All over the world, the remnants of war are still laying around. Not just abandoned missile sites, or cold war bunkers, but actual munitions. How long are they going to be a danger? When I was Boy Scout, we used to go to military bases and stay in old the World War II barracks. Once in a while, the guys and I would find live rounds, and once, a dud grenade! Obviously, we secretly tried to keep them, but when the adults inevitably discovered what we’d found, a safety conversation unavoidably ensued; but is there a real concern? Are old explosives dangerous?
The first explosives were invented in China in the tenth century when someone found the mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulfur exploded with an energetic force, we call it “black powder” because Europeans later converted it into a weapon of war. The 19thcentury, saw a flurry of explosive chemicals including nitroglycerin, dynamite, and smokeless gunpowder. Dynamite, invented by Alfred Nobel — founder of the Nobel prizes — is a high explosive.It’s highly unstable nitroglycerin mixed with clay, wood or some other inert agent. Before the invention of dynamite, most explosives were either relatively slow burning; great for projectiles like fireworks, but not useful for blowing things up — these are called low explosives.
Low explosives burn and at their surface, slowly in thousands of a second;whereas high explosives ignite throughout their composition, very rapidly (millionths of a second). Dynamite was one of the first popular high explosives, and was so good at blowing stuff up, it became popular in mining, construction, demolition, and (of course)military.In movies, high explosives often require a very plot-important detonator. These are called primary explosives, and are used with certain high explosives that require more OOMF to ignite. C4, for example, is one of those. C4 is relatively inert until it’s hit with a primary explosive. C4 can be lit on fire and will not detonate, but will instead burn like a piece of wood — though it emits poisonous gas so don’t try that with C4 at home.
If you, however, hit C4 with an electrical charge or another primary explosive, be somewhere else. As explosives age, they go through chemical changes which can make them less effective and less predictable. Ammonium nitrate explosives like ANFO will absorb moisture, become damp and thus less effective; nitroglycerin explosives like TNT or dynamite can degrade in warm climates or even excess sunlight! Explosives have expiration dates ranging from a few months for slurry explosives to many years for detonators and cast explosives — but unlike food, it’s not that the explosive becomes a dud, it just may not explode with maximum efficiency.
For example, the M16 land mine was produced by the U.S. from World War II into the mid-70sand uses trinitrotoluene (TNT) explosive to bound into the air and explode into a 30 meter radius. It has a 70% chance of going off properly after 8 years underground, 12 in tropical climes. And yet, 50 years later, the chemicals inside of mines might have degraded, but they’re still very deadly.Today, improvised explosive devices and car bombs get the most news, but 2013 saw a bit less than 11,500 civilians killed by these methods. Unfortunately, the wars of the last century, left 78 countries scattered with over 100 million landmines, which still kill15 to 20,000 people every year according to the U.N.
Landmines have been banned by international treaties, and a 1980 Geneva Convention, but they’re still out there. Cluster bombs and landmines are often dropped from airplanes or shot across large areas by artillery, and are therefore never located on a map and were never recovered. In fact, there are an estimated 80 million potentially active bombs littering the country of Laos ALONE. For more about explosives on the ground; Lissette and Seeker Daily have a story about the woman fighting to find these deadly mines. But for the full experience, you have to also watch this video on Test Tube . Where Evan explores how these mines got everywhere, and why we haven’t cleaned them up.