Despite widespread concern about the impact of depleted-uranium weapons used by the West in Iraq and elsewhere, western governments refused to address the issues until their own troops started developing cancer. HELENA BESTAKOVA in Prague, the Czech Republic, examines the issues.
If some deceptive spin-doctor tries to make you believe that the callous and criminal mindset underlying the use of Agent Orange and human radiation experiments is in America’s past, don’t listen. The recent European alarm over the effects of depleted uranium (DU) ordnance is proof that such age-old American ruthlessness is alive and well. Despite NATO’s hand-on-heart assurances that a link has yet to be scientifically established between DU ammunition and cancer, the controversy over the reported dangers of DU continues to grow.
After weeks of claims, counter-claims and hurried explanations, NATO sought the assistance of the top medical officers of its 19 member-states to bury the DU scare. At a meeting in Brussels on January 15, the Committee of the Chiefs of the Military Medical Services (COMEDS) rejected allegations of a link between DU ammunition and cancer deaths among alliance soldiers serving in Bosnia and Kosova. Yet NATO’s efforts to dismiss the mysterious “Balkan syndrome” have not succeeded in removing DU from the lexicon of scare words. For one thing, it soon became clear that the crowd of US experts brought to Brussels by NATO to soothe fears had at best conveyed half the truth about the carcinogenic potential of DU munitions. Among the many facts that they did not give was that some DU came from recycled nuclear fuel, not ore, and contains traces not only of highly radioactive uranium-236 (U-236) but of plutonium as well. Two days after the COMEDS meeting, NATO had to issue a statement admitting that the presence of minute quantities of U-236 and plutonium in DU ordnance had “long been established.” But it asserted that the presence of these quantities was “irrelevant,” claiming that it did not increase the risks from DU. On January 18, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon added neptunium and americium to the list of stray elements, or transuranics, found in DU munitions.
However, the European Parliament was not convinced. Undeterred by NATO’s solemn assurances, the parliamentary deputies voted on January 17 in favour of a moratorium on the use of DU, and an independent study into its effects. On the same day, German defence minister Rudolf Scharping took the highly unusual step of calling on the US charge d’affaires in Berlin to seek more information, following the broadcast of a report on the plutonium factor by a German television network. A few days later, during a 2-day Balkan visit, the defence minister strongly criticised the US for failing to inform its NATO partners that DU munitions also contained radioactive plutonium, a substance believed in the scientific community to cause cancer if inhaled in dust.
The current furore over DU erupted early in January as some countries suggested a connection with leukaemia and other diseases affecting some young NATO soldiers who served in Kosova and Bosnia. Some NATO members, namely Italy, Greece and Germany, have accused the US of leaving them in the dark about the potential health risks of DU, and call for a moratorium on its use. Greek defence minister Akis Tsohatzopoulos denied Pentagon claims that it had informed its NATO allies in July 1999, just weeks after the Kosova war ended, that their troops should take preventive measures against contamination in the theatre of war. “It was in December 1999, six months after the end of the war, that American forces confirmed to NATO countries they had used DU bombs,” the defence minister reportedly told the Greek daily Ta Nea. He added that the American instructions indicated that the Pentagon “recognized there was a danger to the health of military personnel who didn’t take protective measures.”
But concerns about the hazards of DU have been around since the munitions were first used in the Gulf war of 1991. DU, a residual of civilian and military nuclear programmes, is uranium that is 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium, while retaining identical chemical properties. It is used in weapons because of its higher density (65 percent heavier than lead), which endows it with metallic properties that allow it to “self-sharpen” as it penetrates heavy steel armour. In contrast, traditional anti-tank munitions made from other material, such as tungsten compounds, tend to mushroom and, hence, become blunt as they penetrate. The US also uses DU plates to protect its newest tanks against anti-tank weapons.
A DU round dissolves in a burning spray of uranium oxide dust on impact with a solid object. According to US Army technical reports, as much as 70 percent of a DU projectile can be aerosolized when it strikes a tank. The free-floating particulate dust, which is chemically toxic and radioactive, can be spread over large areas by the wind. British biologist Roger Coghill told a London conference in 1991, called to discuss the use of DU munitions during the Gulf war, that the dust can travel up to 300 kilometres.
These wind-blown particles comprise a toxic and radioactive cocktail that can wreak havoc on the immune system when inhaled or ingested. They can migrate to any tissue but usually tend to lodge in lung tissue, the kidneys, liver and bones, resisting the body’s attempts to flush them out and exposing it to a toxic dose of alpha-radiation capable of inducing cancer and other illnesses. According to Laura Olah, board member of the Military Toxics Project, an American coalition of veterans and community activists leading a grassroots effort for an international ban on DU, “A single, microscopic particle of DU lodged in the respiratory system is the radiological equivalent of fifty x-rays, and can subject lung tissue to 8,000 times the annual radiation dose permitted by [US] federal regulations for whole-body exposure.”
