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War's unintended effects: Use of depleted uranium weapons lingers as health concern
by Larry Johnson
Seattle Post Intelligencer 4 August 2003
The ideal legacy of the war in Iraq is a free and democratic society, but a sinister legacy of another kind is possible as well -- cancers and birth defects.
Depleted uranium weapons used by the U.S.-led forces in the war have left battle sites throughout Iraq contaminated with abnormally high levels of radiation.
Dan DeLong / P-I A war-damaged Iraqi tank rests along the highway next to a school on the outskirts of Baghdad. Depleted uranium weapons were used in populated areas in Iraq. Although there is no firm consensus, nuclear experts and laymen alike generally agree that depleted uranium, which is toxic as well as radioactive, is at the very least a potential cause of cancers and birth defects. Some Iraqi physicians and others blame depleted uranium weapons used in the 1991 Gulf War for a major increase of cancers and birth defects that occurred a few years later. It is also a prime suspect for the Gulf War Syndrome that has sickened and killed thousands of U.S. veterans.
The Pentagon and United Nations estimate that U.S. and British forces used 1,100 to 2,200 tons of armor-piercing shells made of depleted uranium during attacks in Iraq in March and April -- far more than the estimated 375 tons used in the 1991 Gulf War.
U.S. tanks, Bradley fighting machines, A-10 attack jets and Apache helicopters routinely used depleted uranium rounds, but in the recent war, the ammunition was used in and near heavily populated areas, not just in the desert.
There are some studies under way that could shed more light on the effects of depleted uranium, a highly complex and poorly understood subject. Critics say DU shouldn't be used until the studies have been completed, while supporters, primarily the military, say it is critical to success on the battlefield.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., has introduced legislation requiring the U.S. government to conduct studies of DU's effects on health and the environment, and cleanup of DU contamination in the United States. The bill, co-sponsored by 23 other Democrats, remains in committee.
He said DU may well be associated with increased birth defects.
"We continue to get these sporadic reports of various places where a lot of people are getting sick, and nobody is willing to connect the dots yet," he said. "I'm afraid we're going to have a lot of people get sick before they finally admit that depleted uranium really causes a problem for us (U.S. veterans and their families) as well as for the Iraqis."
After NATO's use of DU weapons in Kosovo in 1999, the Council of Europe parliamentarians called for a worldwide ban on the manufacture, testing, use and sale of weapons using depleted uranium, asserting that NATO's use of DU weapons would have "long term effects on health and quality of life in South-East Europe, affecting future generations." The call went unheeded.
An independent policy analyst on the use and effects of DU, in a June 24 report, was critical of both the British and the Americans for not doing more to protect their troops and civilians from DU in Iraq. But the report held criticism for those on all sides of the DU issue.
"What is clear ... is that elements of the U.S. government will manipulate information and even lie about the health of U.S. combat veterans to avoid liability for DU's health and environmental effects," said Dan Fahey, who has testified on DU at a number of congressional hearings. "Equally as clear is the willingness of some anti-DU activists to promote theories as fact, fabricate data and manipulate statistics, and exploit the suffering of people to further political or financial interests."
'A well-established risk'
In June, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer conducted tests at six sites from Basra to Baghdad, and found elevated levels of radiation at all of them. One destroyed tank near Baghdad was 1,500 times more radioactive than normal background radiation. Another was 1,400 times more radioactive than background.
To get additional evidence that DU was used on these tanks, the P-I used swabs of cloth to gather samples of residue from the blackened bullet holes on two tanks on the outskirts of Baghdad, and from the black ash on a tank in Kut.
Bruce Busby, radiation safety officer for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle analyzed the swabs. Although stressing that far more sophisticated equipment and tests are required to positively identify DU and precisely measure contamination levels, he was able to determine that the swabs had elevated levels of radioactive contamination, consistent with DU. Still, Busby is not convinced it is a severe problem in Iraq. " ... Considering all the other hazards those people are exposed to, this is a small risk," he said.
Dan DeLong / P-I Outside Kut in southern Iraq, two young Iraqi men remove parts from one of the many tanks in the area. Others were more alarmed by the P-I findings.
"... if you found it (DU), it's possible kids could get it on their hands by playing on tanks, and adults could inhale re-suspended dust if salvaging equipment," Fahey said.
Tedd Weyman, deputy director of the Uranium Medical Centre, an independent research group in Canada and Washington, D.C., was also concerned about DU in Iraq.
