by A Historical Overview of the United States’ Depleted Uranium Usage – Lamya Tawfik / Islam Online
(May 15, 2003) — What do Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan have in common? Depleted Uranium (DU) is abundant in the bodies of those who live there and on their soil. These regions have been laced by DU, thanks to their brethren who live on the either side of the pacific.
With DU having a half-life of more than 4 billion years, the grim fact, which they will have to disclose to their children through out the years, is that their land has been contaminated for eternity; undeniably so.
It’s no secret (trust me, it’s not, just try a ‘DU’ search on any search engine) that the US and some of its allies have marked their place forever in history, by intentionally using a plethora of weapons laced with depleted uranium in virtually every terrorism – sorry, war-against-‘terrorism’.
Using munitions laced with DU is a crime that makes Saddam Hussein’s 1991 burning of Kuwaiti oil fields an amateurish act of terrorism.
Before we go any further let’s first put forward an obvious question. What is DU? Like many buzzwords, DU is commonly used. But what does it really mean?
According to a fact sheet published by the World Health Organization (WHO), natural uranium, which exists in varying but small amounts in rocks, soils, water, air plants, animals and in all human beings, consists of a mixture of three radioactive isotopes which are identified by the mass numbers U-238 (99.27% by mass), U-235 (0.72%) and U-234 (0.0054%). 1
“The uranium remaining after removal of the enriched fraction contains about 99.8% U-238, 0.2% U-235 and 0.001% U-234 by mass; this is referred to as depleted uranium or DU. The main difference between DU and natural uranium is that the former contains at least three times less U-235 than the latter.
“DU, consequently, is weakly radioactive and a radiation dose from it would be about 60% of that from purified natural uranium with the same mass.” 2
DU, the fact sheet explains, is used because of its high density (about twice that of lead) in civilian uses as counterweights in aircraft, radiation shields in medical radiation therapy machines and containers for the transport of radioactive materials. Militarily, DU is used for defensive armor plate because of its high density but also because it can ignite on impact if the temperature exceeds 600°C. 3
Health problems due to chemical toxicity of DU include the damage of the kidney’s proximal tubules (the main filtering component of the kidney). Other health problems include the damage of lung tissue, which could lead to lung cancer with increased radiation doses. However, because DU is only weakly radioactive, very large amounts of dust (in the order of grams) would have to be inhaled for the additional risk of lung cancer to be detectable in an exposed group. Risks for other radiation-induced cancers, including leukemia, are considered to be very much lower than for lung cancer. 4
Despite, the well-known hazards of DU to health and the environment, weapon-manufacturing gurus have still used the substance because it is easy to find and is efficient.
How It Spreads
By wind and rain, DU is spread into the environment putting people who live and work in affected areas at the risk of inhaling DU laden dusts or even having excessive amounts of DU in their food and drinking water. 5
Because of their tendency to put everything in their mouths, children playing near DU impact sites are more likely to receive greater exposure to DU from ingesting contaminated soil. 6
According to Dr. Jawad Al-Ali, an oncologist and member of the Royal Society of Physicians in the U.K, “The desert dust carries death. Our studies indicate that more than forty percent of the population around Basra will get cancer. We are living through another Hiroshima.” 7
This was his comment regarding the damage left behind by the U.S-led coalition in the 1991 bombing of Iraq.
A 1991 study by the UK Atomic Energy Authority predicted that if less than 10 percent of the particles released by depleted uranium weapons used in Iraq and Kuwait were inhaled it could result in as many as “300,000 probable deaths.” 8
It’s just the “Gulf Syndrome”
“As a result of heavy metal and radiological poison of DU, people in southern Iraq are experiencing respiratory problems, kidney problems, cancers. Members of my own team have died or are dying from cancer,” said Doug Rokke, the health physicist for the US army who oversaw the partial clean up of depleted uranium bomb fragments in Kuwait. He himself has fallen ill. 9
Rokke is not the only ‘victim’. During the 1991 Gulf war, many soldiers participating in the attacks against Iraq were not even aware of the DU that was being used in their weapons. Many were coming back sick, plagued with a number of diseases and excessive DU traces in their bodies.
The term coined for this was the ‘Gulf Syndrome’ – a benign name for a malignant, grisly truth. Some analysts saw this as a crisis in civil-military relations saying the Pentagon may have withheld and distorted information about the soldier’s exposure to DU munitions.10
Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark drafted an appeal to the US government to ban the use of DU weapons saying that “of the 697,000 US troops who served in the Gulf, over 90,000 have reported medical problems.”
“Symptoms include respiratory, liver and kidney dysfunction, memory loss, headaches, fever, low blood pressure. There are birth defects among their newborn children.” 1l
DU Contamination; Pandora’s Box
However, the DU dust did not only affect those taking part in the war, but the entire Gulf region is living through an environmental crisis due to the spread of DU dust.
Even the country that was being liberated at the time, Kuwait, saw the result of DU last year after thousands of fish were found dead on its shores in the year 2002. 12 There were many theories proposed by scientists investigating the crisis, soaring temperatures being one, but one of the explanations proposed was the 300 tons of DU that were being used by the NATO forces in 1991 to bomb Iraq in Operation Desert Storm.