According to official figures, American troops alone fired at least 14,000 rounds (or 40 tons) of DU ordnance in Kuwait and southern Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. Independent scientists have estimated that US warplanes fired more than 500,000 DU rounds over Kosova, half of which detonated. Elevated radiation levels were reported during and soon after the Kosova war. In 1999 scientists in northern Greece and Bulgaria reported above-normal radiation levels whenever the wind blew from Kosova.
Compounding these concerns are warnings issued by a host of governmental and non-governmental watchdogs. For instance, the British Atomic Energy Authority issued a health warning about the toxic and radioactive contamination from DU shells left in Kuwait. At the war’s end, the US forces left behind an estimated 300 tons of expended ammunition in Kuwait and Iraq. The Times of London (January 16, 2001) quoted a confidential paper prepared by the Authority as warning: “Handling heavy metal munitions does pose some potential hazards, as does the possibility of the spread of radioactive and toxic contamination as a result of firing in battle.” The Times report also quoted Shaun Rusling, who heads a British veterans’ advocacy group known as the National Gulf War Veterans’ and Families Association, as saying that 521 British veterans of the 1991 war had died since the end of the conflict and more than 5,000 were suffering from serious illnesses such as leukaemia and cancer. An earlier report by the Atomic Energy Authority leaked to the London Independent in November 1991 warned that there was enough DU left behind in the Persian Gulf region to cause some “500,000 potential deaths” through increased cancer-rates. The figure was based on the official US estimate that ‘only’ some 40 tons of DU munitions were used in the Gulf.
Another report, published by the US Army Mobility Equipment, Research & Development Command, as far back as March 7, 1979, concludes: “Not only the people in the immediate vicinity (emergency and fire fighting personnel) but also people at distances downwind from the fire [caused by the use of DU] are faced with potential over-exposure to airborne uranium dust.” Similarly, a 1995 report by the US Army’s Environmental Policy Institute states: “If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences” The risks associated with DU are both chemical and radiological.”
Last year, two Canadian academic studies found evidence of damage to health related to DU munitions. Research at the University of Waterloo and the Memorial University of Newfoundland has shown Gulf war veterans to be still passing traces of DU in their urine eight years after the war.
In fact, Gulf war veterans’ groups in NATO countries believe that DU may be a factor in the “Gulf war syndrome,” a cluster of illnesses that has ruined the lives of thousands. Many Gulf war veterans experienced deteriorating health after they returned from the war. The most common complaints relate to such symptoms as fatigue, memory loss, diarrhoea, nose-bleeds, bloody faeces, bleeding gums, and failing motor skills. They also point out a higher rate of birth-defects in the children of veterans. In one unit, 67 percent of children born to US Gulf war veterans had severe illnesses or birth-defects. These deformities are similar to those seen in Iraq since the Gulf war. However, nothing can so far be compared to the widespread effects of DU munitions on Iraqi civilians. Exponentially higher cancer rates were seen in parts of Iraq following the Gulf war. Cancer in southern Iraq has reached three times its pre-war levels. Around Basra, where the allies used DU munitions more extensively than elsewhere in the country, the rate is seven times the pre-war levels.
In a letter released on January 17, Muhammad Sa’id al-Sahhaf , Iraq’s foreign minister, asks UN secretary general Kofi Annan to order a “prompt inquiry” into the use of DU against his country by US and British forces during the Gulf war. Sahhaf says that since the end of the conflict, his country has had to grapple with “unusual pathological conditions of which Iraq had no experience prior to the war.” He notes that “seventy-five percent of the cases involved children, who began to suffer increasingly from leukaemia and congenital and genetic deformities.” The letter goes on to say that “Lung, digestive-tract, blood and skin cancers became increasingly widespread,” adding that, “the primary cause of all these types of cancer is exposure to radiation.”
On January 22, a World Health Organization (WHO) team made a week-long visit to Kosova to take more earth and water samples from places where US planes used DU anti-tank munitions during the 1999 NATO campaign. The purpose of the survey is to investigate the health-effects of DU on the local population. WHO is currently analysing the results of its survey and is expected to release its report by the end of February. Iraq has also officially asked WHO to investigate the effects of DU munitions used during the Gulf war. In the meantime, the legacy of America’s love affair with radioactive weapons will continue to haunt inhabitants in the Gulf and the Balkans for years, maybe generations, to come. And many young soldiers in NATO member-countries will also experience at first-hand the bitter consequences of the alliance’s DU dust.