Depleted Uranium (DU) is a derivative of the uranium used in nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs. It is used to make explosive steel casing that is twice as dense as iron and thus able to penetrate thicker layers of armor plating and concrete bunker walls. First used in the 1991 Gulf War the U.S. military dropped some 340 tons of depleted uranium (DU) projectiles on targets in Iraq and Kuwait.
They were aimed at underground bunkers where Saddam Hussein and his military leadership were thought to be hiding. Later they were used in Afghanistan in the Tora Bora mountain range where it was suspected that Osama bin Laden had concealed himself in deep caves. To date it is estimated that 1,000 tons have been used in Afghanistan and more than 3,000 tons in Iraq.
The environmental impact of this DU shell casing is long-term and deadly. For humans who wound up ingesting the dust-like particulate matter after the projectile explodes, either through breathing it in or consuming it through contaminated food and water, the health consequences can be swift and severe or drawn out slowly over years. Unlike the uranium that is used in atomic and nuclear bombs, similar to those dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and explode as a fission or fusion reaction, depleted uranium doesn’t burn up rapidly or convert to a form that dissipates in a few weeks, months or years.
DU is not found in nature. It is uranium composed of the isotope uranium-238. Irving Wesley Hall who has written extensively on this topic says that “all of our bodies contain tiny amounts of natural uranium because it is found in water and in the food supply. But natural uranium is quickly and harmlessly excreted by the body. However the velocity and heat of the impact of DU munitions convert the poisonous uranium oxide from a heavy metal into a ceramic heavy metal that makes it insoluble and therefore difficult to excrete.” (Depleted Uranium for Dummies: The Most Toxic Battle In Western Military History by Irving Wesley Hall)
The effects on civilians and military personnel – Iraqi and U.S. – were and are catastrophic. After exploding, these DU bombs would disperse uranium isotopes into the air and anyone in the area or downwind from it would likely ingest this deadly element. According to Leonard Dietz, a retired physicist from the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in upstate New York, “”Anybody, civilian or soldier, who breathes these particles has a permanent dose, and it’s not going to decrease very much over time. . .In the long run. . .veterans exposed to ceramic uranium oxide have a major problem.”
The DU dust particles are not a serious health threat as long as they remain outside the body. But much of this radioactive material will be ingested as construction crews clear bomb damaged areas inflicted during both Gulf Wars. Most Iraqis were uninformed of this threat and didn’t take the necessary precautions from inhaling DU dust or protecting food and water sources that were contaminated. Iraqi civilian populations will forever be exposed to this toxic element that has a physical half life of 4.468 billion years.
Impact areas where these munitions exploded have contaminated the environs around them. Wildlife that ingests food sources from DU contaminated soils is harmed. As this gets into the food chain it carries over to the human population, if they haven’t already been infected directly. “Radioactive contamination of the environment by DU would remain almost indefinitely, producing Hibakusha among the residents in the area over the generations” says Dr. Katsuma Yagasaki, Dr. of Science at Japan’s University of the Ryukyus, who authored a study on the effects of DU shell casing in Iraq. “Hibakusha” is a Japanese term that describes a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki in 1945
Our own military personnel were exposed to this toxic chemical and some studies have revealed that Gulf War related illnesses such as leukemia and kidney failure are likely attributable to DU exposure. The Military has surprisingly not kept detailed records on the use, times and locations that DU weapons were used. The final number of DU related illnesses and deaths may never be fully known as a result.
Investigation by the U.S. Defense Department, the World Health Organization and agencies from the European Community have conveyed that they have found no relationship between DU and the high rates of cancer for Iraqi civilians following both Gulf Wars. Yet a senior radiation advisor to the World Health Organization, Dr Keith Baverstock, holds a conflicting view saying that, “the radiation and the chemical toxicity of DU could … act together to create a ‘cocktail effect’ that further increases the risk of cancer.”
In his article on the subject, Irving Hall reports that “Geologist Leuren Moret, an independent scientist and internationally recognized expert on radiation, DU, and public health … estimates that ‘one millionth of a gram [of depleted uranium] accumulating in a person’s body would be fatal.’ She further state that there “are no known methods of treatment” for this. It is felt by many, like Dr. Yagasaki, that the users of this lethal substance are intent to “cover up the facts about the damage caused by DU and the responsibility for the use of
Because DU munitions are unlike nuclear weapons the radioactive components of a DU projectile will remain in the environment for multiple lifetimes. A culture which includes not only people but plants and wildlife will forever be exposed to this radiation. The quality of life will change forever for them and their children’s grandchildren’s grandchildren. The U.S. military’s need to utilize a weapon to seek out a sheltered Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden not only failed in their mission but exposed its own troops and hundreds of thousands of Afghanistan and Iraqi men, women and children to a lifetime of ill-health and premature death.
One would hope that in future combat engagements such weapons would never be used unless there was an “imminent threat” to our national security. Such willingness to use a deadly weapon without considering the long term environmental consequences is a failure of leadership when America’s image has already suffered from taking preemptive actions on foreign soil that many now consider short-sighted and unnecessary.
Depleted Uranium for Dummies: The Most Toxic Battle In Western Military History
Depleted Uranium Shells, The Radioactive Weapons: Perpetuation of War Damage by Radiation