Depleted Uranium Weapon Use Persists, Despite Deadly Side Effects
Thursday 25 August 2011
by: H. Patricia Hynes, Truthout | News Analysis
Depleted Uranium rounds are seen aboard the USS
War and the Tragedy of the Commons, Part 5
By 2003, reports were surfacing of cancer clusters and birth disorders in conflict areas of the Balkans and
Little governmental research on Gulf War veterans was being conducted other than a small study on 29 veterans with DU metal shrapnel fragments in their bodies, cancer cluster reports were dismissed as anecdotal and alarmist, and DU was pigeonholed as "weak" and "feeble" radiation with no predictable risk. Thus, the
A Tale of Two Cities: Birth Defects and Cancers Since the Gulf and
In November 2004, coalition forces led by the US Marine Corps besieged the town of
The dark side of the battle for Falluja was solely found in non-mainstream press accounts. Investigative reporter Dahr Jamail learned from eyewitnesses of brutal tactics and "unusual weapons" used by the
Rumors of excessive cancers and birth defects in post-2004 Falluja began leaking into the international press, yet few, if any, made headlines in the
Even so, a revelatory peer-reviewed study did appear in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2010. The researchers compared post-2004 health survey data from interviews with Falluja residents with pre-2004 medical registry data and also with data on comparable
A second scientific study appeared on the heels of this study, confirming and extending its findings and conclusions. Falluja has at least 11 times the world average of major birth defects in newborn infants. No other Iraqi city has reported anywhere near the level of pediatric abnormalities as Falluja, the site of two intense artillery battles, in April 2004 and November 2004. Many war agents, such as dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange, are known to cause birth defects and deformities. In the case of Falluja, the study authors identified metals as the potential toxic residues contaminating the city and contributing to the epidemic of birth defects. Metals, among them depleted uranium, are, "integral to modern 'augmented' and 'targeted' weapons." Metals, which persist in the environment and accumulate in the tissues of those exposed, can negatively affect embryo/fetal development, act synergistically with other environmental toxicants and disrupt cellular and tissue development. They are "potential good candidates to cause birth defects," concluded the authors.
Child Leukemia in Basrah
For the last few years, stories and rumors have leaked into the international news about an epidemic of child leukemia in the southern Iraqi city of
Depleted uranium, used by US and British invading forces during the 1991 Gulf War and in the 2003 war in
Depleted Uranium: Uncovering the Toxicity
In May 2003, following the "shock and awe" opening to the war against
The Pentagon speaks of depleted uranium as relatively harmless and necessary for modern warfare, but remains tight-lipped about its use. Soldiers on the ground in
What Is Depleted Uranium and Why Is It Used in War?
Depleted uranium is the waste product of the uranium enrichment process for nuclear power reactors and nuclear weapons. It consists of the same components as natural uranium but has differing proportions of uranium isotopes, with slightly more U238 and a reduced amount of U235, such that it has about 60 percent of the radioactivity of uranium. The United States has stockpiled an estimated 450,000 tons of DU. Thus, using it in war has become a convenient method of disposal in other countries' environments.
Being heavier than lead and harder than steel, DU is used by the
An estimated 320 tons of DU were used in weapons during the 1991 Gulf War; about 12 tons were used in the Balkans in the late 1990's. Available information suggests that the US and British forces released approximately 90-180 tons of DU in intense air strikes at the onset of the 2003 Iraq War, while some estimate that more than a 1,000 tons may have been used throughout the war. There is no clear information about the amounts of DU used in Afghanistan; however, it is highly likely that US forces have used DU munitions in the war in Afghanistan because US weapon systems that contain DU are being used in that war.
Test data has shown that approximately 20 percent of a DU weapon penetrator becomes aerosolized particles upon impact with an armored vehicle. According to Army tests, a 120 millimeter DU penetrator, when fired from an Abrams tank, created two to seven pounds of uranium oxide dust upon impact. From 50-96 percent of the dust is respirable particles, the majority of which, if inhaled, can remain in the lungs for years. Some fraction of the aerosolized DU particles can be dispersed and spread by wind. A significant amount contaminates soil within a few hundred yards of the target but can be resuspended and carried distances in windy conditions.
Both soldier and civilians in war and post-war situations are at risk of internal and external exposure to DU through inhalation, ingestion of DU particles and, less so, from skin exposure. Those riding in a vehicle struck by a DU shell experience an acute exposure to DU. Civilians can be exposed when they are victims of a DU weapon that strikes a nearby target and generates aerosolized particles. Soldiers and civilians in conflict areas can suffer DU exposure from embedded shrapnel, with DU entering the bloodstream through the wound.
The 2003 assessment in the Balkans by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) found very high soil contamination close to the site of embedded DU penetrators, from within a few yards to within a few hundred yards. The UNEP study in the Balkans also recorded DU contamination of groundwater in Bosnia-Herzegovina from DU rods that had corroded and released soluble forms of DU that reached groundwater. A 2003 journalistic report on Iraqi children1 working to support their families revealed that the children were sorting through blasted Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles stockpiled in scrapyards by US military contractors in order to salvage metal parts to sell to metal dealers. If the vehicles had been hit by DU weapons, the interior of the vehicles would be highly contaminated with DU particles and expose the children to DU via ingestion and inhalation.
"Weak Radioactivity": The Deceptive Defense of DU
DU and its use in weapons of war have eluded public scrutiny because they have been dismissed by government agencies as weak radioactivity, with the implication that it is mildly toxic and acceptable for use in war. Further, the normative radiation risk model used by UN and national health agencies predicts no measurable health effects in civilian and soldiers exposed to particulates from DU weapons and their targets. The mutual consensus of DU munitions countries is that DU radiation is low-dose radiation, and their risk model predicts no health effects. End of story. However, a growing number of scientists have challenged this minimalist assessment and have added gravitas to the debate on using DU in war. Their new research findings and the activist work of NGOs, DU-exposed veterans groups and those documenting the increase in disease and birth defects among the Iraqi population have kept the issue of DU exposure from dying a natural death due to willful government neglect.
