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[casi] A "Silver Bullet's" Toxic Legacy - Depleted Uranium
Published on Friday, December 20, 2002 by the Christian Science Monitor

A 'Silver Bullet's' Toxic Legacy
If US fights Iraq, it would use a weapon that left a radioactive trail in
Gulf War.

by Scott Peterson

KHARANJ, IRAQ -- The rusting tanks are gathered in Iraq's southern desert
like an open-air exhibit of the 1991 Gulf War.

But these are not just museum pieces. This still radioactive battlefield -
and the severe health problems many Iraqis and some US Gulf War veterans
ascribe to it - may also be an omen of an unsettled future.

As American forces prepare to take on Iraq in a possible Gulf War II,
analysts agree that the bad publicity and popular fears about depleted
uranium (DU) use in the first Gulf War, and later in Kosovo and Afghanistan,
have not dented Pentagon enthusiasm for its "silver bullet." US forces in
Iraq will again deploy DU as their most effective - and most controversial -
tank-busting bullet.

War seems more imminent as the White House indicated late this week that the
decision for war could come by late January.

But this bleak desert just north of Iraq's border with Kuwait and Saudi
Arabia offers a window on the human impact nearly 12 years after a toxic stew
of DU, chemical agents, pesticides, and smoke from burning oil wells poisoned
this war zone. Few suggest that a new war, if it involves Iraqi armored
resistance, will have any less of an effect. "Nobody thinks about what is
going to happen when the shooting stops," says Robert Hewson, editor of the
London-based Jane's Air-Launched Weapons. "The people who are firing [DU]
will demand that they have it...they will not want to go to war without it.
The primary driver will always be the mission and getting the job done."

DU is made from nuclear-waste material left over from making nuclear weapons
and fuel. American gunners used 320 tons of it in 1991 to destroy 4,000 Iraqi
armored vehicles and swiftly conclude victory.

But the invisible particles created when those bullets struck and burned are
still "hot." They make Geiger counters sing, and they stick to the tanks,
contaminating the soil and blowing in the desert wind, as they will for the
4.5 billion years it will take the DU to lose just half its radioactivity.

Unaware of the risks, two shepherds earlier this week relaxed on the ground
as their sheep picked at scrub grass near one tank. Similar tanks struck by
DU during the Gulf War were deemed a "substantial risk" and buried by US
forces in Saudi Arabia or a low-level radioactive waste dump in the US.

Pentagon spokesmen said yesterday that US troops are being given no new DU
protection training for any Iraq campaign. In the mid-1990s, US troops were
required to wear full protective suits and masks within 50 yards of a tank
struck with DU bullets. Those rules, based on Nuclear Regulatory Commission
safety guidelines, were dramatically revised in the late 1990s.

In most cases, the rules now say, any face mask is sufficient. Pentagon
officials note their policy has been "inconsistent," but admitted in 1998
that their "failure" to alert soldiers to the risks before the Gulf War
resulted in "thousands of unnecessary exposures." The latest rules, a US Army
spokesman said yesterday, "reflect the most current ... data regarding DU."

Critics charge that the official downplaying of DU's dangers keeps the magic
bullet in the arsenal, while thwarting DU-specific compensation claims by
Gulf War vets.

The Iraqi battlefield will be "very dangerous" in the aftermath of a new war,
says Asaf Durakovic, a former chief of nuclear medicine at a veteran's
hospital and head of the private Uranium Medical Research Center. In the
peer-reviewed journal "Military Medicine" last August, he published results
that 14 of 27 ill Gulf War vets had DU in their urine nine years after the

Testifying before Congress in 1997, Dr. Durakovic predicted DU will ensure
that "battlefields of the future will be unlike history," and
"injury and death will remain lingering threats to 'survivors' of the battle
for ... decades into the future."

Though DU clearly enhances the chances of victory, some say the price is too
high. Risks are difficult to quantify, but US military and expert reports
indicate DU can be a hazard that may cause cancer, and that total soil decon
tamination is impossible.

