There are roughly 150 to 300 sites with dumped chemical weapons worldwide, according to Beldowski, who now works as a professor of marine chemistry and biochemistry at the Polish Academy of Sciences. That number includes around 50 sites along American coastlines, with a significant proportion in Hawaii. “They’re in every ocean and almost in every sea,” he says.
In 2017, a group of researchers from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, calculated that the total amount of chemical munitions quietly lying on the ocean floor reached 1.6 million tons. That number only includes the weapons in known locations—which they believe is only 40 to 50 percent of the total number of sites.
There is ample evidence that these chemical weapons are already leaking. Studies in the Baltic Sea have found toxic remnants in the tissues of sea stars, lobsters, and even commercial fish species. They’ve already taken a toll on fish populations off the German coast, says Claus Boettcher, the director of Germany’s Program on Underwater Munitions.
“We have a serious suspicion of an effect on the reproduction rate of cod, the most commercial species in Europe,” he says, “because most of the cod’s main reproduction areas are exactly in the same areas where the highest munitions contamination concentrations are.”
If these weapons keep leaking—or the volume of the leak increases—they could endanger the survival of organisms that are already struggling to adapt to a warmer, polluted, and acidifying ocean.
But the effects of these noxious conflict artifacts extend beyond sea creatures, and the Darłowo children were just one example. Between 1998 and 2009, almost 2,000 encounters with abandoned munitions occurred in the waters around Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, according to the European OSPAR commission, which works to protect the northeastern Atlantic Ocean.
About 60 percent of the incidents involved fishermen pulling munitions up in their nets. In one particularly disturbing instance, three Dutch fishermen were killed by a WWII-era bomb that exploded when they hauled it aboard their ship.