• 2002-04-25
The Baltic is a sick sea. Apart from immense industrial pollution and over-fishing, what was once a clean, clearwater sea is also suffering from the presence of thousands of World War II-era mines and chemical weapons. International division created this problem. We can only hope international cooperation can clear it up.

For 50 years after the war, the Baltic remained a divided sea, with the Iron Curtain running straight down the middle. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and the other countries in the region were never able to address the burning issue of dumped chemicals that could, as scientists warned at a forum on the subject in Vilnius this week, turn the Baltic into a dead sea.

In accordance with the 1946 Potsdam Convention, British and U.S. forces sank about 270,000 tons of chemical warfare agents seized from the Nazis. They were sunk inside ships off the shores of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, several off the coast of Bornholm Island.

The USSR also sank trophy chemical weapons, about 35,000 tons of them, mostly near the Latvian port city of Liepaja. This was a scattered burial, and many of the munitions there are hard to locate and keep track of.

The chemical weapons lurking at the bottom of the Baltic include containers of mustard gas, chemical agents containing arsenic, assorted poisons, and Cyclone B, the deadly substance used in Nazi concentration camps.

Although the speed of the corrosion of the protective shells around the munitions has not been determined, some scientists at the Vilnius forum warned that the shells could all burst at the same time, causing a monumental environmental catastrophe.

Other scientists insist the chemicals pose no danger because they are losing their toxic chemicals through hydrolysis. Some feel that no detoxification can occur at the bottom of the Baltic, in temperatures of 2-4 degrees Celsius.

But if the chemicals get into the food chain, what scientists do not know is the impact of small doses of these poisonous substances on the genetic make-up of the human body.

There are already instances of chemical weapons getting caught up in fishing nets. Fragments of nets have been found on the hulls of the sunken ships, adding to the fear that some chemical weapons have already been shifted and brought to the surface.

From the magical white-sand dunes towering above the Western Lithuanian town of Nida to the intricate array of Estonia's 1,500 islands, the Baltic Sea coast has long attracted admirers and summer vacationers. At the first sign of hazardous chemicals washing up on the shore, they won't be coming any more.