Less DU in this war?
By Scott Peterson (Christian
Science Monitor, 15 May 2003)
In the first Gulf War, US forces used 320 tons of DU, 80 percent of it fired
by A-10 aircraft. Some estimates suggest 1,000 tons or more of DU was used
in the current war. But the Pentagon disclosure Wednesday that about 75 tons
of A-10 DU bullets were used points to a smaller overall DU tonnage in Iraq
this time. US military guidelines developed after the first Gulf
War - which have since been considerably eased - required any soldier coming within 50 yards of a tank struck with DU to wear a gas mask and full protective suit. Today, soldiers say they have been told to steer clear of any DU.
"If a [tank] was taken out by depleted uranium, there may be oxide that you don't want to inhale. We want to minimize any exposure, at least to the lowest level possible," Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, a top Pentagon health official told journalists on March 14, just days before the war began. "If somebody needs to go into a tank that's been hit with depleted uranium, a dust mask, a handkerchief is adequate to protect them - washing their hands afterwards."
Not everyone on the battlefield may be as well versed in handling DU, Dr. Kilpatrick said, noting that his greater concern is DU's chemical toxicity, not its radioactivity: "What we worry about like lead in paint in housing areas - children picking it up and eating it or licking it - getting it on their hands and ingesting it."
In the US, stringent NRC rules govern any handling of DU, which can legally
only be disposed of in low-level radioactive waste dumps. The US military holds
more than a dozen NRC licenses to work with it. In Iraq, DU was not just fired
at armored targets. Video footage from the last days of the war shows an A-10
aircraft - a plane purpose-built around a 30-mm
Gatling gun - strafing the Iraqi Ministry of Planning in downtown Baghdad.
A visit to site yields dozens of spent radioactive DU rounds, and distinctive aluminum casings with two white bands, that drilled into the tile and concrete rear of the building. DU residue at impact clicked on the Geiger counter at a relatively low level, just 12 times background radiation levels.
But the finger-sized bullets themselves – littering the ground where looters and former staff are often walking - were the "hottest" items the Monitor measured in Iraq, at nearly 1,900 times background levels.
The site is just 300 yards from where American troops guard the main entrance of the Republican Palace, home to the US and British officials tasked with rebuilding Iraq.
"Radioactive? Oh, really?" asks a former director general of the ministry, when he returned in a jacket and tie for a visit last week, and heard the contamination levels register in bursts on the Geiger counter.
"Yesterday more than 1,000 employees came here, and they didn't know anything about it," the former official says. "We have started to not believe what the American government says. What I know is that the occupiers should clean up and take care of the country they invaded."
US military officials often say that most people are exposed to natural or "background" radiation in daily life. For example, a round-trip flight across the US can yield a 5 millirem dose from increased cosmic radiation; a chest X-ray can yield a 10 millirem dose in a few seconds.
The Pentagon says that, since DU is "depleted" and 40 percent less radioactive than normal uranium, it presents even less of a hazard.
But DU experts say they are most concerned at how DU is transformed on the
battlefield, after burning, into a toxic oxide dust that emits alpha particles.
While those can be easily stopped by the skin, once inside the body, studies
have shown that they can destroy cells in soft tissue. While one study on rats
linked DU fragments in muscle tissue to increased cancer risk, health effects
on humans remain inconclusive. As late as five days before the Iraq war began,
Pentagon officials said that 90 of those troops most heavily exposed to DU
during the 1991 Gulf War have shown no health problems whatsoever, and remain
close medical scrutiny.
Released documents and past admissions from military officials, however, estimate that around 900 Americans were exposed to DU. Only a fraction have been watched, and among those has been one diagnosed case of lymphatic cancer, and one arm tumor. As reported in previous articles, the Monitor has spoken to American veterans who blame their DU exposure for serious health problems.
The politics of DU
But DU health concerns are very often wrapped up in politics. Saddam Hussein's regime blamed DU used in 1991 for causing a spike in the cancer rate and birth defects in southern Iraq.
And the Pentagon often overstates its case - in terms of DU effectiveness on the battlefield, or declaring the absence of health problems, according to Dan Fahey, an American veterans advocate who has monitored the shrill arguments from both sides since the mid-1990s.
"DU munitions are neither the benign wonder weapons promoted by Pentagon propagandists nor the instruments of genocide decried by hyperbolic anti-DU activists," Mr. Fahey writes in a March report, called "Science or Science Fiction: Facts, Myth and Propaganda in the Debate Over DU Weapons."
Nonetheless, Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington, a doctor who visited Baghdad before the war, introduced legislation in Congress last month requiring studies on health and environment studies, and clean up of DU contamination in the US. He says DU may well be associated with increased birth defects.
"While the political effects of using DU munitions are perhaps more apparent than their health and environmental effects," Fahey writes, "science and common sense dictate it is unwise to use a weapon that distributes large quantities of a toxic waste in areas where people live, work, grow food, or draw water." Because of the publicity the Iraqi government has given to the issue, Iraqis worry about DU.
"It is an important concern.... We know nothing about it. How can I protect my family?" asks Faiz Askar, an Iraqi doctor. "We say the war is finished, but what will the future bring?"