The Case of Depleted Uranium


Despite scant coverage in the U.S. media, over the last few months a heated controversy has erupted in Europe over the use of Depleted Uranium (DU) weapons in the U.S-NATO war against Yugoslavia in 1999. Several European governments fear that mysterious ailments, hemorrhaging, cancers and nerve damage – even deaths -of their troops serving in the Balkans may have been caused by DU ammunition used by the U.S. and British military in the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. The outrage of the European media was exacerbated when it was revealed, reluctantly by the U.S., that DU ammunition used in Kosovo contained plutonium and other radioactive elements. The Pentagon insists that their amounts were too low to be dangerous, but it has also failed to disclose the levels of plutonium and other toxic elements in ammunition used in Iraq and the Balkans or in bombing sites in Okinawa, Vieques, South Korea and Germany. Its long history of duplicity and secrecy have not engendered trust amongst the people of the Gulf, Balkans, European allies or U.S. veterans. The European Parliament has called for a moratorium on the use of such ammunition until detailed studies, such as the one planned by the World Health Organization, on civilians exposed to DU in Iraq and Kosovo are conducted. The questions that are begging for answers – from unfortunate civilians in Iraq and the Balkans who have to live with this potentially deadly threat embedded in their soils and waters, to the peace-keeping troops serving in these regions and veterans – are :

1. Is there a causal link between DU and chronic ailments and deaths ?

2. What is the threshold of dangerous exposure to DU?

3. How many civilians and troops have been exposed in all the places DU weapons have been tested or used?

The Pentagon has withheld information and otherwise been uncooperative with independent investigations of the effects of DU on soldiers and civilians exposed to it. After the Gulf War, the U.S. Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute established that the chemical toxicity of DU may cause immune system and nervous system damage in rats, and may contribute to certain cancers. Dr. David McClain, the military’s DU-researcher told a presidential committee investigating Gulf War illnesses in 1999 that “strong evidence exists to support a detailed study of potential DU carcinogenicity.” A separate U.S. Army-funded study conducted by the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute determined that DU caused cancer when implanted in laboratory animals. But since the recent deaths and ailments of some NATO peace-keeping troops in the Balkans, the Pentagon has dismissed concerns about DU as unscientific hysteria and propaganda. Army Col. Eric Daxon went as far as to say that adverse publicity about DU was ” a purposeful disinformation campaign” by the Iraqi government. But the same U.S. Army’s Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command had this to say as early as July 1990, in a report on DU ammunition before its use in the Gulf War – ” Following combat, the condition of the battlefield and the long-term health risks to natives and combat veterans may become issues in the acceptability of the continued use of DU ammunition for applications.” It even went as far as to state that DU is “linked to cancer when exposures are internal.” When thousands of Gulf War soldiers reported health problems on returning to the U.S, the Army Surgeon General’s office asserted that only 35 veterans had been

exposed – a very small number of the thousands of troops who served in the Gulf – so no further research was justified into DU’s effects. But due to pressure from veterans, the Pentagon was forced to increase its estimates of the number of troops exposed to DU. In January 1998, the Pentagon admitted, “Combat troops or those carrying out support functions generally did not know that DU contaminated equipment, such as enemy vehicles struck by DU rounds, required special handling. The failure to properly disseminate such information to troops at all levels may have resulted in thousands of unnecessary exposures.”

On February 2, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat speaking at the Davos World Economic Forum (and after months of violence in the occupied territories in which Palestinians had suffered disproportionately) in Switzerland accused Israel of waging a barbaric war against his people using DU weapons. Israel denied this specific allegation. On February 3, the Palestinian Council for Justice and Peace and the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations asked for a thorough investigation into Israel’s possible use of DU

weapons against civilians in the occupied territories. They wanted the Israeli government to be charged with war crimes for using such weapons against civilians. Palestinians opposing Israeli occupation and repression in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza have claimed that the Israeli Defence Force has used DU missiles fired from U.S. supplied helicopter gunships and naval vessels in attacking buildings that house the Palestinian Authority offices and refugee camps. They have asked for an investigation to be conducted by the United Nations, with no success because of U.S. support for Israel. In the Balkans, the newly elected President of Yugoslavia, Vajslav Kostnica, has called for a war-crimes indictment of NATO leaders for the deliberate destruction of civilian targets in the indiscriminate bombing of his country two years ago. It is widely known that DU weapons were used both in Bosnia and

in Kosovo by NATO troops. The residue from DU is found in the soil of those lands (as well as Iraq). In a report published by the Inter Press Service in February, residents of Vieques were quoted as being “angered by the U.S. military’s use of DU ammunition in a firing range located next to a civilian area.” According to a study carried out by the Puerto Rico Health Department, the cancer rate in Vieques is 26% above the average for the Commonwealth. A BBC news report of February 4, from Vieques, mentioned that over a third of the 9000 residents of the island “have been found to be suffering from a range of serious illnesses and cancers, which doctors have linked to decades of bombing by the U.S.” The U.S. Navy admitted to firing 273 rounds of DU ammunition in Vieques in 1998 in February 1999, but claimed it was a “mistake”. Rolando Garcia, who worked with the U.S. Navy at its base on Vieques and a life-long resident of the island, is now without hair, eyelashes or eyebrows. There is no hospital on the island and birth defects of children born to the mother’s onVieques are not linked to the island’s contamination. However, an ex- U.S. military scientist and leading authority on DU, Doug Rokke- who has been in the forefront of the campaign to expose the long-term dangers of DU weapons- is disbelieving of this. He maintains that DU is largely responsible for the unusual health problems of U.S. veterans of the 1991 Gulf War. Rokke has also suggested “environmental racism” in the Pentagon’s decision to test DU weapons on Vieques and the Japanese island of Okinawa before their devastating use in the wars against Iraq and Yugoslavia. Dr. Rokke claims that the U.S. military knew about the effects of DU before 1991. He was commissioned to organize the clean-up of suspected contaminated sites in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War. His crew of 50 people buried contaminated vehicles and parts there and shipped other radioactive equipment to be decontaminated at a special facility. Ten of his crew have died since and many others fell sick. Since falling ill himself, he has become a whistleblower of the Pentagon’s use of DU ammunition and its knowledge of hazards associated with it. The U.S. Department of Defense seeks shelter behind a RAND corporation study of 1999 that denies any causal connection between DU and ailments of any type in humans. But a critical analysis of this report by Dan Fahey (former naval officer and currently at the Gulf War Resource Center) for the U.S. General Accounting Office indicates that the RAND report ignored “62 relevant studies.” Incidentally, DU weapons are sold by the U.S. and the U.K. to sixteen countries that include Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Taiwan.

DU (Uranium-238) is a waste product of the process that produces enriched Uranium (Uranium 234 and 235) for nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The U.S. has over one billion pounds of DU with a radioactive half life of 4.5 billion years (the time it takes for half the mass to disintegrate as it emits deadly radiation). The longer the half-life, the longer-lived the threat to life in all its forms. The U.S. government gives away the material to arms manufacturers for free because, with the high density of DU, it can be used effectively to make shells that can penetrate steel (as in tank armor), like knife through butter. DU also burns readily, spewing tiny particles of radioactive dust that can be carried for miles around. Humans can ingest it readily through air or water. Dr. Andreas Toupadakis, former chemist at the U.S. nuclear laboratory in Los Alamos, said, “I have some experience with uranium oxide. The very tiny particles are able to fly away so easily, just like the water particles in clouds or solid particles in smoke…The lighter [particles] move further, and the even lighter mix with the air and move in all directions. Eventually they find themselves all around the earth. Most will precipitate on the land, rivers, the seas and the lakes during rainstorms.” Dr. Toupadakis left his position for reasons of conscience last year.

