|'Silver bullets' that kill, and kill
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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".