The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

Depleted Uranium hazards in Iraq and Afghanistan

I am concerned that the people of Afghanistan may be facing a similar health nightmare as suffered by many people in Iraq.  I appreciate that CASI is primarily for Iraq but the suspected causes and effects may be similar. 
To date the only depleted uranium (DU) weapons acknowledged by the US and UK governments have been anti-tank munitions - mainly 30 mm and 120 mm DU penetrators - and 20 mm Phallanx sea-to-air shells.  In the Gulf war some 300 tons of DU anti-armour munitions were declared and in the Balkans war just under 10 tons.
Suspected use of DU in guided weapons (smart bombs and cruise missiles)
Anomalies in the UNEP report on DU use in the Balkans led me to revisit the question asked and denied in 1999 - was DU used in smart bombs and cruise missiles?  A host of clues to this question lie in the Federation of American Scientists website's index of guided weapons at .   Briefly they describe a new generation of hard target versions of guided weapons (bombs and missiles) proposed in 1997 e.g. GBU-24, GBU-37, GBU-32, AGM-86D, AGM-65G, AGM-154C and latest versions of the BGM-109 Tomahawk. 
Several of these were part of the Hard or Deeply Buried Defeat Capability Program (search for HDBTDC in the FAS  site). All of these weapons achieve their increased effectiveness (2x over earlier versions) by increasing the area density (weight divided by cross-sectional area) of new warheads called Advanced Unitary Penetrators (i.e. same weight but much thinner).   This is done by using "dense metal ballast" i.e. some metal at least twice the density of steel.  Only DU, Tungsten or a combination of both would meet this requirement.  But only DU has an added incendiary effect.
DU may also be used in smaller quantities in some non-guided weapons systems e.g. shaped charges in cluster bombs like the BLU-97/B.  These require further research.  Every weapons system requiring cheap, heavy or pyrophoric metal is suspect.     
Reported use of hard target guided weapons in the Afghan War
Reports of the use of Bunker Buster bombs in Afghanistan (from the Center for Defense Information website at ) led me to revisit FAS descriptions. I asked Jane's Defence information about the GBU-28 Bunker Buster (developed in 1991).  They said this did not use DU and that DU would be "too soft" (a standard MoD or DoD denial see below?).  They described the old version but forgot to mention the GBU-37 upgrade in 1997. This was found from CDI's bombing report of 11 October referring to its BLU-113 4,500 lb dense metal penetrator, see FAS index.  
Early CDI and Jane's reports of the Afghan conflict refer to a range of other smart bombs and cruise missiles with 1000 or 2000 lb hard target penetrator warhead options  (GBU-24, GBU-32, CALCM, JSOW, JDAM etc).  Later reports were more vague.  But the nature of the "dense metal"  they all seem to rely on remains unspecified in all Internet sources (FAS and manufacturers websites) for these systems.
In Dying of Thirst (New Scientist 17 Nov) it was reported that US forces were using Bunker Buster bombs on the underground aqueduct network in Afghanistan suspected as Taliban locations.  If the 2 ton GBU-37 penetrators are DU then the public health and environmental consequences could be grim.  Weapons of indiscriminate effect?    
Use of hard target weapons in Iraq
Several of the new hard target guided systems (e.g. AGM-86D, AGM-154C) were undergoing operational testing in summer 1998.  GBU-37 and GBU-24 appear to have been operational by then.  All prior to operation Desert Fox where the Boeing website says 35 AGM-86's were used (version unspecified).  One signature of DU munitions is their intense incendiary effect: burning at 2000 degrees they can carbonise victims in the immediate vicinity as seen for some DU tank casualties in the Gulf War.   CASI researchers may wish to reconsider bombing effects that involved penetration of hard targets (up to 10 feet or more of concrete thick) followed by internal incendiary-type explosions, and the possible distribution of health problems in bomb and missile target zones - not just in the vicinity of desert tank battles.
CASI researchers evaluating the effects of DU in Iraq (and on Gulf War veterans) might also revisit the use of AGM-65 Maverick missiles during the Gulf War including version G with a "heavyweight warhead" commissioned in 1989 (see the FAS site above) and the shaped charge warheads used for its other versions.  Jane's references to DU included use"as liners for shaped charge warheads" in January this year.  This comment has been removed in their current description at          
On 6th March the following question was raised in Parliament:

