Depleted Uranium: Lessons in ‘Humanitarian’ and Other Warfare

by Jun 2, 2005Foreign Policy0 comments

A US soldier carries a an armor-piercing munition tipped with depleted uranium during "Operation Desert Shield", the US military operation agains Iraq in 1991. (Department of Defense)

The US military's use of depleted uranium munitions in Iraq constitutes a war crime for the indiscriminate harm it causes to the health of Iraqis.

Depleted uranium, or DU, is produced through the process of enrichment, in which the concentration of the U235 isotope of uranium is increased. For every 1 ton of enriched uranium resulting from the process, another 7 tons of “depleted” uranium are produced as a byproduct. Several hundreds of thousands of tons of DU are currently stockpiled in the United States.[1]

DU is heavy, nearly twice as dense as lead, and is used by weapons manufacturers because its properties allow munitions tipped with DU to effectively penetrate armor, and also because the use of such munitions also relieves governments of the responsibility to properly store DU.[2] And while the adjective “depleted” is used to describe the material because of its lower concentration of the U235 isotope, it is still both radioactive and chemically toxic. As Dan Fahey, a leading expert on DU, has put it, “The adjective depleted by no means diminishes the chemical and radioactive properties of DU, but it can affect how people perceive DUs risks.”[3] When a DU weapon strikes its target, it forms a fine aerosol of uranium oxides, which can be spread by the wind and inhaled by humans into the lungs, from where it can to other areas in the body.[4]

Weapons manufacturers and Pentagon officials are quick to point out that “depleted” uranium is less radioactive than natural uranium and claim that there are no adverse effects from exposure to DU. They are equally quick to make claims about its incredible effectiveness on the battlefield. In a briefing on DU, a Defense Department spokesperson explained that uranium was preferred over tungsten because it “has a characteristic that allows it to sharpen itself as it penetrates the target. The uranium shreds off the sides of the penetrator instead of squashing or mushrooming.”[5] Its first major use in combat was during the 1991 Gulf War. The Pentagon has acknowledged that at least 320 tons of DU remained on the ground after the war.[6]

But while the Pentagon claims that DU poses no significant health risk, Iraqi doctors have long claimed that the numbers of cancer cases and birth defects have increased dramatically since the war, and that the increase is due to the use of DU munitions.[7] Kudhim Ali, an oncologist at a cancer clinic in Basra, said in 1998 that “Since 1991 the number of cancer cases has increased five to six times over what it was.”[8] Abdel Karim Hassan Sabr, deputy director of the Hospital for Maternity and Children in Basra reported that the rate of birth defects at the hospital rose from 1.8 percent in 1993 to more than 4 percent by 2001.[9]

But reports from the Iraqi government on the health effects resulting from the use of DU weapons have been long dismissed by the US as propaganda. In one instructive example, the White House website published a report entitled “Apparatus of Lies” that states, “In recent years, the Iraqi regime has made substantial efforts to promote the false claim that the depleted uranium rounds fired by coalition forces have caused cancers and birth defects in Iraq. Iraq has distributed horrifying pictures of children with birth defects and linked them to depleted uranium.” This “campaign has two major propaganda assets”, which are that “Uranium is a name that has frightening associations in the mind of the average person, which makes the lie relatively easy to sell”, and that “Iraq could take advantage of an established international network of antinuclear activists who had already launched their own campaign against depleted uranium.”[10] There is little doubt that the Iraqi government has exploited the issue for propaganda purposes, but the possibility that there might be some truth to the Iraqi claims is, in such a manner, totally disregarded by the US government.

Many also believe there is a link between DU and the “Gulf War syndrome” which many veterans suffered after returning home from the war. There have also been reports of increased rates of birth defects among children of Gulf War veterans.[11] One study performed by Dr. Asaf Durakovic, a professor of medicine who also formerly served as a US colonel, found a “significant presence” of DU in two-thirds of the 17 veterans he tested. Speaking to the European Associations of Nuclear Medicine at a conference in Paris, he said, “Some of those particles were inhaled, and if they were too big to be absorbed they stayed in the lungs, and there they can present a risk of cancer.”[12]

In April, 2004, the New York Daily News conducted an investigation into the health effects of DU in Gulf War veterans. The Pentagon claimed that it has tested about 1000 veterans for DU, with only three coming up positive. But the paper’s investigation found four who came up positive for DU – out of only 9 tested.[13] After this story was published, Army National Guard Spec. Gerard Darren Matthew contacted the Daily News and asked to have a laboratory screening arranged. He had been ill since returning from the Gulf War. A subsequent story reported that

One side of Matthew’s face would swell up each morning. He had constant migraine headaches, blurred vision, blackouts and a burning sensation whenever he urinated. The Army transferred him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for further tests, but doctors there could not explain what was wrong. Shortly after his return, his wife, Janice, became pregnant. On June 29, she gave birth to a baby girl, Victoria Claudette. The baby was missing three fingers and most of her right hand. Matthew and his wife believe Victoria’s shocking deformity has something to do with her father’s illness and the war – especially since there is no history of birth defects in either of their families. They have seen photos of Iraqi babies born with deformities that are eerily similar.

After learning of his child’s deformity, Matthew asked the Army to test him for DU – but he never received the results. When he called to learn what had been the result of his urine sample, he was told that there was no record of his urine specimen. The test arranged by the Daily News found Matthew positive for DU.[14]

Leuren Moret is a leading anti-DU activist. In August 2004, she wrote an article in the San Francisco Bay View stating that

Just 467 U.S. personnel were wounded in the three-week Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991. Out of 580,400 soldiers who served in Gulf War I, 11,000 are dead, and by 2000 there were 325,000 on permanent medical disability. This astounding number of disabled vets means that a decade later, 56 percent of those soldiers who served now have medical problems. The number of disabled vets reported up to 2000 has been increasing by 43,000 every year.