These theories were not unfounded. In February 2001, Kuwaiti officials announced the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will send inspectors to survey Kuwaiti territories for depleted uranium (DU) possibly used by US troops during the 1991 Gulf War after local outcries that Kuwaitis were facing a health hazard similar to that reported in the Balkans.
“An investigating team from a US solidarity delegation to Iraq on January 18th found ‘extremely high levels of radioactivity’ in soil samples in the Iraqi desert south of Basra.” 13
Over the next few sections, we’ll take a journey through the US’s (and it’s allies) usage of DU during the last few wars. There have been no qualms about using DU laced munitions in any war on the part of the United States.
Perhaps the world, outside the academic field, began to know about DU and its harms right after the Kuwaiti liberation war in 1991. In addition to using hallucinogenic weapons 14, the US also used more than 300 tons of DU munitions (some reports say 900).
After the meeting of the fifty-eighth session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in March 2002 in Geneva, a report published by the WHO said that an Iraqi delegation stated “there are increasing rates of cancer from depleted uranium, and pollution of drinking water which causes diseases particularly among children.” 15
Peace activist Ginny NiCarthy spoke about her visit to Iraqi hospitals and said that a Baghdad pathologist showed them photos of birth defects that emerged after the war.
A Baghdad pathologist showed our team photographs of birth defects: infants without eyes, without limbs, or whose brains had no covering, or whose intestines were outside their bodies, or whose noses were above their eyes instead of below. He, as well as many other scientists, believes the birth defects are caused by the fathers’ inhaling of DU on the battlefield.
The incidence of such births is still about two in each thousand. But the increase since 1991 has been so dramatic, and the deformities so grotesque, that for many women, pregnancy is rife with fear. A new mother’s first question used to be, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Now she wants to know, “Is it normal or abnormal?” 16
In 1995, the WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean sent a
mission to Iraq to assess the national cancer registry and to advise on cancer incidence rates. A second mission went to Iraq in August 1998 to advise on possibilities for investigating the reported increase in leukemia cases in the southern governorates. At the end of January 2001, another mission visited the country to assess the situation of non-communicable diseases, including cancer, and to advise on strengthening national prevention and control initiatives. 17
In a report published by the Iraqi Health Ministry in July 2001, the ministry said that the laser guided bombs and uranium tipped weapons used by the coalition in 1991 against Iraq caused increased incidence of leukemia, congenital deformities and hereditary diseases. 18
According to Iraqi sources, cancer rates have quadrupled in areas of southern Iraq, which was bombed the most in the second gulf war.
According to the WHO, a UN expert team reported in November 2002 that they found traces of DU in three locations among 14 sites investigated in Bosnia following NATO air strikes in 1995. 19
Reports say that leukemia rates in Sarajevo have tripled in the last five years. Also affected are NATO and UN peacekeepers in the region who are coming down with cancer. 20
By 1999, talk about the Gulf War Syndrome subsided, and instead a new ‘Syndrome’ appeared: “The Balkan Syndrome”. In response to a request from the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, a WHO team visited Kosovo from 22 to 31 January 2001 to advise on claims regarding the possible risks to the health of the population associated with exposure to depleted uranium and other environmental contaminants. 21
In January 2001, Switzerland ordered labs to check DU weapons samples from Kosovo for plutonium amidst concern. Also the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) sent a mission to Kosovo to check DU contaminated sites.
“NATO has been criticized for using armor-piercing shells in the Balkans, which some ailing soldiers and anti-nuclear campaigners say have caused cancer.
“The alliance and the United States, whose aircraft fired some 40,000 DU shells during the 1999 air raids against Yugoslavia in Bosnia in 1994-95 and earlier in the Arab Gulf, deny there is any link between the use of DU-ammunition and cancer.” 22
The second part of this article, shall discuss the war in Afghanistan, the most recent Gulf War as well other states’ usage of DU for military purposes.
Lamya Tawfik is a Cairo-based freelancer. She is currently preparing her master’s degree in Mass Communication with a specialization in Children’s Media Education at the American University in Cairo. She has previously worked as a news editor at IslamOnline.net and as a journalist and public relations specialist in Dubai, UAE. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
1- Depleted Uranium, WHO fact sheet
7- DU: “Cancer as a Weapon,” Counter Punch. org
10- Foster, Gregory, Failed Expectations: The Crisis of Civil-Military Relations in America, Brookings Institute
11- “WHO Team to Study Effects of Depleted Uranium in Iraq,” IslamOnline
12- “Depleted Uranium Possible Cause For Dead Fish in Kuwait,” IslamOnline
13- “International Atomic Body To Look For US Depleted Uranium In Kuwait,” IslamOnline
14- “Spy Says US Used Hallucinogenic Weapons Against Iraq,” IslamOnline
15- Health and the Fifty-Eighth Session of the United Nations Commission On Human Rights, March 2002, World Health Organization (WHO)
16- NiCarthy, Ginny, “The Weapon That Never Quits,” Seattle Community Network
17- WHO: Health Effects of Depleted Uranium, March 2001
18- “Over 9,000 Iraqis Died in June Due to UN Sanctions,” IslamOnline
19- Depleted Uranium, WHO fact sheet
20- “DU: Cancer as a Weapon,” Counter Punch. org
21- WHO: Health Effects of Depleted Uranium, March 2001
22- “International Atomic Body To Look For US Depleted Uranium In Kuwait,” IslamOnline