Mr. Clapham: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence (1) how many weapons dropped by the RAF on Iraqi installations since the UK began patrolling the no-fly zone have had depleted uranium tips; and what the total estimated amount of radioactive dust generated was; [152079]  (2) pursuant to his oral statement of 26 February 2001, Official Report, columns 620-21, if the two weapons dropped by the RAF were tipped with depleted uranium. [152078]

Mr. Hoon: None of the weapons dropped by the RAF on Iraqi installations since the UK began patrolling the no-fly zone have had depleted uranium tips.

I don't know what weapons are used by the RAF. But if these include Maverick AGM-65G cruise missiles the heavyweight warhead is in the centre of the missile.  The tip (nosecone) is its guidance system.

Media silence on DU in the Afghan war
Over the last 6 weeks I have tried to get these questions about the suspected use of  DU in guided weapons to be raised in public by the BBC, Guardian, Times, Independent, Telegraph and New Scientist.  Any Answers allowed me to broadcast the question on 3rd November.  But since then I have heard no reports of these questions in any UK media. (Reports would be appreciated if you have seen any).  During the Balkans War DU became a major media issue within 2-3 weeks. 
First answers from Government
I put my questions and concerns to Government via my MP Sir Paul Beresford on 16 October and direct to the Prime Minister's office on 1st November.  There have been several written and one spoken questions in the House - each with the standard denial that DU has not been used in Afghanistan.  Last week I received a copy of Dr Moonie's reply to my MP re the dense metal question.  This included the following paragraph:
" In his letter, Mr Williams provides a summary of information extracted from the Internet containing details on guided bombs and asks for information concerning the use of the term "dense metal". The Ministry of Defence cannot confirm the specific composition of these types of munitions. However, there is a range of heavy metals that could be considered under that term including hardened steel and titanium. However, one heavy metal most associated with that term is, as Mr Williams mentions, tungsten, which is available in a number of varieties - the most common being tungsten heavy alloy. These types of metal are used in order to maintain the ground (or concrete) penetration capability of the munition, an option not suited to the softer DU metal. Therefore, DU would not be expected to be used for this capability. There are suggestions that DU might be used in small quantities to act as ballast in some munitions, however, we are unable to confirm whether or not this is the case at this time."
According to the relative densities of Titanium = 4.5, Iron = 7.9, Lead = 11.3, Uranium 238 (DU) = 19, Tungsten = 19.2 and the hardness (Brinell) of basic U238 is 3.4x harder than Titanium and 4.9x harder than Iron.  Strength can be further increased in alloys.  DU is slightly softer than tungsten which 5.2x harder than iron.  
Whoever wrote Dr Moonie's letter for him was either ignorant of these facts, or perhaps hoped to baffle me with science and the secrecy currently surrounding new penetrator materials. Almost every other feature of these systems is in the public domain. It is obviously very heavy. Unless it is toxic or radioactive why should it be secret?  DU is both.  Tungsten is not.   
Despite asserting that DU has not been used in Afghanistan Dr Moonie went on to say:
"Whether DU is used in munitions for the United States forces is a matter for the US Government. However, the legality of weapons is assessed by reference to international treaties and principles of International Humanitarian Law. Weapons containing DU are not banned by a specific international treaty."
I am concerned that these errors, inconsistencies and claimed ignorance of US weapons systems come from the office of the Minister responsible for UK Government policy on DU weapons and on health policy for UK Gulf and other war veterans.  The safety of UK troops and civilians in Afghanistan is his responsibility together with Secretary of State Geoff Hoon, a confident advocate for DU from his previous Hansard reports.  Both men have assured Parliament that DU has not been used in the Afghan war.  I hope they are right but on the basis of Dr Moonie's replies they simply do not know, or are not prepared to say.
The safety of Afghan civilians in, and after the bombing seems of minimal consideration to both the UK and US Governments.
DU health risks
Dr Moonie's letter also stated that:
"So far there is no scientific or medical evidence linking DU with the ill health of Gulf veterans or with ill health in Balkan peacekeepers, although we continue to remain open minded."
This view will be familiar to CASI researchers.  It implies that if DU has been used in the Afghan bombing the UK Government would not consider this a serious health risk.  However in a written answer to Pete Wishart on 5th November (Hansard) Geoff Hoon did undertake that:

"Depleted uranium-based ammunition has not been used in current operations in Afghanistan. We are not aware of any plans for it to be used in future.

In the event that depleted uranium ammunition were to be used in Afghanistan and that UK service personnel might come into contact with it, appropriate guidelines would be issued to ensure that the already low risks to health were minimised.

A great deal of information on depleted uranium has already been put into the public domain. Should the need arise, we would discuss with coalition partners and civil agencies what information needs to be made available to the Afghan civilian population. Regrettably, the activities of the Taliban authorities in restricting the flow of information into Afghanistan could make this unnecessarily difficult for UN and other agencies to achieve."

To date I have heard no reports of such precautions being taken, or of environmental monitoring to see if they are necessary.  This seems curious since I understand that Dr Moonie was formerly a community health physician.
Health effects and DU Oversight Board
However the UK government has recently set up a DU Oversight Board with military and civilian scientists to review recent research including Chris Busby from the Low Level Radiation campaign see .   I think several CASI members are familiar with his work.  Also Prof Malcolm Hooper, adviser to UK Veterans suffering Gulf War syndrome.  
The population of Iraq appear to have had the highest DU exposure to date but they have also had the longest time for carcinogenic and mutagenic effects to appear.  Significant quantities of hard target guided weapons were used in the Balkans, including the regions policed by Italian and Spanish troops several of whom have died from Leukaemia.  With warheads ranging from 1000 lbs to 2 tons large quantities may have been used in Afghanistan - possibly comparable with the tonnage's used in Iraq.  Medical evidence is bound to emerge whatever attempts the US and UK governments make to conceal the truth about these weapons.  If so the UN may need to revisit its recent resolution to ignore the DU issue in Iraq. 
My questions were put to the Oversight Board at its meeting on 30 November.  There can be no doubt that the UK Government and MoD are now well aware of these concerns.  At the least this may increase the MoD's vigilance for troops assigned to Afghanistan.  If it is established that DU has been used in some guided systems then all guided systems must be checked at least back to 1989. Also new systems e.g. the Tactical Tomahawk Penetrator Variant and UK/French Stormshadow cruise missiles need evaluation for DU warheads.  
My involvement with DU started with a warning from Rosalie Bertel in March 1999.  These disturbed me as an independent Chartered Occupational Psychologist concerned with health and safety at work, from my involvement in implementing an occupational health monitoring programme in Shell Canada, and from personal concerns for peace and justice.  I am not a member of any political or campaigning organisation though I exchange information with DU researchers (e.g. at the recent Prague DU conference) and with campaign groups concerned about DU - hence this message to CASI. My Internet sources and interpretation are available for others to check in several papers on the DU-list Internet discussion group archives or on request by Email.   
I apologise for a long message. But these questions overlap with the plight of many Iraqis that concern CASI.  If some guided systems do contain DU this could alter many assessments of DU exposure to troops and civilians and in locations not previously suspected. It might require a fundamental re-appraisal of UN medical aid to the people of Iraq, the Balkans and Afghanistan, and wider ramifications.  For the people of Afghanistan I hope that I am wrong but Geoff Hoon's denials and Dr Moonie's inconsistent re-assurances only increase my suspicions.   
Dai Williams, DU researcher, Surrey          

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]