After the U.S. military’s boastful incineration of Iraqi tanks (with its crew roasted alive) in the 1991 Gulf War, 600, 000 pounds of DU was left behind as residue in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The most pernicious link that is suspected with DU is in the disproportionate number of deaths of children and adults in Iraq since 1991 through various forms of birth defects and cancers. Nearly two million Iraqis have died since then with a vast majority due to war-related illnesses. Dr. Mona Kammas, a professor of pathology at Baghdad University, reported at a symposium that there was a five-fold increase in cancers of those exposed to combat in the Gulf War. The U.S. military used DU weapons in Iraq (1991), Bosnia (1995) and Yugoslavia (1999). Of the nearly 700,000 U.S. troops who served in the Gulf, 130,000 have reported medical problems ranging from memory loss to liver and kidney dysfunction. In the war against Iraq, over 940,000 DU-tipped bullets and 14,000 large caliber DU rounds were expended in Operation

Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield. These untested (for environmental and health impact) weapons were used indiscriminately in Iraq. Over 300 tonnes of DU is scattered in the sands of Iraq and Kuwait. The Pentagon admits to having fired 18,000 DU shells in Bosnia and 31,000 DU shells in Kosovo. It is important to remember that 40% of DU in weapons vaporizes and becomes part of radioactive dust. The remainder stays as a solid piece of uranium, lying to be picked up, tragically, by curious, unsuspecting children. DU weapons are manufactured only in the USA and Britain. The uranium used in DU weapons made in the United States has been analyzed to show contamination with even more highly toxic heavy metals like plutonium.

But why should DU weapons create a stir so special ?Should not all weapons used illegitimately, immorally and indiscriminately against people – civilians and soldiers – be equally abhorrent to us ? And is the special scrutiny that DU weapons are being subjected to simply because of their possible implication in indirectly causing severe ailments and death amongst NATO soldiers (the “good” guys) ? It is not necessary to explain why the U.S. military uses weapons as deadly as they can be against any “enemy”. The inconveniences of dangerous side-effects to its own soldiers or “collateral damage” to civilians has never restrained it from the deployment of weapons of mass destruction, from Hiroshima and Vietnam to Iraq, Kosovo and Columbia, international conventions on chemical or biological weapons notwithstanding. The only impediment that slows down, restrains or, in very rare instances, stops, the U.S. military/government from seeking all possible options in the research, design and use of such weapons is public outcry these might engender. This, of course, presumes a well-informed and conscientious public. The U.S. attitude towards its own soldiers is only marginally different because of the political implications of mismanaging or underestimating the concerns of soldiers – enlisted and veteran. As long as soldiers and the public can be brainwashed into believing in the “safety” of weapons-deployment to our (“good”) side, soldiers become fodder to satiate the demands of the plutocrats who control society and government. There is some concern as to the effects of suspicions of the dangers of weapons to “our side”, and to the consequent lowering of morale within the services and drop in enthusiasm from the public for illegal and immoral wars overseas. But increasingly, the Pentagon aims to fight a “sanitized” war, “immaculate in conception and execution”, from afar – preferably the safety of outer space, the upper reaches of the atmosphere, far off-shore or very deep under sea, so that the suitably dehumanized “enemy” can be properly “dispatched” with a minimum of adverse reaction from “our” public or twinges to one’s conscience. In its efforts to stop “terrorism”, the U.S. acts as the international policeman, judge and jury, capturing suspects anywhere they are on the planet. To perform similar duties in only a slightly narrower and regional framework, it has suitably equipped and trained its very good pupil and ally in the Middle East, Israel. The U.S. government has spared no efforts in its single-minded attempt to capture or kill its arch-enemy of the moment, Osama bin Laden – the accused master-mind of the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania a few years ago and, more recently, of the destroyer U.S.S. Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. To put pressure on the government of Afghanistan, it has engineered the severest U.N. sanctions to date that mainly hurts the utterly impoverished people of war-devastated Afghanistan . Thousands of Afghani people will be sacrificed in U.S. attempts to coerce the Taliban leaders of that country into handing-over Osama bin Laden. Similarly, Israel sends its agents worldwide to capture or eliminate suspected “terrorists” acting against Zionist interests, be they the discloser of its nuclear weapons secrets like Mordechai Vanunu (kidnapped from Italy) or Palestinians fighting for freedom in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, or even in sovereign states like Lebanon and Jordan.

