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Depleted Uranium: The American Legacy

by Sara S. DeHart, MSN, Ph.D. and Louis Farshee, MA
March 15, 2003

Depleted Uranium (DU) is a by-product of nuclear power plant generation. Because there are more than one billion pounds stockpiled in the US and it is in such abundance, the US Department of Energy (DOE) provides it free of charge to munitions suppliers who manufacture it into military projectiles. DU projectiles have emerged as a preferred weapon because of its ability to penetrate tank armor and other fortified targets. It is also used in non-military products such as cement, fertilizers and certain paints.

All uranium, whether natural, depleted or enriched, is a toxic radiological element. Each differs from the other in atomic structure by less than one percent. DU emits three types of ionizing radiation: alpha and beta particles and photons. Alpha particles are blocked by objects as light as a sheet of paper and humans exposed to them are naturally protected by their skin. Beta particles (high speed electrons) can penetrate human skin to a depth of one centimeter while photons (x-rays and gamma rays) are more penetrating and can pass completely through a human body. Many factors determine the potentially harmful effects of DU including the source of radiation which may be external, that is, originating from outside a human body or internal which occurs when particles enter a human body by way of food, water, inhalation or a wound. (National Radiological Protection Board, June 2002).

Statements and findings on dangers related to DU might be generalized under two broad headings, US government departments and non-US governmental groups. Although there are disagreements between these two broad groups, one fact is not disputed. If DU oxides are inhaled, there is a high probability that residual alpha particles will be distributed throughout the organs of the body and are potential sources of radiation emission. This fact was not thoroughly researched prior to the 1991 Gulf War and not until 1994 was an explosion/burn test conducted (Rostker, 2000).

Findings of the 1994 test, cited in the DOD's Environmental Exposure Report, are based on one tank explosion that produced a flume of aerosolized radioactive uranium oxide that burned for five hours. Analyses of this poisonous aerosol revealed that approximately 33 percent of the residual oxides were capable of entering the lungs in unprotected breathing (Rostker, 2000). The single-case report was not extrapolated to determine the effects of multiple explosions that occurred during the 1991 Gulf War.

U.S. government and military assertions continue to minimize or deny the environmental and health dangers of DU but their statements are inconsistent with certain of their own reports. For example, at the same time dangers are being minimized a contradicting report reads: "If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical complications. The risks associated with DU in the body are both chemical and radiological...Personnel inside or near vehicles struck by DU penetrators could receive significant internal exposure" (U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute Report, 1995).

Other Pentagon statements concerning the safety of DU are inconsistent with findings of non-government funded research which document that aerosolized particles are dangerous if inhaled. Once inside the lungs these particles pass through the lung-blood barrier and circulate freely throughout the body. At this point they act as a heavy-metal poison as well as cause "low-level" cell irradiation in the bone marrow, brain, kidneys, and reproductive organs. The more immediate heavy-metal oxide damage, i.e. kidney failure, brain damage, is well documented in the scientific literature and the potential for radioactive damage leading to carcinogenic disease is ever present (Durakovic, et al 2002).

Given the concerns for hazardous waste used during wartime or for civilian use, one might expect clear and unambiguous research following the 1991 Gulf War. This did not occur until US Congressional hearings in 1996 directed the Veterans Administration (VA) to fund studies to determine the incidence and cause of the serious illnesses reported by Gulf War Veterans (GWV). In spite of this congressional directive, much of the research remains fragmented and largely based on survey (questionnaire) data rather than more rigorous clinical assessment/biological assay methodology.

Other VA and DOD statements about the safety of DU have relied on secondary interpretation of non-military related data extrapolated to the GWV sample. In this instance, the much-cited Institute of Medicine Report based its conclusions on uranium worker studies conducted at DOD's Oak Ridge facility rather than the more pertinent GWV cohort (a statistical term for a group that shares certain common characteristics). It is noteworthy that data from the Oak Ridge project was a report on the incidence of cancer in workers who had handled uranium under highly controlled conditions. But under uncontrolled battle conditions DU's pyrophoric qualities allow it to blaze like a foundry furnace, spewing flumes of aerosolized, microscopic radioactive uranium oxide into the atmosphere. These were the empirical field conditions faced in the Gulf War that had not been present in the Oak Ridge case.

The GWV cohort that is more appropriate to study to determine the effects of inhaled uranium oxide are the 697,000 American military personnel deployed in 1991 to Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. According to the official Gulf War Veterans Briefing, the total causality count for the 100-hour war was 760: 294 dead and approximately 400 wounded or ill. In the decade following the war 30,000 Gulf War Veterans are dead and 221,000 are receiving medical disability benefits for war related causes (May 2002 GWV Report). Neither the VA nor DOD has provided clear research needed to answer the basic question: what part did depleted uranium play in causing death and illness among more than 30% of Gulf War veterans? Basic epidemiological studies such as identifying cause of death as recorded on death certificates have not been reported in the literature.

The DOD asserts that:

1. There is no scientific evidence of any increased health risks from exposure to Depleted Uranium, including cancer and leukemia.
2. Depleted Uranium was not a problem in the Persian Gulf War and is not a potential hazard in the Balkans, except under very limited circumstances.
Nonetheless, a review of the available research literature funded by the DOD and VA reveals clear gaps in defining the long-term effects of DU once it is introduced into the human body. The Pentagon's view that there is no need for concern because "uranium is all around us" is counter to what is slowly emerging from independent laboratory studies.

