Depleted uranium: weapon of (long-term) mass destruction

May 30, 2003
By Felicity Arbuthnot

BAGHDAD (PANOS) The small city of Diwania in southern Iraq is home to 10-year- old Mustafa Ali who has acute myeloid leukaemia. Wan and wide-eyed, the cancer has affected a nerve in his right eye. His embarrassment at losing his hair because of chemotherapy is evident. His father, engineer Ali Ismael Tamader Ghalib, gives up work a week every month to bring his son to Baghdad for treatment.

“If there is another war, more children will suffer,” he said weeks before the latest war. “We must stop this slaughter of innocents; what have these children done to deserve this?” Tears streamed down his wife¹s face, dripping on to her immaculate black abaya.

The Al Mansour Teaching and Paediatric Hospital in Baghdad is Iraq¹s foremost medical teaching centre. When the twice-weekly cancer clinics are held, it is near impossible to squeeze through the crowds that spread into the grounds; parents holding, carrying, clutching their children for diagnosis and treatment.

After the 1991 Gulf War, Al Mansour filled with a disproportionately high number of patients from heavily bombed cities in the south of Iraq. Between 1978 and 1992 there were 270 cancer and leukaemia cases recorded there. But between November 1992 and October 2002, the hospital recorded 1,714 cases a six-fold increase. Those patients included 10-year-old Mustafa and scores of other children from Diwania and other heavily bombed areas.

With the latest war in Iraq and the post-war looting, treatment at Al Mansour will have ceased, effectively condemning Mustafa, other children of Diwania and all the first Gulf war¹s cancer victims to death. This war has confirmed Ali Ismael¹s worst fears.

Just 10 months after the 1991 Gulf war, Iraqi doctors were already bewildered at the rise in rare cancers and birth deformities. They were comparing them to those they had seen in textbooks relating to nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1950s. That depleted uranium (DU) weapons had been used in Iraq was then unknown.

Basra, southern Iraq, was in the eye of the original Desert Storm. In 1997, senior paediatrician at the Basra Maternity and Paediatric Hospital Dr Jenan Hussein completed a thesis comparing the effects there with Hiroshima. Cancers, leukaemias and malignancies believed linked to DU, she found, had risen up to 70% since 1991.

“There is every relation between the congenital malformations, cancer and depleted uranium. Before 1991, we saw nothing like this. Most of these children have no family history of cancer,” she said.

DU, or Uranium 238, is a waste product of the uranium enrichment process. It has little commercial value, but when conventional bullets and shells are coated with DU, it makes them armour-piercing. Radioactive particles from spent DU shells do not disappear after explosion. The Pentagon says there are some 320 tonnes of DU left over from the 1991 war. Three weeks into the latest war, independent Britain-based DU researcher Dai Williams said 2,000 tonnes of residual DU dust is a conservative estimate.

In April 1991 the UK Atomic Energy Authority sent a report to the Ministry of Defence warning of a health and environmental catastrophe in Iraq. It estimated that a residue of 50 tonnes of DU dust could now lead to half a million “potential deaths” from cancer “in the region” within 10 years. With estimates of 2,000 tonnes of DU residue, the “potential deaths” could be astronomical.

The evidence on the destructive nature of DU is clear: sick Gulf war and Balkans veterans, tested in 2000 at the World Depleted Uranium Centre in Berlin, were found to have three times more radioactive contamination than the residents of Chernobyl, Ukraine site of the world¹s worst nuclear accident. A 1996 survey that studied the families of 267 US Gulf veterans showed that 67% of children conceived after their fathers had returned from the Gulf, had rare birth deformities.

DU has thrice been condemned as a weapon of mass destruction by UN Sub-Committees. Even the US Army Environmental Policy Institute agrees: DU, it said in 1995, is “radioactive waste and, as such, should be deposited in a licensed repository”.

But in spite of all the evidence or perhaps because of it DU continues to remain an integral part of the NATO arsenal. And now, attempts are being made to cover up its devastating effects.

When, in 1999, Finland’s Minister of Environment, Dr Pekka Haavisto was appointed chairman of the UN Environment Programme unit investigating the use of DU in Kosovo, doors slammed in the face of this highly respected expert. In Washington, de-classified documents relating to DU use were suddenly re-classified a pattern followed in all the NATO countries he doggedly visited, Haavisto told a UN conference in 2001.

When his team arrived in Kosovo, their movements were restricted by the military, but they still managed to produce a 72-page report outlining deep concerns. However, by the time it underwent the tortuous UN editorial process, it was reduced to two pages.

In an internal memo from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico (the laboratory that brought the world the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs) headed The Effectiveness of Depleted Uranium Penetrators, the reason for the apparent cover-up becomes clearer. Dated 1st March 1991, the day after the Gulf ceasefire, a Lt Col Larson wrote to a Maj. Ziehman: “There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore if no one makes the case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and therefore be deleted from the arsenal.”

The memo ends: “I believe we should keep this sensitive issue at mind, when, after action, reports are written.”

With hospital records in Iraq being destroyed while US troops stand by and do nothing, it is now unlikely we will ever know the true extent of the health effects caused by the last war. As for the latest war, based on the amount of DU used, the health effects can only be exponentially worse.

Uranium 238 has a half-life of some 4.5 billion years, meaning the DU dust will outlive the sun. Kuwait and Iraq may have been relieved of Saddam Hussein, but the cancer patients, the 'liberators’, the newborn and the unborn will pay the price until the end of time.

Felicity Arbuthnot is an award-winning investigative reporter from Britain.

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