According to Moret, one study of 251 veterans who all had healthy children before the Gulf War showed that “67 percent of their post-war babies were born with severe birth defects. They were born with missing legs, arms, organs or eyes or had immune system and blood diseases.” Exposure to DU, she says, could be “the definitive cause of Gulf War Syndrome”.[15] This claim has not been corroborated by scientific evidence, and Moret has made a number of other claims that have led many to question her credibility. Absent any such studies that could either confirm or eliminate other possible causes, it is impossible to make any conclusive statements on the matter. The possibility cannot be discounted, however, that DU could be a contributing factor to the large numbers of veterans with serious health problems.

Dr. Doug Rokke is a former US army colonel who was sent by the Army as a health physicist to the Gulf in 1991 to advise on cleanup procedures involving depleted uranium. According to Rokke, at least 30 members – nearly one-third of his entire team – are now seriously ill (himself included), and several others have died from cancer.[16] “According to the Department of Defense’s own guidelines put out in 1992,” says Rokke, “any excretion level in the urine above 15 micrograms of uranium per day should result in immediate medical testing, and when you get up to 250 micrograms of total uranium excreted per day, you’re suppose to be under continuous medical care…. My excretion rate was approximately 1500 micrograms per day.”[17]

“Since 1991,” Rokke has said, “numerous U.S. Department of Defense reports have said that the consequences of DU were unknown. That is a lie. We warned them in 1991 after the Gulf War, but because of liability issues, they continue to ignore the problem.” The procedures his team developed for training and management with regard to DU were ignored.[18]

Rokke’s team, uninformed about the dangers of DU, studied vehicles struck by DU shells during the Gulf War. Soldiers who died from DU explosions came to be called “crispy critters” by the team because they were so badly burned.[19] “When uranium munitions hit,” says Rokke, “it’s like a firestorm inside any vehicle or structure, and so we saw tremendous burns, tremendous injuries. It was devastating.” Besides contaminating Iraq with DU, “The US military decided to blow up Saddam’s chemical, biological, and radiological stockpiles in place, which released the contamination back on the US troops and on everybody in the whole region.”[20]

Rokke’s experience as an expert appointed by the Army to study DU in Iraq has led him to one unavoidable conclusion, which is that “uranium munitions must be banned from the planet, for eternity…” In an interview with YES! Magazine, Rokke, who was in the military for 35 years, observed: “When you reach a point in war that the contamination and the health effects of war can’t be cleaned up because of the weapons you use, and medical care can’t be given to the soldiers who participated in the war on either side or to the civilians affected, then it’s time for peace.”[21]

Since the Gulf War, DU has also been used in the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999 and in Bosnia in 1994-95. According to the Pentagon, 31,000 rounds of DU were used in Kosovo and around 10,800 rounds were used around Sarajevo.[22] A United Nations task force asked NATO to provide information on specific areas contaminated with DU immediately after the end of the Kosovo campaign. NATO didn’t respond until eight months later – to confirm that 10 tons of DU had indeed been dropped on Kosovo and Serbia. It took another seven months, under increasing pressure from among European allies, before NATO disclosed the locations of a number of contaminated sites, and several months more before the organization finally posted warnings at those sites.[23]

A UN sub-commission, meanwhile, called for an initiative to ban the use of DU. But the initiative has been blocked by the United States, according to Karen Parker, a lawyer with the International Educational Development/Humanitarian Law Project. According to Parker, international humanitarian law recognizes four standards which weapons must meet to be considered legal. Weapons may not “have an adverse affect off the legal field of battle”, defined as “legal military targets of the enemy in war”; may not continue to act after cessation of hostilities; may not be inhumane; and may not have significant negative effects on the environment. According to Parker, “Depleted uranium fails all four of these rules.”[24] In August 2002, a UN sub-committee determined that the use of DU violated the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Genocide Convention, the Convention Against Torture, the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Conventional Weapons Convention of 1980, and the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.[25]

Moreover, the commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, a sub-commission of the UN Commission on Human Rights, passed a resolution on August 29, 1996, categorizing DU munitions as weapons of mass destruction by urging “all States to be guided in their national policies by the need to curb the production and the spread of weapons of mass destruction or with indiscriminate effect, in particular nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weaponry and weaponry containing depleted uranium”.[26]

While NATO was pressured to release data on the use of DU to assist in studies of the aftermath of the war, the information finally given was not detailed enough to allow “an accurate field assessment of the environmental and human health consequences”, according to the United Nations’ Balkan Task Force (which later became the UN Environment Programme’s Post-Conflict Assessment Unit, or PCAU). In its report on the environmental aftermath of the Balkan conflict, the UN said it had been “forced to rely on available published information” due to the reluctance of NATO to assist with more detailed information.[27]

Yugoslav authorities accused NATO of polluting the environment, noting attacks on oil refineries and chemical factories in addition to the use of DU, and claimed that the number of DU rounds used by NATO forces was substantially higher than claimed.[28] Italy joined in the criticism of NATO and called upon the organization to give a full account of its use of DU following the deaths of several soldiers who served in the Balkans from cancer.[29] In early 2001, European Commission President Roman Prodi demanded an investigation into the claims that DU had caused deaths or illnesses, and several more European nations echoed his concerns. NATO dismissed the claims, saying that DU poses only a “negligible hazard”.[30] Germany also joined Italy in calling for a ban on DU munitions until it could be proven that they were truly harmless.[31] And despite NATO’s continued claims that DU posed no significant health threat, a German Defense Ministry document was released that showed that NATO had warned in July 1999 of a “possible toxic threat” and advised soldiers and aid workers to take “preventative measures”.[32] At the same time, briefings on the dangers of DU weapons had been cancelled for 1,000 British servicemen who were sent to Kosovo because of “pressure on the course programme.”[33]

Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands followed Italy in reporting a number of cancer cases among veterans who had served in the Balkans, while others complained of symptoms reminiscent of the “Gulf War syndrome”. Despite increasing concerns among European allies, the US continued to dismiss the claims. Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State, answered the criticisms by saying that “There’s absolutely no proof that there’s a connection” between DU and health concerns, such as increased risks of cancer. “It’s a very effective weapon”, responded a special adviser to the NATO Secretary General. “The medical consensus believes it does not pose health problems. It’s got less radiation than the normal uranium that can be found in your own backyard.” But besides being radioactive, DU is also chemically toxic, and as the 1999 NATO memo had warned, there is also “residual heavy metal toxicity in armored vehicles” struck by DU that could pose health risks to people who came into contact with them.[34]

This was not the first time that the public claims of proponents of the use of DU munitions were contradicted by their own internal reports. According to a report from the US Army Environmental Policy Institute from before the Gulf War, “If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences. The risks associated with DU in the body are both chemical and radiological. Personnel inside or near vehicles struck by DU penetrators could receive significant internal exposure.”[35] After the Gulf War, the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute found that it is DU’s toxicity, rather than its radioactivity, that posed the greater threat and could cause damage to the immune system and central nervous system, as well as contributing to the risk of cancer. Another Army-funded study found that DU caused cancer when implanted in laboratory animals.[36] In 1991, according to Robert Collier of the San Francisco Chronicle, a study by Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority that was suppressed by the British government until 1998 estimated that the use of DU in the Gulf War could result in hundreds of thousands of “potential deaths from cancer.”[37] A 1995 report from the US Army Environmental Policy Institute stated that “If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences.”[38]

A United States Defense Nuclear Agency memorandum that was delivered to Doug Rokke’s team stated: “As Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), ground combat units, and civil populations of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq come increasingly into contact with DU ordnance, we must prepare to deal with potential problems. Toxic war souvenirs, political furor, and post conflict clean up (host nation agreement) are only some of the issues that must be addressed. Alpha particles (uranium oxide dust) from expended rounds is a health concern but, Beta particles from fragments and intact rounds is a serious health threat, with possible exposure rates of 200 millirads per hour on contact.”[39]

In 1998, the Pentagon acknowledged that “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.”[40] This “failure”, however, was unlikely to have been a mere oversight. A July 1990 Army report predicted that, “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 for military applications”, and added that DU is “linked to cancer when exposures are internal.”[41]

Similarly, a 1991 memo from the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico entitled “The Effectiveness of Depleted Uranium Penetrators” was also sent to Doug Rokke’s team.[42] The memo noted that there was “a relatively small amount of lethality data for uranium penetrators”, but that the belief was “that DU penetrators were very effective against Iraqi armor”, adding that “assessments of such will have to be made.” The memo went on to argue that “proponency” should be “garnerned” in order that “a valuable combat capability” should not be lost. To this end, the memo noted: “There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore, if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus, be deleted from the arsenal.”[43]

A 1943 document from the Manhattan Project, known as the Groves Memo, has been called by Leuren Moret, “The blueprint for depleted uranium weapons.” While it does not refer to depleted uranium (it refers to fission byproducts, not to DU, a byproduct of enrichment), the War Department memo, written do Brigadier General L.R. Groves, notes an enclosed report entitled “Use of Radioactive Materials as a Military Weapon” and recommends that a decision be made authorizing additional work into this are, not only to defend against such weapons, but also “that this country may be ready to use such materials”. The memo recommends the creation of an organization that would “Make theoretical studies pertaining to the methods, means and equipment for disseminating radioactive material as a weapon of warfare.” Nuclear material “would be ground into particles of microscopic size to form dust and smoke and distributed by a ground-fired projectile, land vehicles, or aerial bombs. In this form it would be inhaled by personnel. The amount necessary to cause death to a person inhaling the material is extremely small.” The memo addresses the possible use of such weapons by the enemy (naming Germany), and then proceeds on to possible use by the United States, noting that “if military authorities feel that the United States should be ready to use radioactive weapons in case the enemy started it first, studies on the subject should be started immediately” (original emphasis). The possible uses of radioactive material would include use as “Terrain Containment”, which would “deny terrain to either side except at the expense of exposing personnel to harmful radiations”; as a “Gas Warfare Instrument”, which would consist of nuclear material being ground into a dust to “be inhaled by personnel”, causing fatalities within days of exposure. “Reservoirs or wells would be contaminated or food poisoned with an effect similar to that resulting from inhalation of dust or smoke.”[44]

Dan Fahey, a Navy veteran who has studied and written extensively about DU[45], has observed that

In order to ensure the continued use of DU munitions and avoid responsibility for environmental cleanup and health care costs, DoD spokesmen have lied about the health of US Gulf War veterans exposed to DU and exaggerated the importance of DU rounds. In addition, the US government has so far refused to conduct a thorough study of the health of the thousands of Gulf War veterans it acknowledges were exposed to DU, enabling DoD spokesmen to plausibly but deceptively deny the existence of evidence linking DU to veterans health problems.[46]

The Pentagon has responded to earlier revelations from its own internal documents about the health hazards associated with DU by claiming that scientific research contradicting those earlier findings has since occurred.[47] In particular, a RAND Corporation study, sponsored by the Department of Defense, found that no Gulf War veterans were exposed to enough DU to cause any health problems. As Dan Fahey has noted, the Department of Defense

is using the RAND report not only to argue that not one Gulf War veteran could be sick from depleted uranium poisoning, but also to assert that the use of depleted uranium munitions in current and future conflicts poses no risk to human health. This position contradicts many pre- and post-Gulf War military reports and documents which acknowledge health risks to armed forces and civilian populations following the use of DU ammunition in combat.