If DU is implicated in the increased risk of cancer among civilians in Iraq and the Balkans, the U.S. and its NATO allies are culpable of violating international law. Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions (ratified by all the NATO countries except the U.S.A) prohibits the use of weapons deemed to cause “superfluous or unnecessary suffering”. Britain’s Armed Forces Minister, John Spellar, stated categorically in January that “on the basis of current scientific evidence, there have been no ill-health effects from DU..”, even as he contradicted himself by saying, “We have long recognized that on the battlefield its debris might present a hazard from chemical toxicity… and [constitute] a low-level radiological hazard.” The Minister

added, “…conscious of the potential risks that DU posed, we issued a precautionary guidance to our forces in Kosovo…about the need to wear suitable protective clothing.” No such warning was issued to the unfortunate civilians of Kosovo or Iraq. They are even more expendable despite the ostensible reason for the war in the first place – to save them from the cruelties inflicted on them by their evil rulers, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. The reputed Britsh publication Guardian Weekly (May 3-9, 2001) reported that “Iraq and Kuwait have separately asked for an independent assessment of the health hazards to local people and soldiers of the depleted uranium ammunition used in battle for the first time in the Gulf war 10 years ago.” No detailed and scientific study of the residual DU in the sands, air and water of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia has been conducted because of resistance from the U.S. and its western coalition partners. Iraq has asked U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to help with such an investigation and Kuwait has approached the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Iraqi doctors and scientists have blamed DU for thousands of childhood cancers that have afflicted and prematurely killed young Iraqi children. The problem in the Gulf region is that DU residue is less likely to be dispersed because of the dry climate and the large amount – 350 tonnes -of such ammunition used. The Finnish leader of the Balkans depleted uranium assessment team, Pekka Haavisto, completed an investigation for the United Nations Environmental Program of nine tonnes of DU arsenal used on the NATO assault on Serbian forces in Kosovo. He criticized NATO for not cooperating promptly with locating where DU weapons were used. It seemed clear that some shells had been removed before his team’s investigation. Even though some rounds were discovered buried deep in the soil, detectors registered 15 times the normal level of background radiation. He recommended that local authorities test the water supply routinely to see if DU was present. Dr. Haavisto said that the passage of time would hamper research for DU in Iraq and Kuwait. A great deal of toxic dust was released in the air because of the number of Iraqi tanks hit by DU shells.

Even in the European media, concern over DU arose only after suspicions were aroused following the deaths of several Italian soldiers serving as peace-keepers with KFOR in Kosovo, not because of the illnesses suffered by the hapless civilian population of Kosovo. During the NATO war against Yugoslavia, 50,000 DU shells were discharged over Yugoslavia with a tenth of this used in Kosovo, mainly from A-10 American warplanes. On impact, the explosives spread DU in the soil and water, and also spewed it into the air in the ensuing combustion. Subsequently, it is just a matter of time before DU transfers to living organisms. What is unknown, though, is the extent of long-term cellular damage and consequent dangers from any incipient cancer due to the intrinsic radioactivity of DU. This is over and above the chemical toxicity of DU as a heavy metal, which will survive in the environment of Iraq and Yugoslavia for decades. In the absence of a comprehensive epidemiological study of the effects of DU, no firm conclusions about its implications in the suspected deaths and ailments of people can be drawn. But the U.S. and NATO continue to stall on cooperating with independent researchers in such a project. A U.N task force asked NATO immediately after the war against Serbia ended in June 1999 to identify areas of the Balkans contaminated with DU so people living and working in the region could be warned about potential hazards. This information came out incrementally over two years. Only in February 2000, did NATO confirm that U.S. jets had expended DU ammunition in Serbia and Kosovo. In September of last year it disclosed the locations of the contamination due to DU weapons deployed in the region. Finally, in January 2001 NATO posted warning signs at these sites. But there is no clean-up of these sites planned by either the U.S.A or its NATO allies. The people of Iraq and Kososvo will continue to suffer inexplicable ailments. None will be the wiser.

Dr. Sadanand Nanjundiah is a Physics Professor at Central Connecticut State University.

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