Hina Alam / IDS News – 2004-11-04 08:47:02
(November 2, 2004) — If you thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, then consider this: the ongoing conflict in Iraq will leave behind a legacy of depleted uranium, which will affect not just the US troops, but also the Iraqi people, maybe over generations, said Diane Henshel, associate professor of public and environmental affairs.
“Isn’t that paradoxical? We went there to ‘free’ those people and we ended up imprisoning them in a lifetime of ill health. And for generations to come,” said sophomore Lauren Lindsay, as she examined the evidence of pollution that Henshel put together.
Iraq’s pollution levels are beginning to be examined, and Henshel, who studies environmental pollutants, added her expertise to the study in an article published in September’s issue of Nature. Examining the overall pollution damage will be the first step on a long road to cleaning up the contaminated country, the article said.
The damage to the environment, and therefore human beings, began in the 1970s, according to the article. This was when the country underwent rapid industrialization with little attention paid to toxic wastes and fumes.
The Problem of Depleted Uranium
The conflict in Iraq has only compounded the problem and one of the most pressing issues is that of depleted uranium. It is a dense material used to blow holes in heavily armored vehicles.
And depleted uranium was used in Iraq most extensively by the United States.
“If you go on the Internet and look at depleted uranium and who generates it, we are by far the largest generators of depleted uranium in the world,” Henshel said.
“Nobody is even close to us. We are close to 90 percent of the depleted uranium that’s generated in the world … we are at, like, 800 tons and the next country down is below a 100. We are ten-fold of the next country down.”
Depleted uranium is mainly in two places, she said.
“There are some Abrams tanks which use depleted uranium, and depleted uranium is in the penetrators (the warheads of missiles), which are some of the weapons used out there — a number of them actually,” Henshel explained.
As penetrators, depleted uranium is the lead point. The whole purpose of these weapons, she said, was to be harder and denser than other metals so they penetrate through other metals.
“As they penetrate through the other metals, the description is that they get sharpened,” she said.
Think of what happens when sharpening a pencil,” she said. “You lose all the fragments that are being pulled away to sharpen it. It’s not just that it is being pushed into a sharper point.”
The pencil-like shape of the penetrator causes the depleted uranium to scatter, Henshel said.
“When penetrator hits the hard top, a hard surface especially like another metal … you get some fragmentation and some disintegration at the tip of the penetrator and again some release of depleted uranium into fragments that then essentially becomes the dust in the air,” she said.
Heavy Metals and Calcium
Heavy metals in general have the potential to interact with and disrupt calcium processes, and calcium helps control signaling in the brain and signaling between the cells and release of hormones and nerve transmitters, she said.
“If you disrupt calcium control signaling, which can happen in a high dose or even moderate dose situations … tests have shown changes in learning, changes in the ability to remember and changes in reflexes, so there are a host of different things that can happen,” Henshel said.
Desert Storm’s Contaminated Cohort
A small cohort from Desert Storm have depleted uranium shrapnel in their bodies, and they’ve been tracked over time with publications coming out about them every two years or so. The amount of uranium in their bodies has made a difference.
“Behavior in terms of response, based on computer tests, was the first thing to show up,” she said.
Within a number of years, the amount of depleted uranium was leaking out from shrapnel in their bodies and moving around in their systems. There is depleted uranium showing up, for example, in their urine, Henshel said.
Henshel said she believes that over time, people in Iraq are going to be exposed to increasing concentration in their bodies.
“They will have increased problems with changes in behavior, (and) increasing problems with their kidneys. And at high enough levels you will start to see effects on their sperm count,” she said.
Another problem is women who are pregnant or are going to be pregnant in a situation where they are exposed to depleted uranium in the dust on a daily basis.
Daily exposure to depleted uranium in the dust means that what is circulating in their blood streams at any given time includes some radioactive uranium, she said, and uranium is a heavy metal that can affect a fetus. “There are studies that indicate that birth defects are increasing in the areas of high depleted uranium concentration of the Gulf War,” Henshel said.
Uranium is part of the environment, but what happens with depleted uranium is that it is being used in such high intensity in one area that there is an increased concentration.
“And that gives rise to a situation where it ends up in dust and can get into people through air and water,” she said.
The real concern is that depleted uranium is not intensely radioactive as uranium is used in reactors, Henshel said. “There is an assumption that, A: there is no radioactivity going on which is not true and, B: there is an assumption that this is not the only concern.”
The other problem, she said, is that it is not going to be just uranium that is a problem in the war torn area, because it is not just uranium that disintegrates.
“There are other heavy metals that disintegrate — some of the other heavy metals we have very little toxic information about,” she explained.
While a lot is known about titanium and cadmium, there is whole host of heavy metals that are used in weapons in small concentrations, of which not much is know, but they are going to end up in the soil, in the air, in water of the people in any war torn area in Iraq, Henshel said.
As far as the troops are concerned, some of them might have depleted uranium showing up in their bodies — some show less and some show more. If some of them have high intakes of milk or other sources of calcium, they will be able to eliminate it quickly from their bodies. High calcium levels limit how much uranium replaces calcium in certain parts of the bodies. Other people that, for whatever reasons — economic or otherwise — do not consume enough calcium or milk may harbor depleted uranium.
As the knowledge of depleted uranium and its effects on Iraqi people gets out in the world, Lindsay said, it could make the United States look worse.
Political science Professor Michael McGinnis said, “it looks bad in terms of environmental effects, but again, this is nothing new.”
World opinion of the US is already at an all-time low, said Dina Spechler, associate professor of political science.
“In the end, people who live in Iraq will manifest the greatest problems. The chemicals accumulate and they stay in people’s bodies all the time and increase in concentration over time — and we don’t know what we are dealing with,” Henshel said.
Contact staff writer Hina Alam at firstname.lastname@example.org.