"... Alpha emitters -- DU is one -- are carcinogenic and . . . inhalation exposure of low quantities of low-level radioactive material is a well-established risk," Weyman said. "Externally, the radioactivity travels a very short distance -- centimeters -- before fully releasing all its energy and disintegrating, (But) if inhaled and lying adjacent to cells in the body, it is a serious hazard."
Although the Pentagon has said depleted uranium is the material of choice because its density allows it to slice through heavy tank armor, the Army is currently looking at an alternative. A Florida company, Liquidmetal Technologies, says it can get comparable performance from ammunition using an exotic alloy of tungsten, and if the Army decides to switch, the new rounds could be in service within two years.
The Pentagon has sent mixed signals about the effects of depleted uranium, saying there have been no known health problems associated with the munition. At the same time, the military acknowledges the hazards in an Army training manual, which requires that anyone who comes within 25 meters of any DU-contaminated equipment or terrain wear respiratory and skin protection, and says that "contamination will make food and water unsafe for consumption."
According to the Army Environmental Policy Institute, holding a spent DU round would expose a person to about 200 mrem per hour. That's a level of radiation equivalent to receiving eight chest X-rays per hour, said Tom Carpenter, director of the Government Accountability Project's Nuclear Oversight Campaign. That's also twice the annual radiation exposure limit allowed by the Washington state.
The Environmental Protection Agency Web site says, "There is no firm basis for setting a 'safe' level of exposure (to radiation) above background. Most regulatory and advisory bodies around the world (including EPA) assume that any exposure carries some risk and that the risk increases as the exposure increases."
The April issue of New Scientist magazine reported that Alexandra Miller, a radiobiologist with the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., has discovered the first direct evidence that radiation from DU can damage chromosomes. "The chromosomes break, and the fragments reform in a way that results in abnormal joins. Both the breaks and the joins are commonly found in tumor cells," the article says. The implication is that it could cause cancer.
Miller's work suggests that the toxic nature of DU, combined with its radioactivity, could produce effects more dire than either of those characteristics acting alone.
"I think that we assumed that we knew everything that we needed to know about uranium. (But) This is something we have to consider now when we think about risk estimates," the article says.
Cancer on the rise
Researchers aren't the only ones concerned.
The U.S. and British use of DU during the latest conflict, also alarms doctors in Iraq. Cancer had already increased dramatically in southern Iraq. In 1988, 34 people died of cancer; in 1998, 450 died of cancer; in 2001 there were 603 cancer deaths. The rate of birth defects also had risen sharply, according to doctors in Iraq.
Now, doctors in Iraq say, the number of cancers and birth defects may be "devastating."
"This is the right time for active support to help prevent the catastrophic effects of the bombing," said Dr. Alim Yacoub, on his last day as dean of the Al Mustansiriya Medical School in Baghdad.
"It is the right time for our U.S. friends to alleviate the consequences of depleted uranium and dirty weapons," he said.
"If there isn't a centralized health plan soon, the consequences could be devastating," said Yacoub, the foremost Iraqi authority on the effects of DU. Yacoub has tracked the rise of cancer in Iraq for years, and places the blame squarely on DU.
"For the past 12 years, we have only been able to watch what's going on in this country, now it is time for a comprehensive health plan for cleaning up DU and for treating cancer," he said. Yacoub has carefully preserved his studies and is eager to present them to other researchers.
From the cancer ward at the Mother and Child Hospital in Basra, Dr. Janan Ghalib Hassan has also tracked the rise in cancer in Iraq, primarily in the south, for years. It is a phenomena that she also says is most likely caused by the DU used by U.S. forces in the Gulf War in 1991.
"I worked here in this hospital in 1980 and never saw so much cancer, but after 1991, I started to see many more cancer cases," Hassan said.
She said that because the incubation period for cancer is about five years, the effects of the latest war should start showing up in 2008. "I think the number of cancer cases will be as much as 10 times or more higher," she said. "It is a crime; a crime."
Dutch MPs and SFIR Troops Not Informed about Use of Depleted Uranium in Southern Iraq
Maarten H.J. van den Berg,
RISQ 4 August 2003
As Dutch peacekeepers are arriving in the Southern province of Al Muthanna to join the UN-backed 'stabilisation force' in Iraq (SFIR), the government has unduly assured MPs that no DU ammunition was used in the area during the recent conflict. If this information comes from US officials, as the Dutch government claims, it has been deceived--and has misinformed parliament.