The fundamental problem with the RAND study, Fahey writes, is that

The assumption that not one Gulf War veteran could have been exposed to enough depleted uranium to cause any health problems is inherently flawed and it undermines the overall conclusions of the RAND report. The fact is no one can state with any reliable degree of certainty how much depleted uranium individual Gulf War veterans may have inhaled or ingested in single and multiple exposure incidents during and after the war. The baseline data for such an assessment is missing: no risk assessments of depleted uranium on the battlefield were performed after the war and a only a small sub-group of the veterans believed to be most heavily exposed were tested and examined two years after their exposure.

Furthermore, “No one is willing to explain why not even one veteran was tested after the war for a DU exposure, in blatant violation of U.S. Army safety regulations. To protect the careers of current and future military commanders, the U.S. Army has re-written its regulations to deny medical testing for soldiers exposed to DU in combat.”[48]

Other researchers have pointed out that many studies, including those produced by the World Health Organization and the RAND Corporation, failed to closely examine the effects from the inhalation of DU, which is regarded as the most dangerous form of exposure. Leonard Dietz, a research associate of the Uranium Medical Research Centre, said that the fact that no governmental study has examined inhaled DU “amounts to a massive malpractice.” Dietz was part of a study published in the Military Medicine journal that looked at inhaled DU in Gulf War veterans. The study found that, nine years later, 14 out of 27 veterans excreted DU in their urine.[49]

Also contrary to the Pentagon’s repeated declarations, other studies also continue to show that there are health risks associated with DU. A 1997 British Ministry of Defense document warned that “Inhalation of insoluble uranium dioxide dust will lead to an accumulation in the lungs with very slow clearance – if any”, adding that “Although chemical toxicity is low, there may be localized radiation damage of the lung leading to cancer.” In a passage under the heading “Risk assessment relating to Gulf war uranium exposure”, the document stated that “All personnel…should be aware that uranium dust inhalation carries a long-term risk…[and] has been shown to increase the risks of developing lung, lymph and brain cancers.”[50]

A 2001 WHO report recommended that “Where practicable, areas where significant DU contamination actually or potentially exists should be cordoned off until a survey has determined that it is safe for habitation. If levels warrant a clean-up of the area, the cordons should be retained and appropriately adjusted for actual conditions until results of a final status survey show the area is safe for unrestricted access.” The report added that “collecting of intact or fragmented DU penetrators or other equipment containing DU for souvenirs or fabrication into other products should be actively discouraged.”[51]

In January 2001, the European Parliament called for a ban on the use of DU while investigations into its possible effect on the health of those who are exposed to it are carried out.[52] The European Commission ordered an investigation, and in March a panel of experts found no evidence that DU had an effect on human health. Professor Ian McAulay, who headed the panel, said, “I don’t think there is any reason to be afraid.” However, the panel seems to have focused primarily on the possible effects of radiation, but at the same time noted the possibility that the toxicity of DU may be of more concern. Despite there not being “any reason to be afraid”, McAualay also determined that “Warning signs should be put up where there are large concentrations of depleted uranium.”[53]

Other scientists questioned the EU panel’s findings. Malcolm Hooper, a professor of chemistry at the University of Sunderland, told the BBC that “Any inhalation of insoluble depleted uranium is a health hazard. It emits alpha radiation. There is published work showing that there is no safety threshold for internal alpha radiation – one alpha particle is enough to cause a mutation in a gene.” Referring to the panel’s findings, he asked, “Are these researchers saying all this earlier work is wrong?”[54]

Similarly, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published its findings on the impact of DU in Kosovo, concluding that the “radiological and chemical risks are insignificant” – after finding no widespread ground contamination in the areas investigated, which were limited due to the lack of cooperation from NATO. The group did, however, express concern for the safety of groundwater, saying that there was a risk of contamination. They also called for a similar examination of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and recommended several precautions, including the removal of radioactive shrapnel, decontamination of affected areas, and instructions for locals on what to do if a contaminated site is found.[55] The team also found low levels of radioactivity at a number of sites where DU weapons were used and warned its personnel to avoid those areas.[56]

In January 2001, the World Health Organization responded to requests from Iraq for an international inquiry into the use of DU by announcing that it was planning to perform a study to determine whether the increases in cancer and birth defects were attributable to DU.[57] The WHO had sent a mission to Iraq in 1995 to look at the cancer issue and provide advice. A second mission was sent in August 1998 to advise on potential investigations into the growing cases of leukemia.[58] But no study on the relationship between DU and the growing health concerns in Iraq had ever been performed. The growing concern in Europe over the weapons (which could not be dismissed as Iraqi “propaganda”) played no small role in Iraq’s pleas for an investigation finally receiving some attention from the international community.[59] In August, the WHO announced that it would send a delegation to Baghdad to investigate the reports of increased rates of cancer and birth defects.[60] A WHO spokesman said, “The Iraqis have been saying for a while that there has been an increase in cancers caused by depleted uranium. If we have determined there has been an increase, then we will look at possible causes.”[61]

According to Dr. Alim Yacoub, dean of the medical school at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, the WHO project was blocked by UN sanctions, which prevented the necessary radiology equipment from being imported.[62] I contacted Dan Fahey to ask if he had any information on what became of the WHO mission, and he said that according to one of his sources, the project was blocked by the government of Iraq, which wanted a level of control over the study that was unacceptable to the WHO. For example, Iraq wanted to choose which sites and hospitals could be visited and did not want any samples removed from the country. Dr. Michael Kilpatrick said in a Department of Defense briefing that “The World Health Organization went into that area [around Basra] and took a look at what it would take to do the appropriate epidemiological medical studies to understand why are people ill in this area of the world. They laid out that requirement of that kind of study and said the World Health Organization is capable and willing to do this. And the government of Iraq said no.”[63] Little has been reported on what became of the WHO mission, and just what occurred is largely unknown and shrouded in ambiguity.

