This article was last modified on August 22, 2008.


Empire Strikes First: Iraq and Bosnia

War is a dirty business. Even the shortest, least bloody conflicts have lasting consequences: economic hardships, psychological damage and other reminders to our communities that some scars take longer than others to heal. We have not forgotten the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam, a once-claimed benign defoliation chemical that created a variety of medical issues.

Today’s generation may be facing a new Agent Orange: depleted uranium (DU), a radioactive substance used for bullets during the Gulf War and Bosnian conflict of the 1990s, as well as in Iraq today. What health effects may arise from its use is still debated, but despite serious concerns we continue to use the material.

DU is used for armor-piercing bullets and sheets of tank armor because of its extreme density, almost twice that of lead. For bullets, this means a smaller uranium bullet can have the same impact as a larger lead bullet, with the advantage of less wind resistance. DU is also inexpensive due to its essentially being a waste product. Tungsten is used in some bullets, most notably all U.S. Navy armaments since 1993, but costs more and must be imported from China. Currently, uranium bullets can most commonly be found in the Apache helicopter and the Abrams tank.

Depleted uranium hasn’t entered the public’s awareness until the past decade, but there is nothing new about it. The bullets had been tested on a firing range in Hawaii as far back as the 1960s, where they were left to contaminate the surrounding soil. Similar tests and contamination followed in the 1980s at the Jefferson Proving Ground in Madison, Indiana.

By the 1970s, DU was being used in American bullets in order to penetrate the hulls of Soviet tanks. Britain, France and the Soviet Union would quickly follow suit. The Russian military began using DU ammunition in tank ammunition since the late 1970s, and has not ceased, to my knowledge.

The American military started using DU shells on a larger scale during the 1991 Gulf War, and continued to use them through the Bosnian war, Serbian bombing and the ongoing Iraq War. The extent of our presence in these countries can be measured by the radioactive waste we’ve left behind. The first Gulf War had over 387 tons of uranium waste, according to Wisconsin-based watchdog group NukeWatch. Estimates put the current Iraq conflict’s waste at 275 tons and growing. The Balkans engagements, while much smaller, still produced over 13 tons of contaminants.

DU was also used in the mid-1990s in American military manufacturing to make grenades, cluster bombs and mines, but manufacturer Alliant Systems says they have stopped production.

Carla Del Ponte, a chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, said in 2001 that the use of depleted uranium by NATO, including America, in Yugoslavia may be investigated as a war crime. Charges were never brought, however, due to there being “no specific treaty ban” despite “a developing scientific debate and concern expressed regarding the impact of the use of such projectiles”.

Ronald Hardy, co-chair of the Wisconsin Green Party, calls use of depleted uranium “an abomination”, telling me that “we have soldiers returning from Iraq testing positive for exposure to depleted uranium … this is irresponsible and immoral.” Uranium is especially dangerous when used in projectiles because it pulverizes into dust on impact, which can be inhaled. DU also splinters, increasing chances of radioactive shrapnel being embedded under the skin.

The actual health risks are debated, with some advocates denying any serious concerns while others consider this to be a virtual pandemic. The truth, as is often the case, seems to be somewhere between the two extremes.

According to current studies cancer risks seem minimal, with one in 2001 determining that “DU exposure to humans… is very unlikely to give rise to cancer induction”. Likewise, the Rand Corporation says that there is no risk of “cancer or any other negative health effect related to the radiation received from exposure to depleted or natural uranium, whether inhaled or ingested, even at very high doses,” despite this claim going against common sense.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says that DU is not likely to cause cancer in humans, but has not discounted other potential side effects. As a “heavy metal”, uranium is naturally poisonous, and inhalation or ingestion of the substance could lead to kidney damage or failure.

George Robertson, former Secretary-General of NATO has said that “the existing medical consensus is clear. The hazard from depleted uranium is both very limited, and limited to very specific circumstances”. But he may be understating the facts.

Studies of lab rats show a probable link between DU and numerous abnormalities: cancer, birth defects and mental disorders. Depleted uranium has also been linked to “Gulf War Syndrome”, both in American and British soldiers. Soldiers from the 1991 war are more likely to develop chronic pain, fatigue and memory loss — such symptoms have been reported in over one quarter of veterans who saw combat.

The primary risk with DU seems to be with an exposed person’s children. A report in 2005 concluded “the human epidemiological evidence is consistent with increased risk of birth defects in offspring of persons exposed to DU.” Representative Jim McDermott of Washington has spoken out about witnessing increased birth defects in Iraqi hospitals, which he attributes to DU.

Veterans of the conflicts featuring uranium weapons have been shown to have as much as fourteen times the normal level of chromosome mutations, which are passed on to offspring. One study of 30,000 veterans found uranium-exposed soldiers to be two to three times more likely to have children with defects than those who were not exposed.

Many legislators have looked in the issue of DU and have made important steps towards reducing or eliminating the risks involved with its use.

State Representative Tom Nelson of Kaukauna authored a bill to help train soldiers about DU contamination, which he believes leads to “life-threatening medical symptoms”. The bill aimed to provide soldiers with “information about the health risks of exposure, the test used to detect exposure, the treatments offered, and the federal VA benefits available to affected veterans.” Nelson was unable to return calls for comment.

Jim McDermott has been the strongest critic of depleted uranium, and passed an amendment calling for its study in 2006. As McDermott says, “If DU poses no danger, we need to prove it with statistically valid, and independent scientific studies. If DU harms our soldiers, we all need to know it, and act quickly as any doctor would, to use all of our power to heal the sick. We owe our soldiers a full measure of the truth, wherever that leads us.”

Ronald Hardy informs me that “Green Party Presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney had sponsored legislation in Congress to end the use of all depleted uranium weapons until their health effects are known”, and the European Union — with exceptions of France and the UK — has passed resolutions demanding a moratorium on use.

This latter attitude is the only responsible way to approach the issue of DU; reducing both soldier and civilian deaths should always be a top priority. Do not hesitate to contact your state or federal representative and ask them their position on DU and make sure they have our soldiers’ best interests in mind.

Update Poland: Last month, I discussed a proposed missile defense shield in Poland. In August, the agreement became official, signifying Poland’s response to Russia’s intervention in Georgia. Georgia, with American support, militarily attacked its own people in the region of South Ossetia. Some have condemned Russia — rightly — for attacking a democratic nation, though there’s something not so “democratic” about Georgian leader jailing his political opponents and striking his own citizens. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but it’s pure hypocrisy for the American government and media to condemn Russia while supporting Georgia.

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