Military organizations are attracted to the possibility of creating innovative, invincible, technological weapons that can be levelled against less technologically-advanced enemies, and to provide their soldiers with the most modern technologies to improve their comfort and safety in warfare. Other applications of nanotechnologies include the possibility of having lenses that are always clean, clothes that do not need frequent washing, uniforms equipped with sensors for real-time health monitoring, or miniaturised diagnostic assays for use in theatres of war, etc. All such items can help soldiers in the battlefield or during war missions.
The U.S. Army's interests in nanotechnologies started in 2003 when the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) was founded, with an investment of $50 million and a staff of 150 people. The main goal was to enhance the soldiers' protection and survivability under the headings "threat detection, threat neutralization, automated medical treatment, concealment, enhanced human performance and reduced logistical footprints". Nanotechnologies indeed have the potential to offer innovative solutions to these problems. For instance, taking advantage of the incredible properties that materials exhibit at the nanoscale; the size and weight of devices that are necessary for a soldiers' daily life can be decreased from the present 100 pounds to 45 pounds. Such an advantage can dramatically improve a soldiers' performance in the battlefield.
Nanotechnology-based materials offer unprecedented possibilities for developing protective light-weight uniforms; uniforms that change colour to provide environmental camouflage; clothes that change their rigidity in case of need (for instance, the leg of as soldier's uniform can become a rigid cast for a fractured limb); physiological sensing of soldiers' condition from sensors embedded in the fabric; miniature self-powering radio tools for communications; drug dispensers embedded in clothing that can be administered automatically by a geographically distant medical doctor via radio waves; uniform, helmet and gloves that can offer highly effective protection against chemical and biological and physical agents; and so on. The applications of these novel technologies should be able to transform fatigue uniforms into battlesuits that make the soldiers all but invincible!
Other military applications can include new fuels where nanoaluminium is the catalyst rather than costly platinum; improved protective materials for tanks, airplanes, submarines or car armour plating; coatings that make vehicles invisible to radar scanning; nanocoatings for night-vision goggles; batteries that are rechargeable in a matter of a few minutes - which means a lesser quantity need be carried in the battlefield; portable laboratories; electricity supplied by nanoscale hybrid photovoltaic cells and, last but not least, in the military field, more powerful ammunition.
New "invincible munitions" are the dream of every nation for offence and defence purposes, and nanotechnology-based weapons can supply innovative solutions, but since every medal has also a reverse side, new risks may be posed by their use, not only for the soldiers themselves and the workers involved in their manufacture, but mostly for civilians and the environment. Some direct and indirect effects of these weapons are already visible, but not always universally understood.
Symptoms of the nano products of war
Presently, in the Gaza Strip, medical doctors are taking care of civilians with strange lesions due to the explosion of new "bombs". The wounded present missing lower parts of their body with sharp resections, parallel to the ground, and the cross sections of the wounds show already-cauterized vessels and flesh. The geometry of these lesions requires new solutions for their surgical treatment and ensuing prosthesization. Medicine can take advantage of these new situations by being forced to contrive innovative solutions and new treatments, but the situations themselves are not something desirable for people or the environment.
A possible explanation for these never-experienced-before lesions is that a "dense fire wall" with sharp borders is generated during the bomb blast and propagated at high speed and pressure. Matter touched by this "ball of fire" is promptly sublimated and aerosolized. This effect can be generated by having a depleted uranium or tungsten ball explode, generating nanoparticles. Other innovative weapons used in current conflicts can theoretically be identified, if you look for the effects they produce. A trace, even if just at nanoscale level, can always be determined and recognized.
Nanopathology – the study of the effects of nanoparticles formed by high temperature
If engineered nanoparticles and nanotechnological tools are in the spotlight, the non-engineered ones, though much more numerous and with little-known consequences on health, lie in the shadows. Nanosized particles, unintentionally released by high combustion processes, are already present in the environment, as well as in the bodies of living creatures, including humans. A new word for this situation "Nanopathology" was invented in 2002 to describe the harmful effects brought about by the interaction of micrometric and nanometric particles with organs, tissues and cells.
To briefly explain the effects of those particles, it must be realized that they are extremely fine and light and, because of that, they behave very much like a gas. For that reason, they are inhaled along with air, and can reach the pulmonary alveoli and enter the blood stream in about one minute. A similar situation exists with particles ingested with the vegetables they fall upon. Once that particulate matter is in the blood, it can trigger an abnormal coagulation phenomenon and form thrombi that embolize in the lung circulation, if all that takes place in the veins; or migrate virtually to any organ where they cause infarction, if within the arterial circulation. Unfortunately, most inorganic particles cannot be biodegraded or eliminated by the organ they have reached, so they stay there forever and, after having concentrated, induce granulation of the tissue that may possibly grow into a cancer. Inorganic, non degradable particles are also known to be endocrine disruptors.
The first group of patients already recognized as affected by nanopathological symptoms are soldiers. As soldiers are subject to health checks before being sent to fight or engage in peace-keeping missions, it is possible to demonstrate their state of health, exposure to "war pollution" and the onset of the symptoms while they served, or immediately after being repatriated. The symptom evolution can be different depending on concentration, size, chemical composition, and uptake velocity of the particulate pollutants.
Gulf War and Balkan Syndromes
In 1991, during the first Gulf War, a few soldiers, who apparently did not suffer from visible wounds, returned home after just a 6-month mission and started to die. At the beginning, the symptoms were not severe and not clearly understood. The analysis of the symptoms did not help in diagnosing a single, clear pathology. A new phrase was invented for this: Gulf War Syndrome. After a while, another new phrase was coined: The Balkan Syndrome, to describe a new collection of symptoms that affected some of the soldiers who were deployed in the Balkans during the recent war. Also in that case, the symptoms, although not severe in the beginning stages, grew in severity with time, and were inexplicable.