In February 2004, Scotland’s Sunday Herald reported that a WHO sponsored study concluding that inhalation of DU could lead to cancer was “suppressed”. Dr Keith Baverstock, the principle author of the report, which was completed in 2001, and the WHO’s top expert on radiation and health for 11 years, alleges that it was deliberately kept secret. “Our study suggests that the widespread use of depleted uranium weapons in Iraq could pose a unique health hazard to the civilian population,” Baverstock said, adding that “There is increasing scientific evidence the radioactivity and the chemical toxicity of DU could cause more damage to human cells than is assumed.” According to one WHO official, “The article was not approved for publication because parts of it did not reflect accurately what a WHO-convened group of international experts considered the best science in the area of depleted uranium.” In other words, it was not considered fit to print because the report contradicted earlier findings. Among the report’s conclusions were that DU particles, which can be blown around by wind, are likely to be inhaled by civilians for years to come and that once inside the body, its radiation and toxicity could lead to the growth of malignant tumors and an increased risk of cancer.[64]

Iraq also proposed that the UN itself study the effects of DU. In November, a report from Reuters noted that the Iraq Health Ministry had reported an increase in cancer cases from 6,555 in 1989 to 10,931 in 1997, “especially in areas bombed during the war”, but that, “After lobbying by Washington, the General Assembly rejected yesterday an Iraqi proposal that the UN study the effects of the depleted-uranium shells by US-led forces in the Gulf War.”[65]

Leuren Moret has also alleged that there has been a widespread cover-up of the effects of DU. In just one example, “A medical doctor in Northern California reported being trained by the Pentagon with other doctors, months before the 2003 war started, to diagnose and treat soldiers returning from the 2003 war for mental problems only. Medical professionals in hospitals and facilities treating returning soldiers were threatened with $10,000 fines if they talked about the soldiers or their medical problems. They were also threatened with jail.”[66]

There are historical precedents for such a cover up. According to a 1994 congressional report, “Approximately 60,000 military personnel were used as human subjects in the 1940s to test two chemical agents, mustard gas and lewisite [blister gas]. Most of these subjects were not informed of the nature of the experiments and never received medical followup after their participation in the research. Additionally, some of these human subjects were threatened with imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth if they discussed these experiments with anyone, including their wives, parents and family doctors. For decades, the Pentagon denied that the research had taken place, resulting in decades of suffering for many veterans who became ill after the secret testing.”[67]

“Military men,” Henry Kissinger is alleged to have said, “are just dumb stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.”[68] That mindset seems to hold true for policy makers at the Department of Defense.

Reports on the potential dangers of DU, meanwhile, have continued to emerge. In 2001, the Royal Society, one of the United Kingdom’s premier scientific bodies, released a report saying that “It should be incumbent on nations using DU munitions in future conflicts to advise the local population of the potential dangers of handling fragments of penetrators.”[69] In March, 2002, another Royal Society report was released, which concluded that inhaling or swallowing high levels of DU could lead to kidney failure within days, and that there are long-term risks for children who play in contaminated areas.[70]

In March 2003, UNEP released its report from its investigation of DU in Bosnia and Herzogovina. The report notes that “there has been very little scientific fieldwork with proper measurements as well as laboratory work outside of the military community”, making it “difficult to come to any significant conclusions.” Despite this, four “new and significant findings” are found in the report. First, analysis of surface soil samples “revealed low levels of localized ground contamination.” Second, DU penetrators buried beneath the surface had corroded, losing 25% of their mass over a 7 years period. Third, DU contamination was found in drinking water at one site, and while the doses found “are insignificant for any health risk”, the report adds that “because the mechanism that governs the contamination of water in a given environment is not known in detail, it is recommended that water sampling and measurements should continue for several years, and that an alternative water source should be used if DU is found in the drinking water.” Fourth, DU was found in the air at two sites, demonstrating that particles may be distributed by wind or human activity, increasing the risk of inhalation.

The report also states that “The harmful effect of [internal DU radiation] is mainly an increase risk of cancer, with the magnitude of risk depending on the part of the body exposed (particularly exposure of the lungs through the inhalation of insoluble compounds) and on the radiation dose.” Likewise, the report notes, “DU is also chemically toxic” the effect of which “depends on the amount ingested by the body”, and adds that DU’s toxicity is “the dominant risk factor to consider in the case of ingestion.” Besides a potential risk of cancer, “malfunction of body organs, particularly the kidneys” may be a health consequence of exposure to DU.[71]

In the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Pentagon made it known that DU would likely be used in the approaching conflict. In a Defense Department briefing about DU, Colonel James Naughton explained the effectiveness of DU, saying, “That’s how much advantage it gives us. So we don’t want to give that up, and that’s why we use it.” When asked what had made him say that the US did not want to give up the use of DU, Naughton responded, “Well, you need to look at the environment of the context where people are asking us questions – who’s asking the question? The Iraqis tell us terrible things happened to our people because you used it last time. Why do they want it to go away? They want it to go away because we kicked the crap out of them – okay?” The reporter followed up by saying, “So it’s basically you’re saying the Iraqis are behind any sort of effort…” Naughton interrupted, “And other countries that are not friendly to the United States.”[72]

Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, the Pentagon’s leading spokesperson on DU, claimed in the briefing that DU “is not a hazardous substance.” But when asked about “the likelihood that depleted uranium weaponry would be used in an urban environment” and whether “the likelihood might be that children could be exposed to this after the fact, no matter how much care you take in the targeting”, Dr. Michael Kilpatrick replied, “I think as far as health effects on children we do know that, as I said before, if the depleted uranium is external to the body there is no health effect” (emphasis added). He also acknowledged that “there really is no data on how much it takes to cause an issue or a problem in children”.[73]