This is the conclusion of a report by RISQ Associate Maarten H.J. van den Berg. Already, the report has led Dutch MPs to pose questions to the Minister of Defence, and a television program in which one of the US soldiers mentioned in the report reaffirms that the use of DU ammunition in the area was "standard procedure."
As the UN-backed 'stabilisation force' in Iraq (SFIR) is taking shape, Dutch marines are arriving in South Iraq. The troops, 1100 in total, will be stationed in the southern province of Al Muthanna. Apart from the Netherlands, other countries that have agreed to participate in SFIR include Poland, Italy and Japan whereas India recently decided not to sent any troops, unless a more explicit UN mandate were to materialize.
Of course, the mission is not without risks. As the ongoing assaults on US troops in and around Baghdad and the recent killing of six British troops indicate, post-Saddam Iraq is all but stable and secure. Nonetheless, the Dutch government assured concerned MPs, "the security situation in the South of Iraq may be described as reasonably stable."
Some MPs raised questions about the use of DU (depleted uranium) during the war, and its repercussions for the safety of civilians and army personnel in the area. On this issue, too, the government assured, there was no cause for concern as "no significant fighting has taken place in the province of Al Muthanna." Besides that, according to Minister of Defence, no DU ammunition was used in the area during the recent conflict.
The assertion that no significant fighting took place in the area is so blatantly belied by open sources, that one wonders if any of the Ministers ever reads a newspaper. The capital of the province, As Samawah, is strategically located on the road from Basra to Baghdad, providing access to a bridge over the Euphrates river. Consequently, on its march to Baghdad, the US army anticipated some resistance there. In fact, it would encounter rather fierce resistance both from Iraqi forces, including Saddam Feyadeen paramilitaries and Baath party militias, as well as a group of Syrian volunteers, according to American officers . Reportedly, it took just one day to take the bridge but more than a week before the town and the road were cleared of all 'pockets of resistance.' 112 civilians, most of them inhabitants of As Samawah, were killed in the battle.
Despite such incidents, the Dutch government persists in depicting Al Muthanna as a remote, barely inhabited desert where no noteworthy events have occurred. In fact, as far as recent military activities are concerned, it was part and parcel of the 'theatre of operations."
For that matter, the assertion that "no DU ammunition was deployed in Al-Muthanna" is also unfounded. If this assertion is based on information it received from US officials, as the Dutch government claims, it has been deceived. On the 12th of March, about a week before his troops set foot on Iraqi soil, Major General "Buff" Buford Blount III, commander of the US army 3rd Infantry Division already conveyed in an interview with Le Monde that "if we receive the order to attack, final preparations will only take a few days. We have already began to unwrap our depleted uranium anti-tank shells." That order came shortly, and as the Division advanced to Baghdad along the Euphrates, its Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFVs) did not leave their unwrapped DU-shells sit idle on the way. On March 26, at CENTCOM Headquarters, General Brooks admitted as much, although he stressed that only "a very small portion of our munitions [contain] depleted uranium."
Be that as it may, it is a fact that DU-ammunition has been widely used during operation "Iraqi Freedom," also in Southern Iraq. Al Muthanna is no exception: the usage of DU-ammunition in and around the capital of the province, As Samawah, has been confirmed by US troops and 'embedded' journalists. In a widely distributed field message, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Cooper reports that the weapon systems used by the 3rd Infantry 7th Cavalry en route to As Samawah and on to Najaf, "are performing well, especially the 25mm DU and 7.62." In a letter sent home, E. Pennell, crew member on a BFV of the 1st Infantry Battallion, 41st Infantry regiment, describes how his crew fires a 25-mm DU round as they encounter seven enemy troops in the town of As Samawah: "We fire five rounds. The first one is a depleted uranium due to standard operating procedures." Such reports suggest that DU ammunition was routinely employed in encounters with armoured enemy vehicles, also in urban environments.