In testifying to the European Parliament in 2005 on DU exposure from weapons use, risk assessment expert Keith Baverstock stated that upon impact with a hardened target, DU munitions produce fine particles of depleted uranium oxide (DUO) which have no analogue in nature, nor in the refining and processing of uranium. This finding calls into question the appropriateness of using the normative risk model the UN and governments currently employ to assess radiation exposure from depleted uranium. Since 1998, research on DUO in human cells and host animals has revealed that exposures to low concentrations result in genetic damage to cells, damage which is mediated by the chemical metal toxicity of DU.
Further, Baverstock posits that when DUO inhaled particles penetrate deeply into the lung, they pose a radiological risk from alpha emissions, in addition to the chemical risk of genetic damage to cells. The potential synergy between the two toxic effects can make DUO more carcinogenic than earlier risk assessments have concluded. Recent findings also reveal an amplifying of the inhaled DUO radioactivity through a phenomenon called the "bystander effect" - a single cell irradiated by DUO alpha particles signals surrounding cells, which behave as if they were also irradiated, thus magnifying the irradiation. Three risk routes, he concludes, exist for internal exposure to DUO particles: genetic damage to cells from chemical toxicity, a synergistic effect between radiation and chemical toxicity, and an amplifying of radiation harm through the "bystander effect." In concluding his testimony, Baverstock accused UN agencies, and also national agencies whose countries are vested in using DU munitions, of ignoring new research evidence on DU toxicity and of denying any need to reassess the radiation risk model in currency. "Politics has poisoned the well from which democracy must drink," said Baverstock.
Others concur on the faulty radiation risk model applied to DU exposure. One of these people is key government researcher Alexandra Miller, a radiobiologist with the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in
New cell culture and animal research on internal exposure is shedding light on the high levels of genetic damage caused by DU, according chemical physicist Chris Busby, a DU investigator and former member of the UK Ministry of Defense Depleted Uranium Oversight Board. The mechanisms of DU damage result from uranium's affinity, within the body, for DNA, chemically binding to it and concentrating ionization near the DNA at levels manyfold compared to external exposure. Added to this evidence is another recently discovered mechanism, that uranium in the body exhibits what is called phantom radioactivity, increasing the gene-toxic activity of DU by absorbing and focusing natural background radioactivity on DNA. Once in the body, uranium, "cause[s] very large amounts of genetic damage in cells at very low doses," Busby concluded. Another DU investigator, Marion Fulk a former nuclear chemical physicist at Lawrence Livermore lab, posits that the large amount of DU-induced genetic damage in cells is caused by the decay isotopes of uranium-238, thorium-234 and protactinium-234, which emit immense amounts of electron volts to nearby cells, with an effect akin to "nuking a cell."
By 2008, more than 20 peer-reviewed scientific papers reported on the enhanced mutagenicity (the capacity to induce mutations via damage to DNA) of uranium in the body. The findings contest the adequacy of the radiation risk model promulgated by the International Commission on Radiological Protection and normatively used by governments. The normative risk model calculates cancer risk based on external radiation dose and does not take into consideration chronic, internal, low-dose radiation exposure which, research after the first Gulf war reveals, have both synergistic and magnifying effects on local cells. Yet the UN, governments, military and their risk agencies hold atavistically to their risk model to maintain DU weapon use.
The growing evidence-based case against depleted uranium is like salt in a wound for the military-industrial-risk analysis complex and also the nuclear power industry. The more fine-grained our understanding of how low doses of internal uranium exposure cause genetic damage, and the more this knowledge challenges the glib dismissal of DU as feeble, environmentally localized radioactivity, the graver the implications for the nuclear power industry that generates the toxic material.
The decision to use DU in weapons was made in an environment of uncertainty about the health impacts on those exposed - soldiers and civilians - in conflict and post-conflict situations. No precautionary principle here. The decision to continue using DU weapons is being made in an environment of new, damning DU research findings, including Miller's. Willful, unconscionable ignorance here. Many forecast the proliferation of DU weapons because of DU's penetration and ignition characteristics, and because it provides a means of reducing stockpiles of DU in countries that are enriching uranium. Armed forces will not be protected from exposure to DU, since few militaries acknowledge that DU exposure is or may be harmful. Contaminated soil will not be removed or cleaned by those who use the weapons because they disdain responsibility for their militarized pollution. The soil won't be removed by the country under siege, either, because post-war crises, such as rebuilding infrastructure, will claim scarce resources. Civilian populations in DU-contaminated sites will be exposed to hot spots of DU soil contamination and groundwater contamination, since systematic surveillance of soil and groundwater has not been the norm in areas of conflict where DU weapons have been employed. Thus, DU exposure during and after war adds long-term radiological and chemical exposure risks to the already existing risks of death, injury and environmental damage from war.
Does not this plight constitute an unassailable case for applying the golden rule of environment - the precautionary principle, which would require that DU not be used in weapons and war, and the justice-based "polluter pays" principle, which would require that DU-contaminated land be remediated by the countries that used DU weapons? Building hospitals for Iraqi children and adult war victims may narcotize our guilt for the "collateral damage" of our wars, but it does not expunge their immorality. Narcotics cannot still the tooth that nibbles at the soul. The international community needs a ban on uranium weapons akin to the international ban on landmines.
Contact the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons to learn of the campaign and to get involved.
1. V Walt. (2003). "Iraqi children working to survive." The
H. Patricia Hynes is a retired professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health and chair of the board of the
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs