Your Earth - Friday, January 24th, 2003
by Suzanne Elston
As the world prepares for another war in Iraq, I am reminded of the legacy of war that already remains in that country, and so many other countries recently engaged in conflict. Depleted uranium munitions were first used extensively in the last Gulf War, and have since been deployed in other areas of conflict including Bosnia, Herzegovina, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Depleted uranium (DU) is a waste by-product of nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants that is created when uranium is enriched. Every eight tons of uranium that is processed produces one ton of enriched uranium and seven tons of DU. It is estimated that there is currently three quarters of a million tons of DU stockpiled.
The U.S. military has come up with a creative way to recycle all that leftover radioactive waste. DU is used in weapons because it's cheap and has been made available to arms manufacturers free-of-charge. It's also heavy (1.7 times the density of lead) and it ignites and burns when it hits a hard target. This property makes it self-sharpening, allowing it to readily penetrate heavy armor. DU is also used for defense as protective armor on military vehicles and on the cladding of some commercial planes.
Despite the military's assurances that it's a safe weapon, there is increasing evidence that it causes great harm. DU is both a toxic heavy metal and a radiological poison. It is strongly suspected as a cause of the Gulf War Syndrome, a still-mysterious assortment of severe health problems that affects tens of thousands of soldiers from many nations.
Concerns about the health effects of DU have motivated a coalition of U.S. congressmen to introduce Bill HR 3155 in the U.S. House of Representatives in October 2001. The purpose of the bill is, "To require the suspension of the use, sale, development, production, testing, and export of depleted uranium munitions pending the outcome of certain studies of the health effects of such munitions, and for other purposes." Unfortunately the bill is currently somewhere in political limbo land.
The problem with DU is that it vaporizes when it hits a target, creating a fine spray that is easily inhaled by humans and in some cases lodges deep into the lungs. Once released, DU particles are easily spread by the wind and can be re- suspended by modest breezes, and then carried on vehicles and the clothing of military personnel. There is evidence to suggest that DU can travel great distances and thereby affect civilian populations as well.
According to Malcolm Hooper PhD, medical advisor to the Uranium Medical Research Center, "Whilst some of the DU is soluble, the majority in the form of other oxides is insoluble and remains in the body for years. Once in the body, DU slowly spreads from the lungs, mainly into the lymph nodes and bone. Excretion from the body is very slow."
British journalist and writer Felicity Arbuthnot reports the effects of DU are killing innocent children in Iraq and other countries where these weapons have been used. In an address dedicated to the Children of Iraq on December 28th, 2002, at St Martin's in the Fields Church, London, she said, "Basra ...has an unimaginable childhood cancer and leukemia rate and birth deformities equally unique, which have been linked to the depleted uranium weapons (DU) used by the US and UK, during the Gulf war. The chemically toxic and radioactive DU dust which has entered the water table and fauna and flora in Iraq, former Yugoslavia and now Afghanistan will still be polluting our earth when the sun goes out: it has a half life of four and a half billion years."
That's a very, very long time.
WEBSITES OF THE WEEK:
For more information about depleted uranium, visit Uranium Medical Research Centre (UMRC) at www.umrc.net
For more information on Bill HR 3155, visit thomas.loc.gov
For more on the health effects of DU on Gulf War veterans, visit National Gulf War Resource Center, Inc. at www.ngwrc.org
Research conducted by The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has found that DU can pose long-term risks, both airborne and waterborne, in former battlefield areas once again used by residents. Visit www.unep.org
The World Health Organization acknowledges some health and environmental impacts of depleted uranium and is calling for more research: Go to www.who.int
Suzanne Elston is a Canadian columnist. Her work can be found weekly in The Belleville Intelligencer, The Niagara Falls Review, The Western Catholic Reporter and online at www.straightgoods.com