Depleted Uranium Used in Gulf War Produces Health Disaster


“Metal of Dishonor-Depleted Uranium. How the Pentagon Radiates Soldiers and Civilians with DU Weapons.” International Action Center, New York, 1997. 238 pp. $12.95.

During four days in December 1998, the U.S. military forces fired at least 400 cruise missiles in Iraq. During the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. military forces fired 285 cruise missiles at Iraqi targets.

In addition to the physical destruction these missiles caused, they carried still another kind of destruction to the Iraqi people: Cruise missiles carry radioactive “depleted uranium.”

Depleted uranium (DU) is the uranium isotope U-238. It is the waste left over after the fissionable uranium-235 used in nuclear weapons and reactors has been extracted from natural uranium through the uranium enrichment process.

U-238 decays into other radioactive elements emitting alpha, beta, and gamma radiation-which induce genetic mutations, cellular damage, or death. Mutation of regulatory cells can cause cancer years after initial exposure, and the mutation of the reproduction cells can cause birth defects in offspring.

DU has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, making it dangerous to humanity forever. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has more than half a million tons of this radioactive debris after 50 years of nuclear weapons production.

Because of its density and heavy weight, DU was found useful for military purposes. Experiments showed that ammunition with a DU penetrator could pierce conventional tank armor and that tanks made from alloys employing DU could not be damaged by conventional bullets.

U-238 had another advantage for arms manufacturers: it was available from the DoD in large quantities and, evidently, free of charge.

Doctors and scientists document the disaster

“Metal of Dishonor” is a collection of essays and speeches by eminent scientists, medical experts, veterans and veteran advocates, and social activists-including former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, noted Australian anti-nuclear physician and activist Helen Caldicott, physicist Leonard A. Dietz, and nuclear physicist Michio Kaku.

The book documents the human disasters that have already resulted from the proliferation of DU in war materiel used in Iraq during the six-week U.S. onslaught of Jan. 17-March 2, 1991, particularly during the final days of the land assault against retreating Iraqi forces.

For example, one U.S. Air Force A-10 plane fired DU-tipped bullets at a rate of 4200 per minute against Iraqi targets, firing a total of nearly one million 30mm DU rounds in the course of these air strikes. (p. 73)

Expert estimations of the quantity of radioactive debris now contaminating Iraq as a result of these attacks range from 300 to 800 tons. (p. 145) This contamination is partially in the form of empty cartridge shells scattered across the embattled areas of Iraq and Kuwait.

In addition, because U-238 is highly “pyrophoric,” a DU-penetrator on a missile or ammunition readily vaporizes into radioactive aerosol particles of uranium oxide when it pierces armor. DU metals also vaporize rapidly in fires. The particles thus created can be ingested and inhaled or they can contaminate the land and water supply for miles around. (p. 136)

The DU penetrator rounds proved highly effective against Iraqi targets, destroying approximately one-third of the 3700 tanks Iraq lost during the war, along with thousands of Iraqi artillery pieces, vehicles, and other equipment. Meanwhile, during the 100-hour ground war, only seven DU-armored U.S. M1A1 Abrams tanks were hit by Iraqi tank fire and none was seriously damaged.

However, this is not to say that the U.S. forces suffered no casualties. The U.S. tank crews inside the DU-armored tanks may have had little to fear from Iraqi fire but they had a lot to fear from their own armor and the ammunition they carried. Tank crews were being continually irradiated by their own armor and DU rounds during the months many of them lived with their tanks.

In addition, U.S. troops in the vicinity of Iraqi targets destroyed by DU rounds or of the massive fire at the U.S. base in Doha, Kuwait, in July 1991, or those involved in recovering dozens of contaminated vehicles hit by “friendly fire” received excessive radiation exposure.

It was not only the Iraqis who were totally unaware of the massive radioactive contamination the U.S. forces were delivering. The U.S. troops were also unaware of the dangers the DU reinforced weaponry posed.

The Army issued no warnings or protective gear to the troops because, according to a U.S. government report, the “Army officials believe that DU protective methods can be ignored during battle and other life-threatening situations because DU-related health risks are greatly outweighed by the risks of combat.” (p. 208)

“A chain of death”

What was the impact on Iraq? In August 1995, Dr. Helen Caldicott states, “Iraq presented a study to the United Nations demonstrating a sharp increase in leukemia and cancer incidence in the Basra region [in the south] and a secret British Atomic Energy Authority report estimated that there was enough depleted uranium in the form of empty shells in the area to account for 500,000 potential deaths.”(p. 19)*

The contribution to the collection by Dr. Barbara Nimri Aziz provides grim testimony. Dr. Nimri Aziz toured agricultural areas and witnessed the “chain of death created by the Gulf War.”

Agriculture is in shambles; the economic sanctions prevent the importation of necessary seeds, fertilizers, and weedkillers. The bombing destroyed the infrastructure and factories producing necessary products; it also caused millions of liters of chemical pollutants to leak into the environment and atmosphere from bombed industrial plants.

The bombardment of more than 380 oil wells caused toxic fumes and acid rain. Farm animals and fowl too are dying, their numbers now only a small fraction of their pre-1991 levels.

What about the people? Dr. Nimri Aziz spoke to a farmer from a small farm around Baghdad. He remarked that marriages were fewer now. “‘Why?’ I asked. The answer was straightforward. ‘Young people fear the birth of malformed fetuses and still births.’

“With the help of several farmers and the local schoolteacher, I took an ad hoc survey. They had 160 houses here, and among these they counted 20 where malformed babies had been born. My hosts noted many spontaneous abortions, but we did not include these.

“The Iraqi Ministry of Health could not provide me with any statistics about this development. But my inquiries at five hospitals (in Mosul, Baghdad, and Karbala) revealed that the number of abnormal births recorded in hospitals had dramatically increased.

“Recalling their personal experiences, all doctors with whom I spoke estimate they see 10 times more such births today than five years ago.

“One doctor in Mosul said she saw two cases a year before 1991; she now sees four or five cases a month. The symptoms? ‘Babies born without ears, without eyes, without limbs or with foreshortened limbs, without formed genitalia, with cleft palate, club foot, enlarged heads.'” (pp. 162-3)

Prior to 1991, Iraq had one of the most advanced health care systems in the Middle East: 97 percent of all urban and 70 percent of rural Iraqis had access to modern health care facilities. (World Information Service on Energy, December 1998.)

The U.S.-led military massacre and seven years of economic sanctions have destroyed this system while the need for it has increased in geometric proportions. Iraqi medical personnel lack all the basic supplies and equipment necessary to care for the ill and dying.

The “Gulf War Syndrome”

It is very likely that many of the 45,000-90,000 veterans of the U.S.- led 1991 war against Iraq suffering from the “Gulf War Syndrome” were victims of this radioactive material. The U.S. government and Pentagon authorities were well aware of the dangers DU posed to the Iraqis as well as to the U.S. and coalition troops in the Gulf region.

A report to the U.S. government by a well-established military contractor six months before Desert Storm said:

“Our conclusions regarding the health and environmental acceptability of DU penetrators assume both controlled use and the presence of excellent health physics management practices….

“Combat conditions will lead to the uncontrolled release of DU … the aerosol DU exposures to soldiers on the battlefield could be significant with potential radiological and toxicological efforts … that would be unacceptable during peacetime conditions.” (p. 207)

Yet despite broad publicity about the problem, it was only under pressure from ailing veterans that the U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute released the “Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use in the U.S. Army: Technical Report” in June 1995 admitting that “No available technology can significantly change the inherent chemical and radiological toxicity of DU. These are intrinsic properties of uranium … DU is a low-level radioactive waste….” (p. 205)

The collection includes an account by Carol H. Picou, a 17-year U.S. Army veteran who served in the 41st Combat Support Hospital during the Gulf War of 1991.

For 15 days, she accompanied the U.S.-led coalition troops in the land invasion up the “highway of death” littered with the destroyed vehicles, bunkers, and bodies of the Iraqi forces who were massacred as they tried to retreat. Unaware of the DU contamination of the area, she and the other U.S. and coalition forces wore no protective gear of any kind.

Even before she left Iraq, Carol noticed black specks all over her body and that her health was deteriorating. Later, when her efforts to obtain a valid diagnosis from U.S. military doctors failed, she went public with her concern and found herself threatened with dismissal from the armed forces.

It was not until she got in contact with atomic veterans and non-governmental health experts that she learned about DU and realized she was suffering from DU contamination. Tests for uranium in her body turned up positive.

“This weapon is scary. To look at me you would think there is nothing wrong with me,” she told an audience at a forum in New York in 1996. “But it’s a false impression. My husband writes my speeches for me … I have long-term/short-term memory deficit. I have toxic encephalopathy-a disease of the brain. I have developed thyroid deterioration. … I have developed skin burns that used to be a rash and … I’m filled with blisters”

“I have developed suspicious … cancerous cells of the uterus…my muscles have deteriorated. … I have no control over my bowels or my bladder at all any more. The army issued me diapers and said that I could catheterize myself for the rest of my life.” As a result of their efforts to seek and publicize the truth, both she and her husband were discharged from the U.S. Army.

A Veterans Administration study of 251 Gulf War veterans in Mississippi found that 67 percent of their children conceived and born since the war “are afflicted with illnesses rated severe or have birth defects including missing eyes and ears, blood infections, respiratory problems and fused fingers.”

The U.S. government also concealed from the troops sent to the Gulf in 1990-91 the dangers of the anti-anthrax vaccine, the anti-nerve-gas pill, and other drugs that were administered to them, some of which were untested. These substances are undoubtedly also responsible for the suffering and crippled lives of many Gulf War veterans and their families.

However, investigators for the British newspaper, The Guardian, like the contributors to “Metal of Dishonor,” conclude that “radiation from depleted uranium rounds remains the most plausible explanation,” for “the genetic plague” that is wreaking havoc on the Iraqi people.

The Guardian reporter Maggie O’Kane described one of the contaminated regions today: “Two hours south of the southern Iraqi city of Basra, the road comes to an abrupt stop at a fence of barbed wire some eight meters high. This is the controlled zone, a graveyard of rusting Iraqi tanks riddled with bullets and abandoned there since the war.”

“Using simple radiation Geiger counters,” she went on, “we measured high levels of radiation in the destroyed tanks and in the desert that surrounded them. The source of the radiation was a substance that had never been used in the battlefield before the Gulf war. Iraq became the laboratory for an untested and unknown material-DU.” (Dec. 21, 1998)

What can be done?

A broad coalition should be formed in the United States consisting of labor, religious, human rights, student, scientific, medical, and veterans organizations united around this issue and building on the work done by the International Action Center and all who have assisted it with publication of this material.

This coalition could lead the way in sponsoring educational projects exposing the barbaric actions that have been carried out by the U.S. government against the Iraqi people, as well as organizing public protests calling on the government to stop its aggression against the people of Iraq: end the military attacks, lift the economic sanctions, and allow the Iraqi people self-determination.

The U.S. government should be compelled to take billions of dollars from the military budget to clean up the radioactive mess it created in Iraq and to provide the Iraqi people with the funds needed to entirely rebuild their destroyed country.

The coalition should force the U.S. government to immediately stop the production and proliferation of depleted uranium (it is also used as a counterweight in the Boeing 747 aircraft). Scientists must also find a way to store this material to prevent it from causing sickness, birth deformities and death to our generation and generations to come.

*Iraq had a population of around 16 million. Roughly 100,000 Iraqis troops were killed by the U.S.-led forces during Desert Storm; more than 300,000 were wounded, of which 90,000 soon died. More than 250,000 Iraqi civilians died from February-August 1991 as a result of the war, nearly 50,000 of them children.

Some 1.5 million Iraqis have died since then as a direct result of the U.S.-U.N. imposed economic sanctions, according to human rights sources who have visited Iraq. The U.S. deaths numbered less than 250, a large percentage of which died from “friendly fire.”

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