The Pentagon also made it clear that it was not going to take responsibility for cleaning up DU contaminated sites after the war. One spokesman said, “One thing we’ve found in these various studies is that there are no long-term effects from DU. And given that, I don’t believe we have any plans for a DU clean-up in Iraq.”[74]

An editorial in the New Scientist magazine in April 2003 commented on how such claims of “no long-term effects” are common, but “imply a level of knowledge that we simply do not have.” It notes the example of a letter from Britain’s veterans minister to the magazine saying that “media reports of cancers and birth defects in Iraq are not substantiated with credible scientific evidence”. The editorial notes that “those media reports about Iraq were not substantiated because no studies were ever carried out. Evidence of the absence of any health impacts would be reassuring but all we have at present is an absence of evidence.”[75]

Another article in the same edition of the magazine reported that some scientists were beginning to look at the combined effects of DU’s radiation and chemical toxicity. Britain’s Royal Society, for example, had previously reported on the “possibility of damage to DNA due to the chemical effects being enhanced by the effects of the alpha-particle radiation.” Alexandra Miller, a radiobiologist with the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute has “discovered the first direct evidence that radiation from DU damages chromosomes within cultured cells. The chromosomes break, and the fragments reform in a way that results in abnormal joins”. The article added that “Both the breaks and the joins are commonly found in tumour cells.” There has also been research showing that “the effects of radiation may not appear immediately. Damage to genes may be amplified as cells divide, so the full consequences may only appear many generations after the event that caused it.” While the Pentagon has claimed that there have been no health problems in the Gulf War veterans in coalition troops involved in DU friendly-fire incidents, researchers at the Bremen Institute for Prevention Research, Social Medicine and Epidemiology in Germany published the results of a study “in which they took blood samples from 16 of the soldiers, and counted the number of chromosomes in which broken strands of DNA had been incorrectly repaired. In veterans, these abnormalities occurred at five times the rate as in a control group of 40 healthy volunteers.” According to team member Heike Schroder, “Increased chromosomal aberrations are associate with an increased incidence of cancers.”[76]

In May, the Association of Humanitarian Lawyers published an article in the San Francisco Bay View noting the “unchecked looting of hospitals and the destruction of nearly all the ministries and other centers storing public health records”, which made it it “impossible for hospitals to function” and obstructed “the ability to document or report symptoms linked to the use of ‘depleted’ uranium or other more experimental weapons use by the U.S./U.K. military.” Meanwhile, there was “Heavy guarding of the Oil and Interior Ministries by U.S. tanks and soldiers to prevent looting.” The article notes that the UN Sub-Commission on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights has declared depleted uranium munitions, cluster bombs, and fuel air bombs to be in violation of international law. As Karen Parker has noted, the failure to protect hospitals itself “is a major violation of the Geneva Conventions.”[77]

The Christian Science Monitor published an article in May, 2003, entitled “Remains of toxic bullets litter Iraq” commenting on how children play in contaminated areas near Baghdad. “The children haven’t been told not to play with the radioactive debris. They gather around as a Geiger counter carried by a visiting reporter starts singing when it nears a DU bullet fragment no bigger than a pencil eraser. It registers nearly 1,000 times normal background radiation levels on the digital readout.” The week before the Monitor’s investigation, an Army surgeon told journalists in Baghdad that “There is not really any danger, at least that we know about, for the people of Iraq” (emphasis added).[78]

It has been reported that the Pentagon and UN estimated that US and British forces used 1,100-2,200 tons of DU-tipped munitions during the first two months of the war in Iraq – far more than the estimated 375 tons used in the Gulf War.[79] However, this claim appears to be a fabrication. Neither documents or official statements from the Pentagon or the UN supporting this claim have been produced. The actual amount of DU used in the war is unknown.

The US has also used DU much closer to home. The US military has used the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico to test DU, and Puerto Rican activists claim that this has contributed to a cancer rate on the island that is twice the national average. Writes author William Blum, “In response to the rising protests, US military officials told members of the Puerto Rico Senate that they couldn’t conduct the exercises on the US East Coast because population centers were too close. For obvious reasons, this remark only served to increase the rage of many in the country. President Clinton, however, showed a bit more sensitivity. He announced that the Navy will abandon the Vieques bombing range. Within five years.”[80]

DU has also been used at testing grounds throughout the United States, including California, Nevada, Washington, and New Mexico. “As the old saying goes,” concludes William Blum, “just don’t breathe the air or drink the water. And don’t raise your babies anywhere nearby.”[81]

As the war in Iraq commenced in March, 2003, the White House and Pentagon spokespersons made claims that the US was doing everything it could to prevent Iraqi civilians from being harmed. That claim is seriously challenged by the fact that it has once again used depleted uranium munitions in that country. While the US government claims DU is harmless, an enormous body of research and published studies by the world’s scientific community have reached a different conclusion – that exposure to DU, particularly internal exposure, such as through inhalation or ingestion, poses a significant health risk. Nearly all conclude that the issue warrants further investigation to be certain of the true effects of depleted uranium upon humans. The US claims that the evidence shows that DU is harmless. Others argue that it is the absence of information regarding the potential health risks of DU that make the use of such a weapon so questionable. Yet another conclusion that could be drawn is that what is known about “depleted” uranium weapons is the thing that makes its use so utterly diabolical.

The unavoidable conclusion, from the facts that are known about depleted uranium, is that no nation interested in protecting the lives innocent civilians, or its own soldiers, would use a weapon that has the potential to cause serious health problems, including cancer and birth deformities, long after the conflicts in which they are used is over. The use of depleted uranium weaponry is anathema to any concept of “humanitarian” warfare and a serious obstacle to the hypothesis, so often proposed, that the US government does everything it can to prevent the loss of innocent lives in its military conflicts abroad.


