingly dangerous

by News Room
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Explosives dropped during the First and Second World Wars that never exploded seem to become more and more sensitive over time and thus more easily detonated. That’s why vigilance is needed, two British researchers warn.

The First and Second World Wars may be long over; traces of them can still be found everywhere. Including explosives that were dropped decades ago to hit the enemy but never detonated. It is a proven fact that these unexploded explosives are dangerous. Even if they never explode, they pose a health risk because they are gradually doomed to decay, after which their harmful components leak into nature and contaminate soil and groundwater. But decaying bombs and grenades pose another, more acute threat to public health. They can also explode suddenly, unintentionally. And the probability that it will happen is much higher than thought, the researchers write in the journal Royal Society Open Science. Their research reveals that some explosives from the First and Second World Wars become increasingly sensitive over time and thus detonate easily.

The researchers base this conclusion on experiments. They specifically looked at a component that we find in many explosives made during World War I and II: amatol. Its use arose out of necessity, the researchers write. During the First World War, so many explosives were produced that the British had time to quickly exhaust their explosive materials, such as TNT and picric acid. To make TNT last longer, British defense scientists began mixing it with ammonium nitrate. The mixture was called amatol, and it proved to be a powerful explosive that was very suitable for use in explosives. Of course, other countries soon realized this and started using it as well. And when World War II broke out, it was actually self-evident that artillery shells, for example, were filled with amatol. It wasn’t until the end of World War II, when it was possible to produce a large amount of TNT in a short time, that this changed and the addition of ammonium nitrate became unnecessary. “Although now largely out of use, amatol has been used by all countries in all types of munitions as an additive to TNT for several decades,” the researchers wrote. “And since a significant percentage of both World War I and World War II munitions contain amatol, it is extremely important to determine the properties it acquires over time.”

And that’s exactly what the researchers did. In their experiments, they used amatol, which was taken from ammunition dropped in Norway during World War II, but which never exploded. This included a German artillery shell, a German aerial bomb and a German mortar. To test the sensitivity of explosives – and therefore especially of these bombs, grenades and grenades and grenades amatol – recommended by the UN Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing– drop hammer. This means dropping a heavy weight from a certain height onto an explosive substance to detonate the substance. By varying the heaviness of the weight and the height from which it falls (or the impact energy), the sensitivity of the explosive can then be determined.

Almost everything explodes
The experiment revealed that amatol from munitions distributed in World War II can still explode. Only one sample collected by the researchers failed to explode, probably because it had become a little too moist.

More sensitive
But perhaps even more troubling is that only one amatol sample had the sensitivity that the literature attributes to amatol. All other samples were more sensitive. “In extreme cases, the substance was almost four times more sensitive than expected,” the researchers write. It shows that amatol explodes more easily over time.

That’s important information. Because there are still many forgotten grenades, bombs and grenades from the Second World War in Europe. And when they are – accidentally – disturbed, there is a chance that they will explode. And that chance, if they have amatoli, only seems to increase as time goes on. That is why vigilance is needed, the researchers write. Not just for explosive ordnance disposal services, but for anyone who accidentally comes across explosives from one of the world wars.

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