by Katherine Stapp / IPS –
NEW YORK (September 12, 2003) — Concerns are growing about the presence of depleted uranium and other toxins in Iraq following a rash of illnesses among US troops and the discovery by a reporter that radiation levels in parts of Baghdad are extremely elevated.
So far, according to figures obtained by the Washington Post, more than 6,000 soldiers have been pulled out of Iraq for medical reasons since the start of the war. About 1,400 of them were injured in combat or non-combat incidents, such as vehicle accidents, meaning the majority were evacuated for various physical or psychological illnesses.
No further breakdown has been released. In July, the US Army announced that two soldiers had died of severe pneumonia and more than 100 were hospitalized for the illness. The deaths are still being investigated.
While experts discount a single cause for these illnesses, some remain concerned that neither the troops stationed in Iraq nor the civilian population is being adequately protected from toxic residues left over from the war.
These fears were heightened when a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor took a Geiger counter to parts of Baghdad that had been subjected to heavy shelling by US troops. He found radiation levels 1,000 to 1,900 times higher than normal in residential areas where children were playing nearby.
One explanation is the presence of depleted uranium (DU), the trace element left over when uranium is enriched and the most radioactive types have been removed for use as nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons. DU munitions vaporize on contact, dispersing particles over wide areas, where they settle as dust that can be inhaled or ingested.
The Pentagon has portrayed DU munitions as indispensable in giving US soldiers an edge on the battlefield. The high density of DU shells allows them to punch through walls and armored vehicles.
But some see a more cynical reason for their popularity: the United States is the largest generator of DU in the world, with a stockpile of 700,000 tons and growing. Since the supply is controlled by the Department of Energy, it is readily available and free of charge. Transforming DU into weaponry has the added advantage of easing the DOE’s burden to safely store the spent nuclear fuel.
DU munitions made their debut in the 1991 Gulf War, and were later deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo. It is almost certain that DU was used in Afghanistan in 2001, but information on the exact amount remains unavailable.
Precise data is similarly hard to come by for the most recent US-led invasion of Iraq, but based on preliminary reports, experts estimate that at least 200 tons of DU were released during combat.
While some studies on the effects of DU have been inconclusive, others determined that it raises the risk of childhood cancers, birth defects and other long-term health damage.
”The Pentagon’s own published studies have shown adverse health effects,” said Charles Sheehan-Miles, executive director of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, which published an analysis of the available scientific research on DU in July. “‘That’s what so bizarre about their stance on this.”
NPRI and other groups are now calling on Washington to immediately halt the use of DU, initiate a plan for cleaning up contaminated areas, and to support further studies.
”The research that’s been done — the little and flawed research that’s been done — has focused on adults,” Sheehan-Miles added in an interview. ”No one today has ever done any study on children that are exposed to it. We know from other research that children are much more sensitive to toxicity..”
His concerns appear to be well founded. Two Iraqi doctors visiting Japan recently reported a ten-fold increase in the number of cancer cases diagnosed in and around the southern region of Basra since 1988.
Dr. Janan Ghalib Hassan, a neo-natalogist at the Women and Children’s Hospital in Basra, said that in 2001, 611 babies were born with no limbs, no eyes or other birth defects, compared with 37 such cases in 1990. The area where the children were born was subjected to heavy shelling with DU munitions in the first Gulf War.
A recent analysis of already available data by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) concluded the latest invasion has ”undoubtedly” worsened the serious environmental problems that have accumulated in Iraq over the past two decades, dating back to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
”Given the overall environmental concerns during the conflict, and the fact that the environment of Iraq was already a cause for serious concern prior to the current war, UNEP believes early field studies should be carried out,” said UNEP administrator Klaus Toepfer in a statement. “‘This is especially important to protect human health in a post-conflict situation.”
A spokesperson for UNEP told IPS that, ”we will conduct a full on-the-ground study once the security situation allows, but there’s no telling when that might be.”
The White House and Pentagon have repeatedly denied that DU munitions pose any threat to human health. One recent State Department report titled ‘Apparatus of Lies’ has a section called ”The Depleted Uranium Scare”, which accuses the Iraqi government of exaggerating the toxicity of DU in order to generate international sympathy.
”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,” the report says. ”But scientists working for the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Environmental (sic) Programme, and the European Union could find no health effects linked to exposure to depleted uranium,” it concludes.
However, according to a WHO monograph issued in 2001, ”DU munitions were used in conflicts only relatively recently and the science has not yet thoroughly addressed this exposure situation.”
”What we need is a credible, independent assessment of what the actual effects are,” says Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Centre. ”Obviously, the US military needs to allow civilian health agencies and monitoring teams into the war zone to conduct a large-scale epidemiological survey and rule it in or rule it out,” he told IPS. ”If these weapons have a so-called ”after-killing” effect, that is clearly prohibited under the Geneva Conventions.”