[1] Malcolm Hooper Ph.D., “What is Depleted Uranium (DU) & Uses in Weapons?”, Uranium Medical Research Centre, May 2001

 

http://www.umrc.net/os/whatIsDU.asp

[2] Dan Fahey, “Science or Science Fiction? Facts, Myths and Propaganda in the Debate Over Depleted Uranium Weapons”, March 12, 2003

http://doc.danfahey.com/Sci-SciFi.pdf

http://www.antenna.nl/wise/uranium/pdf/dumyths.pdf

[3] Dan Fahey, “Science or Science Fiction? Facts, Myths and Propaganda in the Debate Over Depleted Uranium Weapons”

[4] Malcolm Hooper Ph.D.

[5] Department of Defense, “Briefing on Depleted Uranium”, March 14, 2003

http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/2003/t03142003_t314depu.html

[6] Neil Mackay, “US forces’ use of depleted uranium weapons is ‘illegal'”, Sunday Herald, March 20, 2003

http://www.sundayherald.com/32522

[7] Doug Struck, “Iraqis Blame U.S. for Cancers”, The Washington Post, July 5, 1998; Page A17

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A99196-1998Jul5&notFound=true

[8] Doug Struck

[9] Howard Schneider, “WHO to Study Health Effects of Deplete Uranium in Iraq”, The Washington Post, March 15, 2001; Page A20

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A4585-2001Mar14&notFound=true

[10] The White House, “Appratus of Lies: Saddam’s Disinformation and Propaganda 1990-2003”

http://www.whitehouse.gov/ogc/apparatus/apparatus-of-lies.pdf

[11] Alex Kirby, “Depleted uranium: the lingering poison”, BBC News, June 7, 1999

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/362484.stm

Alex Kirby, “Depleted Uranium: The next generation”, BBC News, January 18, 2001

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1122566.stm

[12] “Uranium ‘threat’ to Gulf veterans”, BBC News, September 4, 2000

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/909638.stm

[13] Juan Gonzalez, “Poisoned?”, New York Daily News, April 30, 2004

http://www.nydailynews.com/front/story/180333p-156685c.html

[14] Juan Gonzalez, “The war’s littlest victim”, New York Daily News, September 29, 2004

http://www.nydailynews.com/front/story/236934p-203326c.html

[15] Leuren Moret, “A death sentence here and abroad”, San Francisco Bay View, August 18, 2004

http://www.sfbayview.com/081804/Depleteduranium081804.shtml

[16] Alex Kirby, “Q&A: Depleted uranium weapons”, BBC News, January 4, 2001

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/1101447.stm

[17] Doug Rokke, “The War Against Ourselves”, YES!, Spring 2003

http://www.yesmagazine.com/article.asp?ID=594

[18] Larry Johnson, “Iraqi cancers, birth defects blamed on U.S. depleted uranium”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 12, 2002

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/national/95178_du12.shtml

[19] Robert Collier, “Iraq links cancers to uranium weapons”, San Francisco Chronicle, January 13, 2003

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/01/13/MN233872.DTL

[20] Doug Rokke, “The War Against Ourselves”

[21] Doug Rokke, “The War Against Ourselves”

[22] “Health Hazard Denied in Depleted-Uranium Arms”, Associated Press, January 5, 2001; Page A17

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A21114-2001Jan4&notFound=true

[23] Dan Fahey, “Depleted Uranium: America’s Military ‘Gift’ That Keeps on Giving”, The Los Angeles Times, February 18, 2001

http://www.commondreams.org/cgi-bin/print.cgi?file=/views01/0218-03.htm

[24] Larry Johnson, “Iraqi cancers, birth defects blamed on U.S. depleted uranium”

[25] Neil Mackay

[26] United Nations Sub-Commission resolution 1996/16

http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/E/SUBCOM/resolutions/E-CN_4-SUB_2-RES-1996-16.doc

[27] Alex Kirby, “Nato reveals Kosovo depleted uranium use”, BBC News, March 22, 2000

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/686593.stm

[28] Jacky Rowland, “Nato criticised over uranium rounds”, BBC News, April 21, 2000

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/722282.stm

[29] Alex Kirby, “Alarm over Nato uranium deaths”, BBC News, January 3, 2001

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/1098858.stm

[30] Anna Baker, “EU Demands Probe of NATO Munitions”, Reuters, January 5, 2001; Page A17

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A21112-2001Jan4&notFound=true

[31] Jonathan Marcus, “Uranium row tests Nato”, BBC News, January 8, 2001

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/1106290.stm

[32] Burt Herman, “NATO Had Warned of Munition Hazard”, Associated Press, January 8, 2001; Page A15

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A30043-2001Jan7&notFound=true

[33] “Troops ‘not told’ about uranium risks”, BBC News, February 7, 2001

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/1159218.stm

[34] William Drozdiak, “U.S., Britain Reject Calls to Halt Use of Depleted-Uranium Arms”, The Washington Post, January 10, 2001; Page A15

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A38135-2001Jan9&notFound=true

[35] Alex Kirby, “Alarm over Nato uranium deaths”

[36] Dan Fahey, “Depleted Uranium: America’s Military ‘Gift’ That Keeps on Giving”

[37] Robert Collier

[38] “US to use depleted uranium”, BBC News, March 18, 2003

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/2860759.stm

[39] Dr. Doug Rokke, Ph.D., “The Scourge of Depleted Uranium”, presented during “The Child: A Victim of War and a Messenger of Peace” United Nations – UNESCO International conference, Athens, Greece, May 24-25, 2001

http://traprockpeace.org/DuRokkeGreece.pdf

[40] Dan Fahey, “Depleted Uranium: America’s Military ‘Gift’ That Keeps on Giving”