British troops deploying to Kosovo in 1999 were sent out with full suits and
masks, and told to use them "if contact with targets damaged by DU ammunition
is unavoidable." A report commissioned by the US Army on the eve of the Gulf
War found that "no dose [of DU particles] is so low that the probability of
effect is zero." Another report by the British Atomic Energy Agency used an
estimate of 40 tons of DU to create a hypothetical danger level, and
predicted that that amount of DU - one-eighth of what actually was fired -
could cause "500,000 potential deaths."

"I don't think we know if DU can be used safely, and until we know that, we
shouldn't use it," says Chris Hellman, a senior analyst with Washington's
Center for Defense Information. "The military's mindset is clear: 'This is
war, war is hell...the guy who shoots first wins, and he hits them with
everything he has.'"

In the US, every aspect of DU creation, use, and disposal is strictly
controlled. The US Army alone has 14 licenses to handle the substance.
Disposal requires burial in low-level radioactive waste dumps; particles must
be mixed with concrete and encased in two barrels.

But when it comes to fighting armor, no substance can match DU bullets,
denser than lead and self-sharpening. They burn through armor on impact and
are cheap. US gunners love them and say DU saves lives on the front line.

This graveyard of tanks shows why. DU burns so hotly into its target that a
targeted tank's own ammunition ignites, causing a blast that often rips the
turret right off the top of a tank. In the process, however, the DU round
aerosolizes into a lethal dust that emits alpha particles.

Though alpha particles have a limited range of a quarter-inch or so, they
pack a punch 20 times more powerful than beta or gamma radiation, and can
lodge easily in the body if inhaled or ingested. Many US vets believe DU may
also be a key factor in Gulf War syndrome, the set of symptoms for which the
Veteran's Administration has already provided compensation for nearly 1 in 4

Iraqis say DU is a major cause of the severe health problems such as cancer
and birth defects that they graphically show are surging in southern Iraq,
though they do not have the clinical capability to link DU to health problems.

"No one wins in war, everyone loses, and Basra will again be a great
battlefield," says Thamer Ahmad Hamdan, an orthopedic surgeon in Basra. In
1998, when visited by the Monitor, he had one box of x-rays depicting
grotesque abnormalities. "Now it is boxes," he says. "We will remember the
Americans used this again, that it was killing miserable people. Hopefully,
they are not going to do it."

Iraqi doctors say poverty, malnutrition, and poor water and sanitation are
key to current health problems, along with DU and chemical exposures, and
trauma from the last war. Jawad Khudim al-Ali, director of the cancer ward at
Basra's Saddam Teaching Hospital, says pre-war cancer rates have increased
11-fold; the mortality rate 19-fold.

While US war planners in the Gulf War and in campaigns since have taken great
care to minimize civilian casualties, the longterm impact of DU is tough to
define. And the reviled Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein may limit concerns of
civilian suffering, analysts say. "I don't think there is a consensus in this
country about whether war is the right thing to do," says CDI's Hellman. "But
there is a consensus that Saddam is right up there with Satan on the
evil-people-in-the-world list. And therefore, whatever methods of warfare are
going to bring him down, and safeguard American troops in the process, is
going to be acceptable [to Americans]."

"If [fallout on civilians] was a serious consideration," concurs Hewson, of
Jane's, "we would not be contemplating a major land battle in Iraq. At the
levels where this stuff is being planned, no tears are being shed for those

Abdulkarim Hussein Subber, a gynecologist at the Basra Maternity and
Children's Hospital, has three photo albums full of images of unimaginable
birth defects that he claims are six times more prevalent today than before
the Gulf War.

"We have become very familiar with these cases," Dr. Subber says, adding that
numbers have leveled off since expectant mothers began using ultrasound to
detect - and terminate - severe cases. "The problem is [our patients] are
afraid of being pregnant again, because of the fear of malformations," Subber
says. "The problem is the pollution from the war."

Copyright  2002 The Christian Science Monitor


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