As the war rages on, as casualties continue to rise, as the chaos, destruction and horror continue unabated in Iraq, there lurks a destructive element in this invasion that has gone almost unnoticed–until recently. It is a weapon more sinister, more insidious, and more secretive than any US military arsenal to date and it works silently over the passage of time, but its possible deadly affects are only beginning to be explored by the mainstream media.
There has been virtually no mention of the use of depleted uranium (DU) in this latest Gulf War, yet the US military has scattered this radioactive substance all over the desert in even larger quantities than it did in the Gulf War of 1991. The US department of defense has disclosed that US forces utilized DU munitions in combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom and the US army deployed several fighting vehicles capable of releasing DU in Iraq. Dan Fahey, writer and representative at ‘Swords to Plowshares’–a veterans advocacy group, estimates that the US and UK released between 100 and 200 tons of DU during combat which took place in populated areas last year. This material was fired by invading US forces into buildings, homes, streets and gardens all over Baghdad alone, but the US government says it has no plans to remove the debris left over from DU ammunition and refuses to permit Iraq to import the clean-up equipment that they desperately need to decontaminate their country of the DU.
This is another violation of International Law, since the UN banned the use of DU in the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities Resolution 1996/16 August 29. The use of DU was banned because its safety is in question, therefore the use of DU by US and UK forces should be halted, and existing contaminated sites cleaned-up, until we can be clear on the long term health and environmental consequences of this substance.
A study done by the Pentagon’s GAO itself stated, “Ingested DU dust can pose both a radioactive and a toxicity risk.” The Green Party of the UK fears that another outbreak of “Gulf War Syndrome” may be imminent as troops are returning home with a range of illnesses including degeneration of the nervous system and various cancers, as well as less easily defined immune system failings. Key findings by Dr. Fahey reveal that the rate of malignancies in children in Basra, Iraq, has quadrupled since the last Gulf War 12 years ago. Scientists fear that exposure to DU may lead to a host of health problems such as congenital abnormalities, brain tumors, leukemia and other cancers, cases of which have dramatically risen in Iraq over the past ten years. Dr. Ahmad Hardan, scientific adviser to the World Health Organization, states, “This has caused a health crisis that has affected almost a third of a million people”.
Munitions containing rods dense with DU are used at high speed to destroy armored vehicles. The substance that remains after natural uranium has been enriched, DU, is 1.7 times denser than lead, making it more effective, but not necessary for penetrating armored objects such as tanks. Uranium is a poisonous and weakly radioactive heavy metal, but Depleted Uranium, the waste product from extracting the radioactive components of Uranium is used for nuclear power or weapons. Once a target is hit, DU may be dispersed as aerosols or particles whereby it can be inhaled or cause bodily wounds. Alternatively it can remain intact at the site of its target, or spread over a wide area. The use of DU has proved highly controversial, since evidence of its harmful affects is as yet inconclusive and much rigorous, independent scientific and medical study still remains to be done. Some scientists, such as physicist Dr. Fetter, claim that there are no known proven hazards to exposure from DU.
However, the leading scientific organization of the UK’s Royal Society, published two reports on the health hazards of DU in May 2001, and concluded in a media release on May 22, 2001, that exposure to DU on the battlefield may double the risk of lung cancer for soldiers who inhale large amounts of DU. Another report from the society on March 12, 2002, claimed that soldiers may suffer kidney damage after inhaling or swallowing large amounts of DU. The society also proposed in a media release on April 15, 2003, that soil around the impact sites of DU may be heavily contaminated and could be harmful if swallowed by children. Additionally corroded DU penetrators embedded in the ground might pose a long-term threat if the uranium leaches into the water supply.
One of the strongest spokesmen against the use of DU is Dr. Hardan, who stated, “Depleted Uranium has a half life of 4.7 billion years–that means thousands upon thousands of Iraqi children will suffer for tens of thousands of years to come. This is what I call terrorism,” International studies have produced evidence indicating that DU may have disastrous consequences. After his experience in Basra, Hardan projects that, “within the next two years he expects to see significant rises in congenital cataracts, anopthalmia, microphthalmia, corneal opacities and coloboma of the iris–and that is just in people’s eyes. Add to this fetal deformities, sterility in both sexes, an increase in miscarriages and premature births, congenital malformations, additional abnormal organs, hydrocephaly, anencephaly and delayed growth” He adds, “The effects of ionizing radiation on growth and development are especially significant in the prenatal childEmbryonic development is especially affected.” Harden arranged for a delegation from Japan’s Hiroshima hospital to share their expertise in radiological diseases in Iraq, but they told him the American authorities objected so they decided not to come. Evidence of these deformities can be found in the book Uranium Projectiles–Severely maimed soldiers, deformed babies, dying children by Dr. Siegwart Horst-Gunther, President of the International Yellow Cross.
Ross B. Mirkarimi, from the Arms Control Research Centre, points out that “whilst it is conceivable that the US led attacks on Iraq’s nuclear power stations could be a contributory factor, most researchers point to DU as the most likely source of both deformities and cancers”. While there could be other factors contributing to these maladies, such as burning oil wells and other environmental pollutants, the rising number of cases in Iraq, particularly in the south where the greatest concentration of DU was fired, is staggering. Iraqi physicians have never encountered anything like it, and have made the perfectly reasonable point that similar increases in cancer and deformities were experienced in Japan after the two US atomic bomb attacks. “Cancer has increased between 7 and 10 fold; deformities between 4 and 6 fold”. Yet, as categorically stated by US Army documents, the US was well aware of the potential effects on civilians and military personnel of the chemical toxicity and radiological properties of DU ammunition long before the first Gulf war began.
The war on terror has unduly convinced an over-anxious public of the need for an increased weapons program. So while the US government lauds tracking down Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) overseas, and claims to support anti-nuclear proliferation, for the first time in history, the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review calls for the use of nuclear weapons on non-nuclear nations–if they deem it necessary. The US is also currently embarking on huge weapons trading (400 billion dollars on weapons) while American schools, hospitals, fire stations and libraries are being closed. It is important to note that, as in the Cold War, the US is leading in the research and development of nuclear weapons and sells these weapons to Middle Eastern countries including Iraq. Meanwhile, the existence of unaccounted for enriched uranium from remaining nuclear weapons around the globe, and the possibility of it falling into the hands of rouge states, (like those of the former USSR) and terrorist organizations, now constitutes the greatest terrorist threat the world has ever known. The Bush administration has made it clear that hunting down these nuclear remnants is not its top priority; it has cut the budget and done less tracking of ‘loose nukes’ than it did in previous years. Combine this with corporate interests, weapons trading and its own indebtedness to weapons manufacturers and we find that the US has the largest WMD program of any nation, which includes biological and chemical weapons. It also boasts the largest stockpile of depleted uranium and the deadly bunker bombs and cluster bombs that are being used today in Iraq, and are becoming increasingly favored by the military. The US war on WMD needs to begin at home–where it began.
Before we celebrate the opening of the first Iraqi schools since the end of Saddam’s regime, we might bear in mind that these are the children being exposed to an area of irreversible radioactive contamination. Depleted uranium has a half-life of more than 4 billion years and thousand of acres of land in Kuwait and southern Iraq have been contaminated indefinitely. If George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell are looking for a legacy to last, here’s one that will be around longer than they can imagine.
BRITA MAY ROSE is a graduate student of history/Middle Eastern Studies at CUNY, and a freelance writer. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright @ BRITA MAY ROSE Oct 2004.