A waiting killer

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

A 30 mm shell tipped with depleted uranium displayed at a news conference by military experts on "Balkans Syndrome" at the NATO headquarters in Brussels in January 2001. - FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS

A 30 mm shell tipped with depleted uranium displayed at a news conference by military experts on "Balkans Syndrome" at the NATO headquarters in Brussels in January 2001. - FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS

The extensive use of depleted uranium, a toxic and radioactive material, in munitions and bombs by the United States-led invasion forces in Iraq poses a long-term threat to human health in the devastated country.

THE extensive use of depleted uranium (D.U.) in munitions and bombs by the invading forces of the United States and the United Kingdom has converted Iraq into a living hell, perhaps for generations to come. A dramatic rise in the incidence of cancer, genetic disorders, infertility and a host of other man-made calamities will characterise the coming years.

The warning was sounded by the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize-winning institution, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). On April 4, in an open letter to the governments of the U.S. and U.K., the IPPNW cautioned against the use of D.U. in Iraq, which could have serious consequences on the population as well as the soldiers. On April 6, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) took the unprecedented step of recommending that "a scientific assessment of sites targeted with weapons containing D.U. be conducted in Iraq as soon as conditions permit".

The conditions came into existence with an end to the shooting war, but the new imperial ruler of Iraq is silent on permitting such a study. As always, the U.S. denies any link between D.U. and health. It also does not believe in adhering to the 1990 recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection, which had set limits for radioactive exposure for civilians and nuclear industry workers. In fact, the U.S. military asserts that in battles there are more hazardous conditions obtaining than exposure to D.U. However, the European Parliament thinks otherwise. On January 17, 2001, it called for a moratorium on the use of D.U. weapons by member-states of the European Union (E.U.) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). That exposure to D.U. remains a clear and present danger is obvious from the fact that prior to the invasion of Iraq, "embedded" journalists were made to sign a lengthy agreement on the non-liability of the U.S. government, among other things, in case they contracted Gulf War Syndrome, a euphemism for D.U. contamination.

How serious the problem is has been elucidated by Major Doug Rooke, a U.S. Army officer of 35 years standing (now a reserve), who has a Ph.D in health physics and whose task prior to the 1991 Gulf War was to prepare soldiers to cope during nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. What he saw during the war turned him into an anti-D.U. campaigner. In an interview to the Trapcock Peace Centre and the editors of YES! magazine, he said:

"At the completion of the Gulf War, when we came back to the United States in the fall of 1991, we had a total casualty count of 760; 294 dead, a little over 400 wounded or ill. But the casualty rate now for Gulf War veterans is approximately 30 per cent. Of those stationed in the (war) theatre, including after the conflict, 221,000 have been awarded disability, according to a Veterans Affairs (V.A.) report issued on September 10, 2002. Many of the U.S. casualties died as a direct result of uranium munitions friendly fire. U.S. forces killed and wounded U.S. forces...

"When we first got assigned to clean up the D.U. and arrived in northern Saudi Arabia, we started getting sick within 72 hours. Respiratory problems, rashes, bleeding, open sores started almost immediately."

During the U.S.-led invasion this time, hospitals in Iraq were destroyed or extensively damaged. Apparently, this was done deliberately by U.S. strike aircraft to prevent the identification of D.U. patients from among the mass of injured and dying civilians thronging the hospitals for medical help.

DEPLETED Uranium is the radioactive waste product obtained after fissionable material that goes into reactors or nuclear bombs is removed from uranium. For every seven parts of uranium processed, six parts remain as waste material, for which there is no significant industrial use. D.U. is highly toxic despite it being labelled "depleted". Its properties have been succinctly described by Dr. Rosalie Bertell, winner of the 1986 Alternative Nobel Prize and UNEP 500 Global Laureate for 1993. In her presentation on Gulf War Veterans and D.U. to the Hague Peace Conference in 1999, Dr. Bertell said: "D.U. is almost 100 per cent uranium. More than 90 per cent of natural and depleted uranium consists of the isotope U-238. One gram of pure U-238 has a specific activity of 12.4 kBq, which means that there are 12,400 atomic transformations every second, each of which releases an energetic alpha particle. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.51 E+9 (or 4.5 times 10 to the 9th power) equivalent to 4,510,000,000 years."

Huge amounts of D.U. accumulated over the last 55 years are lying around in nuclear processing facilities in the U.S. alone. According to the Amsterdam-based Laka Foundation, by 1993 a total of 560,000 tonnes of D.U. had been stored in 46,222 steel containers in the open at U.S. uranium enrichment plants. Since then, 8,000 new cylinders are estimated to have been added. Should a plane crash into any of these dumps, the resultant catastrophe would be unimaginable.

