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Long-buried bombs leftover from World War I and World War II have become more volatile, a new study finds, raising the odds that a dormant explosive detonates.

During those wars, bombs sometimes lodged in the ground or sunk to the bottom of the sea, but did not explode. Leftover bombs are still occasionally unearthed in a back garden, found washed up on a beach, or caught in fishing net. Officials are typically able to isolate these bombs and detonate them in a secluded place — though not always. Occasionally, for instance, an excavator will strike a dormant bomb at a construction site, with deadly results.

Now, the changing chemistry of unexploded bombs may be making them more dangerous, according to a new study in Royal Society Open Science. The research notes that bombs from the early 20th century were often made with Amatol, a mix of ammonium nitrate and TNT, and that Amatol grows more volatile when exposed to iron or other metals found in soil. For the research, two bombs specialists in Norway analyzed samples of Amatol gathered from battle sites across Europe, finding that bombs made with Amatol would be “generally much more sensitive to impact than previously assumed.”

Unexploded bombs can leak harmful chemicals into soil and water, and when detonated, may prove lethal. The study calls for taking extra precautions when undertaking new construction on old battlegrounds.


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