As a rule, soldiers left in perfect health, a condition certified by the clinical files concerning the examinations performed before the mission - and, in any case, a soldier on active service must be in good health. But, after a comparatively short time in the battlefield or in a bombed environment, they may start to show symptoms, sometimes trivial, but growing more and more serious and, after a few years, may even prove fatal.
Gulf and Balkan Syndromes do show some differences, and this is particularly important as a clue, because it means that, though the activities undertaken were unquestionably similar, there was something that made them somehow different. In the case of the Balkan Syndrome, the media blamed the depleted uranium used in the weapons and its radioactivity as the cause of the illnesses or, at least, an aggravating agent, but that was only a superficial analysis that could never be proved in a scientific way. Something more serious and logical occurs in environments devastated by bombing.
According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Depleted Uranium (DU) ammunition contains less than 0.711% of Uranium-235, and its radioactivity is very low. Even if the global quantity of DU weapons released was far from negligible, radioactivity was spread across a wide territory and, except in some restricted areas, there was no cumulative effect, as the United Nations Environment Programme showed in their reports after a campaign of investigation in the territory after the war. So, another explanation must be looked for.
Some nations tried to explain the mysterious diseases considering different possible agents like, for example, multiple vaccinations, sprays of various chemicals in tents, and drugs against the effects of biological weapons, but no proof was ever found to support such hypotheses; also because many patients, mostly civilians but also soldiers, did not receive any vaccination nor lived in tents nor took any such drugs.
Investigating the causes
At the initial stages of our study into these diseases, we developed an innovative investigation technique, performed directly on the soldiers' pathological samples. We wanted to detect and identify the DU debris, starting from a practical hypothesis that only if the radioactive particulate matter was inside the body, could it trigger the disease. As a matter of fact, we never found DU particles in the pathological tissues, but, instead, found something else: micro and nanosized particles with chemical compositions that we had reason to correlate with the effects of explosions of high-technology DU and tungsten-based weapons.
When a projectile is launched, its pointed penetrator can pierce relatively thick armour plates or virtually any other target, and the ensuing explosion results in part of the material involved being vaporized, as the temperature induced is in the range 3,036 – 3,063 °C. After sublimation, everything present in the vapour gives rise to an aerosol rather than to condensation dust, and because of the very high temperature, is often of nanometric size. The chemical composition of those particles is the result of the fortuitous combination of the elements present in the occasional crucible represented by the target and, on a much smaller scale, by the bomb itself. This effect was clearly investigated by researchers of the Military Base of Eglin (Florida) in a report dated November 1978. They measured submicronic particles (0.3-0.5 micron sized - at that time the word nanoparticle was unknown) and even more than 30 years ago the researchers involved expressed concerns about these airborne particles and their possible inhalability.
The main factor affecting the size of that particulate matter (sometimes within the order of magnitude of the tens of nanometres) is temperature; and, as a general rule, the higher the temperature, the smaller the particles.. As a consequence, the particles generated close to the core of the explosion will be smaller than those formed in a more peripheral area. Similar results occur when a great quantity of conventional ammunition is used, an event common when weapons are disposed of, and that is done by setting them off, or when an accidental explosion occurs in an arsenal.
It is reasonable to think that the chemistry of the airborne pollution changes from place to place, and is mostly related to the material the target is made of. The evidence we found consistently in the pathological tissue specimens of more than 150 cases of ill soldiers that were studied (also from the Second Gulf War in Iraq) is the most irrefutable demonstration of this theory.
Particles, mostly round-shaped (i.e. typical of high-temperature formation), of heavy metals and combinations of them, but also of ceramic materials like silicates, zirconia, etc., were found. Also found was debris of lead and tin, zinc-iron-titanium, bismuth, lead-bismuth, tin-silver, iron-copper-zinc, titanium-iron, silicon-zirconium, strontium-sulphur, cadmium-silicon and also, exceptionally, silicon-uranium-thorium. A new kind of environmental pollution is generated by the explosion of high-temperature weapons like those based on DU or tungsten, which never existed before as to size and composition. This pollution can be inhaled or ingested (along with polluted food) by soldiers, civilians, NGO members, journalists, animals and their fate is greatly unknown.
War and the effects of war, have been known for ever, but now one of the main differences between today's and yesterday's warfare is the submicronic-sized matter generated by the very high blast temperature of new weapons. The nanosized particles have the potential to negotiate all the physiological barriers and so reach the most intimate parts of the organism including glands, brain and gonads. Among many other effects, it means that nanoparticles can even contaminate seminal fluid that and consequently contaminate partners. A further sexual disease that can be correlated to the War Syndromes is the so-called "Burning Semen Disease" of the soldiers' wives and partners. Soldiers carry with them, to their homes, the effects of the war they fought in.
Novel 'nano products' resulting from new weapons of war are posing real risks that are already with us. Even if governments seem to be unaware of them, society must take a stand against the many "boomerang" effects related to the serious side effects of military technologies.
In 1962, the Nobel Prize Laureate John Steinbeck said that "The ability to think differently today from yesterday distinguishes the wise man from the stubborn". We hope governments will "recognize" the pervasive and ongoing effects of new weapons and protect their people, as more harm may come about from their use than posed by the 'enemy' themselves.
Antonietta M. Gatti is a professor at the Laboratory of Biomaterials at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Modena Italy.
Stefano Montanari is scientific director of the Laboratory Nanodiagnostics, Modena, Italy.