Ramsey Clark, who was Attorney-General in the Lyndon Johnson administration and who runs the prestigious International Action Centre in New York, which is committed to unmasking the true nature of the U.S. government's war crimes against the Iraqi people since the first Gulf War, said that Pentagon planners had decided to convert the deadly D.U. lying around into munitions and bombs.

Corroborating Clark's view, Dr. Gordon Edwards and his team at the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility said: "D.U. has been regularly used by the U.S. military in the construction of nuclear weapons. In fact, it is the raw material from which weapons-grade plutonium is created in special military reactors. D.U. is also used in the manufacture of metal components for the bomb itself, thereby doubling the explosive power of each warhead."

D.U. is very heavy, at 1.7 times the weight of lead, and very hard. These qualities enable D.U. to sharpen and vaporise into dust as it penetrates armour or bunkers, simultaneously releasing a huge amount of energy that burns a hole into the surface it impacts. This explains how Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's deep underground hideouts were penetrated and destroyed, as the U.S. claims, from the very first day of the war.

The U.S. M1 Abrams tanks, used so decisively during the invasion, are fitted with D.U. shells; the tank bodies were themselves D.U.-treated to enable them to deflect ordinary canon fire. Likewise, attack aircraft have carried D.U. bombs.

On the battlefield, D.U. enters the body through the dust inhaled or injuries suffered from shrapnel. The chances of contracting cancer are enormous. Seventeen soldiers died of leukaemia following duty in Bosnia where D.U. weapons were used. The Guardian has cited a 1997 internal report of the British Ministry of Defence linking exposure to D.U. munitions with increased risks of lung, brain and lymph cancers. U.S. Army experts concur: "If D.U. enters the body, it has the potential to cause serious medical problems, both chemical and radiological."

Sara Flounders, Coordinator at the International Action Centre, says: "What raised our concern was a secret report by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority prepared in April 1991, a month after the end of the first Gulf War. Leaked to The Independent and published that November, this early report described the potential problems of radioactive dust spreading over the battlefields and getting into the food chain and the water. At that time it warned that 40 tonnes of radioactive debris left from D.U. weapons could cause over 500,000 deaths. Now we find that the debris left behind (from the first Gulf War) is over 300 tonnes."

Hence the quantum of debris spread over Iraq this time around must be many times more, as the very term "shock and awe" suggests. But it may be months, if not years, before the real quantum of D.U. used is known.

Warnings against D.U. exposure are routine even in peacetime. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has cautioned: "The main hazard associated with D.U. is the harmful effect the material could have if it enters the body. In particular, when inhaled or digested, it can be chemically toxic and cause significant and long-lasting irradiation of internal tissues." When accidents occur, the FAA instructions are explicit on how to handle certain aircraft parts, especially counter-weights used to balance aircraft that contain D.U. It is mandatory "to wear gloves, industrial eye protection and respiratory masks" all of which should afterwards be discarded, labelled as radioactive waste and accordingly be disposed.

These precautionary recommendations are a clear warning that the dangers from D.U. do not diminish over time. On the contrary, for years after a war the D.U. dust will just lie around, getting blown about in the wind, contaminating all that it settles upon or seeps into - water sources, cultivated fields, or habitations. "The desert dust carries death," Dr. Jawad Al-Ali, a member of the Royal College of Physicians, U.K., has been quoted as saying. "Studies (after the first Gulf War) indicate that 40 per cent of the population around Basra will get cancer."

If death does not ensue quickly, D.U. contamination could manifest itself in any one or more of a host of ailments associated with exposure to uranium. Quoting from the Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health (page 2,238), Dr. Bertell said:

"Uranium poisoning is characterised by generalised impairment. The element and its compounds produce changes in the kidneys, liver, lungs and cardiovascular, nervous and haemopoietic systems, and cause disorders of protein and carbohydrate metabolism...

"Chronic poisoning results from prolonged exposure to low concentrations of insoluble compounds and presents a clinical picture different from that of acute poisoning. The outstanding signs and symptoms are pulmonary fibrosis, pneumoconiosis and blood changes with a fall in the red blood count; haemoglobin, erythrocyte and reticulocyte levels in the peripheral blood are reduced. Leucopenia may be observed with leucocyte (cytolysis, pyknosis and hypersegmentosis).

"There may be damage to the nervous system. Morphological changes in the lungs, liver, spleen, intestines and other organs and tissues may be found, and it is reported that uranium exposure inhibits reproductive activity and affects uterine and extra-uterine development in experimental animals. Insoluble compounds tend to be retained in tissues and organs for long periods."