Whereas the deployment of DU ammunition on the ground may have been subject to some operational restrictions, airborne DU ordnance has been fired less discriminately. The aircraft of choice for close air support to ground battles has been the A-10 "Warthog" jet, notorious for its anti-tank missiles and its lethal 30-mm cannons that can fire up to 4200 rounds per minute. Accordingly, the aircraft is designed to carry lots of ammunition, both DU as well as 'conventional,' high explosive (HE) rounds, typically fed into its guns in a mix of 5/6 or 5/8 (DU/HE) . Data released by the US Air Force recently, establish that the Warthogs have shot 311,597 rounds of 30-mm ordnance during the war , which would suggest that they have delivered at least 194,748 DU rounds. As each cartridge contains just over 300 grams of depleted uranium, this amounts to a minimum release of 58,814 kilograms of DU.
In Southern Iraq the Warthogs have played an important, supporting role in efforts to control strategic locations such as Tallil airbase and the bridges over the Euphrates. In the battle of Samawah, too, Warthogs have been called in to help ground troops mob up resistance and capture the two bridges there. In one of the incidents, vehicles of the 3rd Infantry 7th Cavalry reportedly drew friendly fire from Warthog aircraft, during a strike on a junk yard in town.
Since the US government has so far not disclosed any exact numbers, it is yet unknown just how much DU has been used in the war. The British government has been a bit more forthcoming, admitting that British Challenger tanks expended 1.9 tons of DU (approximately twice as much as in the 1990-91 Gulf Conflict) . On the basis of the available information Dan Fahey, an independent DU expert, estimates that 100-200 tons of DU may have been released during combat . If true, this would be significantly less than the total of approximately 290 tons shot in 1991. However, as Mr Fahey and others note, this time a larger share of the expenditure appears to have occurred in or around urban areas and, thus, increasing the potential for civilian exposure to DU.
Indeed, all over Iraq, the remains of spent DU shells and DU-contaminated debris have been found littering the streets in urban areas. Some wrecked vehicles have been towed away, and the most obvious contaminated sites are marked. However, most locations have not even been identified let alone cleaned, even though there is a widely shared consensus that DU contamination can be a potential health hazard.
After all, DU is a radioactive and toxic heavy metal which, like any other metal, is disposed to corrode and may, therefore, end up in the water supply or food chain . Apart from that, DU ammunition and armour ignites on impact, resulting in a very fine, radioactive and toxic dust that can be inhaled or ingested. Once in the body, DU may cause harm due to the exposure of internal organs to its chemical toxicity, radiation or the combined effects of both.
As of yet, though, little is known about the long-term health effects of exposure to DU contamination. To minimize the risk of exposure, US and UK troops have been instructed to stay away from potentially contaminated areas as much as possible or to wear, at least, respiratory protection and gloves when it is inevitable to enter such sites .
We may assume that Iraqi civilians stand to bear the same health risks as US or UK troops. However, there is no indication that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has properly informed the population about DU contamination. The British Ministry of Defence merely affirms that Iraqi locals have been warned "that they should not go near or touch any debris they find on the battlefield." Perhaps this would have sufficed, were it not for the fact that quite a few battles have been fought in densely populated areas, where it is virtually impossible for residents to avoid all remnants of war. It is thus indispensable that DU contaminated debris is clearly marked, fenced off or, preferably, cleaned up, and that citizens receive proper safety instructions.
Now, at least the British government has agreed to provide details of UK DU firing locations to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and directly to recognised non-government organisations working on location . It has also assumed some responsibility for clean-up and decontamination. In contrast, the US government has so far denied any responsibility for DU clean-up in Iraq. To date, it has also refused to disclose any information about the quantities and locations of DU expenditure or allow a UNEP Post Conflict Assessment Unit to study the environmental impact of DU contamination.
In fact, if we are to believe the Dutch government, the only specific information that the US authorities have disclosed so far is that no DU ammunition has been used in the province of Al Muthanna. As we have demonstrated, there is ample evidence to the contrary. Consequently, either the Dutch government has deceived parliament or it has been misinformed by US authorities. Either way, the question remains as to how much DU has been fired and where exactly-both in Al Muthanna as well as Iraq at large. As long as such basic issues are not addressed, it is not possible to assess the health risks of DU contamination, let alone claim that these are negligible.
Of course, the lack of reliable information bears, before all, on concerns about the health and safety of the Iraqi population but it also implicates coalition troops and the newly arriving SFIR units. The main problem is that the troops only know of areas contaminated more than ten years ago, during the Gulf War in 1991. About areas that have been contaminated recently, they have received no information.
© Copyright Seattle PI and RISQ, Review of International Social Questions at www.risq.org .2003 For fair use only/ pour usage équitable seulement .