Study highlights deception over health risks of depleted uranium


Is depleted uranium, the waste product of the nuclear industry used to make tank-piercing weapons, responsible for Gulf War syndrome and Balkans syndrome?

The US Department of Defence and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation both still deny it. But in July 1990 - the month before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait - a report submitted to the US army by Science Applications International Corporation compared the merits of tungsten and depleted uranium (or DU) as armour penetrators. DU is a "lowlevel alpha radiation emitter which is linked to cancer when exposures are internal, and chemical toxicity causing kidney damage", the report said.

Following combat, it added, "the condition of the battlefield, and the long-term health risks to natives and combat veterans may become issues in the acceptability of the continued use of DU kinetic penetrators . . ." The report warned that "aerosol DU exposures to soldiers on the battlefield could be significant, with potential radiological and toxicological effects". A navy memo dated September 1990 alludes to "the hazard created from residual radiation of a spent round" and notes that "prolonged exposure could cause illness".

How can one explain that children of Gulf War veterans suffer the same birth defects as Iraqi children born in zones contaminated by DU? That the same symptoms - fatigue, depression, respiratory and kidney problems and in many cases leukaemia - affect civilians and soldiers exposed to DU in both the Gulf and the Balkans? And if DU is harmless, why is Kuwait paying private companies millions of dollars to decontaminate its battlefields? Who will pay to decontaminate Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo?

Three journalists, Martin Meissonnier, who is French, the Belgian Frederic Loore and Roger Trilling from the US, have spent two years investigating DU production, use and effects. Their conclusions - published in Paris on Monday by Robert Laffont in a book, Depleted Uranium, the Invisible War - are causing tremors in the defence establishments of the US and Britain, the only states to have used DU weapons.

THE book and a television documentary by the same journalists show the US government was at best grossly negligent and deceitful towards US nuclear workers, soldiers and the civilians of Iraq and former Yugoslavia. At worst - as stated by Paul Sullivan, the head of the National Gulf War Resource Centre - the US is guilty of knowingly contaminating parts of the Gulf and former Yugoslavia for the next 4.5 billion years.

Uranium is found in nature. Those who oppose the use of DU in weapons do so on emotional, not scientific, grounds, NATO and Pentagon spokesmen tell us. If there is no proof, most people conclude, then why worry?

But when he says that DU is a safe material, US Col Eric Daxon ignores even the study produced by his own Armed Forces Radiology Research Institute, which concluded that DU forms tumours and mutates genes in laboratory mice. "Strong evidence exists to support detailed study of potential DU carcinogenicity," the institute's study concluded.

So why did NATO only recently warn Albanian Kosovars not to let their children play on destroyed tanks? Why was a video on the dangers of DU, made in 1995 by Capt Doug Rokke of the US army, never shown? Why were US servicemen and women now suffering from Gulf War syndrome allowed to scramble over destroyed Iraqi armour taking photos? Why did their commanding officer, Gen Barry McCaffrey, wear nuclear-biological-chemical protective clothing when he visited units in the desert?

Mr Trilling admits that "there's a doubt in everybody's mind" about the exact relationship between DU and cancer, and he does not exclude the likelihood that vaccines given to soldiers, the bombing of chemical plants in Serbia and Iraq and the oil well fires in Kuwait also contributed to ailments. "DU is a terror weapon in the sense that no one really knows what it does," he says. "The Gulf veteran groups are desperate to find out. The people we talk to are half mad with terror."

The authors were among the first to report that uranium at the only three US plants which process DU was contaminated with transuranics - highly radioactive elements including plutonium. The plants were meant to process natural uranium, but in the 1950s, without notifying the workers or surrounding communities, the US Department of Energy decided to reprocess spent fuel from military nuclear reactors.

In other words, the hundreds of tonnes of DU fired in the Gulf and in the Balkans were not so "depleted" after all. It was in response to a question from Mr Trilling on January 17th that the outgoing Pentagon spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, acknowledged the plutonium contamination that independent scientists began to suspect in the early 1990s.

THE US anti-DU activist Dan Fahey sums up the Pentagon's attitude as, "Don't look, don't find". Congress ordered the Pentagon to investigate the effects of DU in 1993, but nearly eight years later it has undertaken no serious research on the inhalation of DU or the birth defects afflicting veterans' children. When Gerry Wheat, a Gulf War veteran wounded with DU shrapnel, complained of pain in his left kidney, the Veterans' Administration hospital insisted on checking his right kidney instead.

It was known from 1952 that the defoliant Agent Orange caused cancer, degenerative diseases and birth defects. Yet when Vietnam veterans suffered these afflictions, the Pentagon insisted there was no evidence they were caused by Agent Orange. Workers at Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which produced DU in Kentucky, breathed and touched carcinogenic plutonium dust for decades before the Department of Energy admitted in 1999 that the entire place was contaminated. Ten thousand Paducah workers, many of them cancer-stricken, are now suing the US government.

In Italy, Belgium and France, criticism of NATO's use of DU is growing. Yet the number of countries with DU weapons has doubled to more than 40 since Meissonier, Loore and Trilling began their research. "It's a burgeoning industry," Meissonier says. "There aren't any wars on at the moment, so why can't there be a moratorium until the scientists figure out what these weapons do?"