Clinical findings of Dr. Asaf Durakovic corroborate Dr. Bertell's statement. An Army doctor, a Fellow of the American College of Physicians, a former Professor of Radiology at Georgetown University and a former Chief of Nuclear Medicine at the Veterans Affairs Medical Facility, Dr. Durakovic has impeccable credentials. Yet he was pressured to terminate his research in 1999 and there are reports that he was hounded out of the U.S. by threats to his life. In a 1997 statement, Dr. Durakovic said:

"Depleted uranium enters the body via inhalation, ingestion and absorption through open wounds or imbedded shrapnel. Uranium is water-soluble and can be transported throughout the body. The alpha particle release by decay of the uranium atom gives up its large amount of energy in a distance no larger than a couple of microns. Causing breaks and ionisation of molecules, it is capable of destroying proteins, enzymes, RNA and damaging DNA in many different ways, including double strand breaks. This kind of damage in the reproductive organs can lead to genetic hazards that can be passed on from generation to generation. Soluble uranium compounds cause mainly chemical damage to the proximal convoluted tubules of the kidney. In the lungs, D.U. damages the alveoli. Since D.U. can cross the placenta, it can create massive problems for the radiosensitive tissues of the foetus. Damage to the foetus may lead to somatic malformation, including shortened limbs, damage to the CNS, cardiovascular and muscular problems. Other effects associated with D.U. poisoning are: emotional and mental deterioration, fatigue, loss of bowel and bladder control, as well as numerous forms of cancer."

SEVERAL organisations the world over have called for a ban on D.U. weapons. The IPPNW was one of the earliest to do so, as was the International Action Centre and the peace and veterans associations.

The case to ban D.U. weapons has got strengthened with the ruling for compensation by a U.K tribunal to a soldier suffering from Gulf War Syndrome. On May 5, The Guardian reported that Alex Izett of the Royal Engineers had won a 10-year battle at a pensions appeal tribunal linking the brittle bone disease, which he had been suffering over the last eight years, to an injection given to him during the first Gulf War as some kind of protection against nuclear fallout. The most significant outcome of the tribunal hearings was the Ministry of Defence decision not to appeal against the ruling, thereby indirectly indicting the government of culpability.

In the U.S. too, the challenge to the government's denial of any link between D.U. use and Gulf War Syndrome is gathering pace. A group of experts is prepared to expose the untenable stand of the administration.

However, there is also a small group of apologists for the U.S. administration who argue that no link has been clearly established between D.U. and the Gulf War Syndrome, and that the nature of D.U. weapons is just the same as any other. They usually cite three earlier studies, made by the UNEP, to promote their agenda.

In its studies of D.U. contamination during 2001-03 in Kosovo, Serbia-Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the UNEP concluded that "while radiation can be detected at D.U. sites, the levels are so low that they do not pose a threat to human health or the environment".

Soon after the UNEP published these studies, its findings were questioned by the scientific community. The Russian Academy of Sciences, for example, pointed out that the right equipment was not used to measure Alpha rays. Moreover, the studies confined themselves to the impact holes of artillery and bombs, ignoring soil and water examination. The studies also confined themselves to discussing the risks associated with prolonged exposure to the skin, without going into the dangers of prolonged exposure through the inhalation of air and the consumption of water or food containing uranium and plutonium isotopes.

In fact, the UNEP itself has underlined the fact that the studies were "made two to seven years after the use of D.U. weapons". And, it admitted in its April 6 statement that it "should be further explored (whether) D.U. on the ground can filter through the soil and eventually contaminate groundwater, and the possibility that D.U. dust could later be re-suspended in the air by wind or human activity, with the risk that it could be breathed in". Hence the UNEP's new stand brings it into closer alignment with scientific conclusions documenting the deleterious effects of D.U. use. It also knocks out the basis of any case by the proponents of the use of D.U. weapons.

The use of D.U. weapons has conferred on the U.S. an enormous advantage over conventional armed forces. Battlefield damage and its aftermath have been raised to unacceptable levels. In fact, the possession and use of D.U. weapons is akin to, indeed not different from, being armed with nuclear weapons. In this sense, the "shock and awe" invasion of Iraq can truly be described as a barbaric nuclear war of conquest waged by the U.S. against what is now universally accepted as a defenceless country.

The time has, therefore, come to consider a ban on the use of D.U. weapons as being weapons of mass destruction, just like the ones the U.S. claimed Iraq to possess before the war but which have never been found. Moreover, the use of weapons of mass destruction should be treated as a war crime and those responsible for such crimes should be punished.

Already a move is afoot to bring General Tommy Franks, the new military overlord of Iraq, before an international war crimes tribunal. The scope of this endeavour needs to be enlarged to include the entire White House cabal, which not only prepared the conquest of Iraq, but endangered generations of yet-to-be-born in that country.

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