The clearest research-based literature is currently coming from the non-government affiliated Uranium Medical Research Center in Canada. One of the chief researchers, Asaf Durakovic, a former professor of Nuclear Medicine at Georgetown University and former head of the U.S. Army's Veterans' Affairs facility in Delaware, Maryland, reported his assay results on Gulf and Balkan War Veterans at the European Associates of Nuclear Medicine. His findings reveal high DU levels in urine and bone samples in GWV ten years after the war. He further postulates that a significant portion of the ill-defined Gulf War Syndrome is related to DU radiation and/or toxicity. Dr. Durakovic is critical of the DOD and British Ministry of Defense because they have consistently refused to test Gulf War Veterans for DU. There are many medical clues that appear to be "untouchable" for DOD and VA funded research. Further, all research that is not under the direct control of DOD and VA is labeled "unreliable".

This blanket rejection includes all clinical research conducted by Iraqi scientists. At a 1998 Baghdad Conference, M. M. Al-Jebouri reported his findings after analyzing cancer data for two separate time periods in Iraq: August 1989 to March 1990 and August 1997 to March 1998. The data from this study showed a 3-fold increase in the incidence of cancer in 1998 when compared to 1990. Other studies reported similar findings, yet there is no comparable study in the literature provided by DOD or VA funded research.

Doug Rokke, Ph.D, is a trained forensic scientist and professor of Environmental Science. A military man for over 35 years, Major Rokke advocates an international ban against DU based upon what has happened to many GWV as well as those assigned to clean-up highly selected DU contaminated areas after the Gulf War. He reports on the incidence of throat and lung cancer among members of his own team. Some are dead and many others are seriously ill. Rokke himself has airway disease, neurological damage and cataracts. This, of course, might be viewed as anecdotal evidence but the number of deaths by cancer recorded on various GWV Internet sites leads one reviewing the literature to question the official position of the DOD. The allegation that DU is a "safe" weapon or that the cancer and other serious illness rates among the GWV cohort are not statistically different from military personal stationed in Iowa during the Gulf War is an unsustainable hypothesis.

Throughout recorded history, Scorched Earth has been used in numerous conflicts. In the Second Century B.C., following its defeat of the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, Rome was shocked that Carthage rapidly recovered and hence sought a pretext to start the Third Punic War. The pretext was found and a devastating attack on Carthage was launched. After burning and pillaging Carthage and selling the survivors into slavery, the Roman Empire sowed the lands of Carthage with salt so it could not sustain agricultural crops. There was no need for a peace treaty; Carthage, along with its people, was destroyed.

During the 1991 Gulf War another form of Scorched Earth was used with a deadlier and longer-lasting legacy. U.S. and coalition forces fired in excess of 315 tons of DU projectiles at targets in Iraq and Kuwait. Described as a "clean surgical strike" by General Schwarzkopf and other Pentagon spokespersons, Desert Storm left a legacy of sickness and death that has yet to be fully recognized or measured. But if and when an accurate record of this war is written, the Roman legacy of salting Carthaginian lands will pale in comparison. The 1991 Gulf War was, in fact, a toxic war with predictable medical consequences that manifest themselves daily.

The use of uranium-based weaponry is growing. Its use in Iraq and the Balkans is documented. Independent investigators maintain it was also used in Afghanistan. The DOD will neither confirm nor deny using DU in "bunker-busters" dropped on Afghanistan and has consistently refused to identify the composition of dense-metal warheads used to penetrate reinforced structures buried in Afghanistan's caves. Some researchers contend that only uranium -- in one form or another -- possesses the density to achieve penetration of those reinforced structures. Afghanistan's water system collected in ancient cisterns in caves is now polluted with DU; the civilian population is at risk from both heavy metal poisoning and low-level internal irradiation.

The American legacy in Afghanistan and Iraq is uranium-based weaponry that alters the ecological system, and condemns Afghanis, Iraqis, and U.S. military personnel as well as future generations to long-lasting suffering. This, by definition is wanton and reckless use of weapons-of-mass-destruction.


Sara Dehart is a freelance writer from the Northwestern area of the Unites States. Sara can be contacted at dehart.ss@verizon.net.

Louis Farshee is a freelance writer and business man from the Northwestern area of the United States. Louis can be contacted at lfarshee@easystreet.com.


Endnote: Consultant, Guy L. Letourneau, P.E.

Selected References; (additional references available on request)

Al-Jebouri, M.M., Al-Am, et al. (1998). The effect of the war of the American and Affiliated forces against Iraq on the distribution and elevation of cancer diseases in Mosul. Baghdad Conference on Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium by U.S. and British forces in the 1991 Gulf War. Baghdad, Iraq December 2-3, 1998.

Durakovic A., Dietz L., Horan P., Zimmerman I.; Depleted uranium concentration in the lungs of Allied Forces Gulf War veterans at the time of exposure; Fourth International Congress of the Croatian Society of Nuclear Medicine; Opatija, Croatia; May 12th - 15th, 2002.

Durakovic A., Dietz L., Horan P.; Urinary excretion of uranium isotopes in British, Canadian and United States Gulf War veterans; European Association of Nuclear Medicine; Paris, France; September 2nd - 6th, 2000.

Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium in the U.S. Army (1995). U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute.

May 2002 Gulf War Veterans Information System Briefing For: National Gulf War Resource Center. Veteran Benefits Administration Office of Performance Analysis and Integrity Data and Information Services (September 10, 2002). http://www.ngwrc.org/pdf/GWVIS reportSeptember2002.pdf

National Radiological Protection Board (June 2000). When is depleted uranium harmful?

Rostker, B. (December 13, 2000). Environmental Exposure Report. Office of the Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Gulf War Illnesses

 


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