[41] Dan Fahey, “Depleted Uranium: America’s Military ‘Gift’ That Keeps on Giving”

[42] Dr. Doug Rokke, Ph.D., “The Scourge of Depleted Uranium

[43] “The Effectiveness of Depeted Uranium Penetrators”, Los Alamos National Laboratory memorandum from Lt Col M.V. Ziehman to Maj Larson at the Studies & Analysis Branch, March 1, 1991

http://www.tv.cbc.ca/national/pgminfo/du/doc1.html

Felicity Arbuthnott and Neil Mackay, “Allies ‘told in 1991 of Uranium Cancer Risks’”, The Sunday Herald, January 7, 2001

http://www.commondreams.org/headlines01/0107-02.htm

Alex Kirby, “Ask Alex Kirby”, BBC News, January 9, 2001

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/talking_point/forum/1106746.stm

[44] Memorandum from Drs Conant, Compton, and Urey to Brigadier General L. R. Groves, War Department, October 30, 1943 (Declassified June 5, 1974)

http://www.mindfully.org/Nucs/Groves-Memo-Manhattan30oct43.htm

[45] http://www.danfahey.com/

[46] Dan Fahey, “Science or Science Fiction? Facts, Myths and Propaganda in the Debate Over Depleted Uranium Weapons”

[47] “DU dangers “known’ before Gulf War”, BBC News, January 15, 2001

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/1118590.stm

[48] Dan Fahey, “Fear of Falling”, August 4, 1999

http://doc.danfahey.com/FearOfFalling.pdf

[49] Larry Johnson, “Iraqi cancers, birth defects blamed on U.S. depleted uranium”

[50] Richard Noron-Taylor, “MoD knew shells were cancer risk”, The Guardian, January 11, 2001

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uranium/story/0,7369,420779,00.html

[51] Dan Fahey, “Science or Science Fiction? Facts, Myths and Propaganda in the Debate Over Depleted Uranium Weapons”

[52] “Europe votes for DU ban”, BBC News, January 17, 2001

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/1121384.stm

[53] “No DU weapons risk, say experts”, BBC News, March 6, 2001

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/1205632.stm

[54] “No DU weapons risk, say experts”, BBC News

[55] Alex Kirby, “Kosovo uranium ‘poses little risk'”, BBC News, March 13, 2001

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1217816.stm

[56] Colum Lynch, “U.N. Detects Radiation at Kosovo Airstrie Sites”, The Washington Post, January 6, 2001; Page A22

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A25754-2001Jan5&notFound=true

[57] Barbara Plett, “Iraq demands uranium inquiry”, BBC News, January 13, 2001

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/1115209.stm

[58] World Health Organization, “Health effects of depleted uranium”, March 20, 2001

http://www.who.int/gb/ebwha/pdf_files/WHA54/ea5419.pdf

[59] Howard Schneider, “WHO to Study Health Effects of Deplete Uranium in Iraq”, The Washington Post, March 15, 2001; Page A20

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A4585-2001Mar14&notFound=true

[60] “WHO studies depleted uranium in Iraq”, BBC News, August 23, 2001

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/1506151.stm

[61] Colum Lynch, “WHO Team Will Study A Weapon’s Toll in Iraq”, The Washington Post, August 24, 2001; Page A20

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A54710-2001Aug23&notFound=true

[62] Robert Collier

[63] Department of Defense

[64] Rob Edwards, “WHO ‘suppressed’ scientific study into depleted uranium cancer fears in Iraq”, Sunday Herald, February 22, 2004

http://www.sundayherald.com/40096

[65] Irwin Arieff, “US Wins Defeat of Depleted Uranium Study”, Reuters, November 30, 2001

http://www.commondreams.org/headlines01/1130-01.htm

[66] Leuren Moret

[67] William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, (Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine, 2000), p. 2-3

[68] Leuren Moret, quoted from the book “Kiss the Boys Goodbye: How the United States Betrayed Its Own POW’s in Vietnam”.

[69] Dan Fahey, “Science or Science Fiction? Facts, Myths and Propaganda in the Debate Over Depleted Uranium Weapons”

[70] Rob Edwards, “Depleted uranium may stop kidneys ‘in days'”, NewScientist.com, March 12, 2002

http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn2024

[71] United Nations Environment Program, “Depleted Uranium in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Revised Edition: May 2003

http://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/BiH_DU_report.pdf

[72] Department of Defense

[73] Department of Defense

[74] Alex Kirby, “US rejects Iraq DU clean-up”, BBC News, April 14, 2003

http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/sci/tech/2946715.stm

[75] “Editorial: Before the dust settles”, New Scientist, April 15, 2003

http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn3635

[76] Duncan Graham-Rowe, “Depleted uranium casts shadow over peace in Iraq”, New Scientist, April 15, 2003

http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn3627&print=true

[77] Association of Humanitarian Lawyers, “Is U.S. Covering up ‘depleted’ uranium health impacts in Iraq?”, San Francisco Bay View, May 14, 2003

http://www.sfbayview.com/051403/depleteduranium051403.shtml

[78] Scott Peterson, “Remains of toxic bullets litter Iraq”, The Christian Science Monitor, May 15, 2003

http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0515/p01s02-woiq.html

[79] Larry Johnson, “Use of depleted uranium weapons lingers as health concern”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 4, 2003

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/national/133581_du04.html

[80] William Blum, p. 98-99

[81] William Blum, p. 98-99

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About Jeremy R. Hammond

About Jeremy R. Hammond

I am an independent journalist, political analyst, publisher and editor of Foreign Policy Journal, book author, and writing coach.

My writings empower readers with the knowledge they need to see through state propaganda intended to manufacture their consent for criminal government policies.

By recognizing when we are being lied to and why, we can fight effectively for liberty, peace, and justice, in order to create a better world for ourselves, our children, and future generations of humanity.

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