Middle East

'Silver bullets' that kill, and kill again
By Cristina Hernandez-Espinoza

SAN FRANCISCO - The hundreds of tanks that are leading the way for the invading forces in Iraq, part of the largest US offensive since Vietnam, are carrying a dangerous metal that has triggered alarm among environmentalists around the world: depleted uranium.

In the 1991 Gulf War, the US introduced this element, considered the champion of munitions. Known as the "silver bullet" for its high density and low cost, it allows a tank to fire from a distance and achieve penetration while remaining out of reach of enemy fire. But in parallel to its formidable capacities in war, depleted uranium is also blamed for frightful environmental and health impacts.

The Iraqis say that the metal is responsible for rendering their lands infertile and for increased rates of cancer, childhood leukemia, spontaneous abortions and physical deformities. There are US veterans of the 1991 war who believe that depleted uranium is responsible for the so-called Gulf Syndrome, a mysterious set of chronic diseases from which they suffer.

According to the Pentagon, during that operation - Desert Storm - the country's forces fired 320 tons of munitions from their A-10 fighter jets, some 50 tons from the M1 Abrams tanks and 11 tons from other tanks and AV-8 aircraft, the same type of armaments being utilized in Iraq this time around, only with much greater firepower.

Depleted uranium, says the Pentagon, played a key role in the land battle launched against Iraqi forces that ended in victory for the coalition of 33 nations on February 27, 1991. History is expected to repeat itself 12 years later, though with a much reduced coalition and a longer time in the field of battle.

Richard Muller, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, explained that the most important trait of depleted uranium is its high density, "much higher than iron", which allows it to penetrate enemy targets. On impact, said Muller, depleted uranium not only does not explode - as opposed to tungsten, which is also used in missiles - but rather heats up, and thus increases its destructive penetrating power.

In its natural state, uranium is a radioactive element, chemically toxic and abundant in nature. It is found in water, soil the air and in food. Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the enriching process in which natural uranium is used to produce fuel for nuclear reactors and atomic weapon components. It is said to be 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium, but of a similar chemical toxicity.

"The risk of exposure to depleted uranium lies in its chemical toxicity, not its radiation," said Steve Fetter, a University of Maryland expert in nuclear weapons and radiation.

When the metal burns on penetrating the target it produces uranium oxides, which are not very soluble in water or in body fluids, Fetter noted. These oxides can remain highly concentrated in the air and inhaled by people near the attack site. They also endure in the soil and can be ingested, for example, by children playing on the ground.

Depleted uranium has been used by military forces in the conflicts in the Balkans over the past decade. A report by the European parliament estimates that around 3 tons of the metal were used in Bosnia and 10 tons in Kosovo in land-air attacks. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) investigated the presence of uranium in Kosovo in 2000, in Serbia-Montenegro in 2001 and in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2002.

The first two missions found remnants of depleted uranium and "the metal's presence in bio-indicators, like moss and lichens, and in the air," but at such low levels that it cannot be considered a significant risk to the human population, Pekka Haavisto, director of the UNEP depleted uranium assessment program, said. The results of the Bosnia-Herzegovina mission are expected to be released soon.

But Haavisto pointed out that "there is still a great deal of scientific uncertainty about the potential contamination of water sources". Not all remnants of the metal have been removed from the battle areas, and there are many several meters deep in the earth, meaning that there is a danger of contaminating aquifers and surface water sources, said the UNEP official.

Studies of the presence of depleted uranium in the Persian Gulf region have been few. The International Atomic Energy Agency investigated the area in 2002, but the results of that mission have yet to be publicized.

Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations are stepping up their global campaigns to denounce the potential effects of depleted uranium on the Iraqi population, and in the US the complaints of Gulf War veterans are multiplying. "I wasn't warned about depleted uranium, or about its possible risks," states Doug Rokke, a doctor who says that he is a victim of Gulf War Syndrome, expressed in damage to his respiratory and renal systems and vision problems.

Rokke, a member of the US Navy's preventive medicine command, was sent to the Persian Gulf in 1991 with just one mandate: make sure the troops returned home alive. He prepared soldiers to respond to possible nuclear, biological or chemical attacks. However, he says, he returned home with his own health compromised.

Serving as the Pentagon director of the depleted uranium project in 1994-1995, Rokke oversaw the clean-up of contaminated military vehicles. He says the authorities were aware of the possible health effects, but that he and his team were only provided surgical masks and gloves for protection.

The Pentagon has systematically denied the charges, and specialized agencies, including the World Health Organization, have reported not to have found significant health effects that can be attributed to the metal. During the 1991 Gulf War, acknowledged the Pentagon, depleted uranium oxides may have been inhaled by soldiers or entered their bodies through wounds.

However, a report from the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine concludes that there is little or no conclusive evidence of an association between uranium exposure and renal dysfunction or lung cancer. Available information is still insufficient, say some experts. According to the University of Maryland's Fetter, "It wasn't until 1994-1995 that they conducted medical tests of the veterans." If they had taken urine samples within 24 hours of exposure, the debate would have been resolved, he adds.

The US Defense Department concludes that depleted uranium has not caused harm to the health of Gulf War veterans, but says that those who have imbedded fragments in their bodies - difficult to remove due to their small size or the danger of the procedure itself - should be subject to ongoing medical observation.

Fetter says that of the more than 100 US soldiers who suffered direct exposure to depleted uranium, just 50 percent are alive today. Twelve years later, US troops and Iraqi civilians and soldiers alike have reason to fear the effects of the latest deployment of "silver bullets".

(Inter Press Service)
Mar 27, 2003


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