Five years ago, DU was used in warfare for the first time as both armor-piercing bullets and as tank armor, by the U.S. Army in Operation Desert Storm. More than 350 tons of DU fragments and particles still lie on the battlefields of the Gulf War, and depleted uranium has been documented in the bodies of some Gulf War veterans and may be present in many more. Uranium, depleted or not, is a deadly substance, and DU has been indicated as a likely factor in what has been nicknamed Gulf War Syndrome, the cluster of illnesses and birth defects affecting those veterans and their families.2
Immediately after its fiery end in March 1991, the Gulf War was hailed as a virtually bloodless victory for the U.S.; now it seems that it may take decades or generations before the actual U.S. casualty count will begin to appear - as it did with the atomic veterans (those soldiers exposed to nuclear testing and radiation by the military). Meanwhile in Iraq, states the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, `health officials have reported alarmingly high increases in rare and unknown diseases, primarily in children. Anecephaly, leukemia, carcinoma and cancers of the lung and digestive system have risen dramatically, as have late-term miscarriages and incidence of congenital disease and deformities in fetuses," which Dr. Siegwart Horst Guenther of Austria's Yellow Cross attributes to uranium contamination. Kuwait has not yet come to terms with the scope of the cleanup that will be required.3
DU is nuclear waste, and the U.S.'s testing and wartime use has spread this deadly material across the U.S., Kuwait, and Iraq. Without concerted international action, it will continue to be used in worldwide conflicts; and DU arms proliferation - fostered largely by U.S. arms sales - will continue to spread DU across the world (the Army itself admits that `the United Kingdom, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Thailand, Israel, France, and others are developing or already have DU- containing weapons systems'; and virtually every nation with nuclear energy or weapons programs has access to the material). The health and human consequences and environmental effects of continued DU use are a disaster in the making; and the costs of cleanup, compensation, and medical care could be astronomical. DU is an avoidable and unnecessary disaster, one that can be stopped now.4
Stopping DU proliferation starts with recognition of its dangers. The recent technical report Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use in the U.S. Army by the Army Environmental Policy Institute (AEPI) meant to address this issue, but it is a self-contradictory tangle of optimism, omission and occasional bald admissions. Despite these admissions, it fails to call for adequate measures for controlling and curtailing the use of this deadly substance. Radioactive Battlefields of the 1990s is a response to that report.
Because of uranium's extreme density, DU can be used to make munitions and armor of great density. The penetrators made with DU have great range and velocity, velocity that gives them an ability to penetrate most kinds of armor (including otherwise virtually impenetrable DU armor, as Gulf War friendly fire casualties demonstrated). But their battlefield effectiveness is undermined by DU's deadly qualities, qualities that cannot be contained.
DU is a highly toxic and radioactive heavy metal with pyrophoric (flammable) properties: it bursts into flames upon impact. The burning uranium then spreads into the atmosphere, creating a small-scale fallout of aerosolized uranium particles which can be inhaled or ingested from the air or by contact with contaminated materials and sites. These particles can travel anywhere that dust goes. Most readers are familiar with the postwar images of blackened, burnt-out Iraqi vehicles: many of these were DU targets (as were the 6 U.S. Abrams tanks and 15 U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicles hit by friendly fire). A survey shows that four out of five U.S. soldiers entered destroyed Iraqi vehicles, many of them DU-contaminated, but no studies have yet accounted for the degree of exposure or its possible long-term effects. 6
In April of 1995, French General Gallois remarked, `If we equip these tanks with these sorts of munitions, that means that chemical-nuclear war is morally allowable.' Radioactive and chemical weapons are internationally regarded as unacceptable, because their effects cannot be directed or contained and because they cause slow, cruel suffering and death; civilians, descendants, passersby, and allies are all likely to be victims. Although DU is used in conventional weapons systems and classified as a conventional weapon, its pervasive radioactive and chemical effects suggest this classification is inadequate and inaccurate. 7
The argument that the U.S. should have DU weaponry if others do is a dubious one, because the effects of radioactive and chemical weapons cannot be directed and contained - for example, U.S. veterans of the Gulf War are suffering from their own army's use of DU. Its international proliferation ends the U.S.'s brief advantage as the primary user of DU armaments and armor and suggests that the battlefields of the future may be more horrible than anything yet seen. To go into future battles in which DU is used may mean, for the immediate survivors, an indeterminate life sentence waiting for uranium's dire chemical and radioactive effects to appear. The DU battlefields themselves could be something new: international sacrifice areas too contaminated ever to be put to peaceful use.
The Military Toxics Project's Depleted Uranium Citizens' Network, which was able to obtain a copy of the report, finds it to be severely flawed, because its conclusions are inconsistent with its creditable scientific statements. Perhaps the most basic and crucial statements are these: `No available technology can significantly change the inherent chemical and radiological toxicity of DU. These are intrinsic properties of uranium' [from p. xxii], which answers the third point of the congressional inquiry; and `DU is a low-level radioactive waste and, therefore, must be disposed in a licensed repository' [from p. 154] which addresses the first, second, and fourth points. From these admissions alone, it is clear that DU is a deadly substance from which soldiers, the public and the environment must be protected beforehand, because no technology can afterwards adequately mitigate its effects; and that spreading it across test sites and battlefields conflicts with the disposal recommendation. Yet the report goes on, through many twists and turns of logic and optimistic assertions on military practices, to endorse the continued use of DU by the U.S. military. Finally it somewhat undermines this endorsement with calls for further research and implementation of better safety procedures.
There is no safe way to use DU, and a very basic question is why something considered to be hazardous radioactive and chemical waste in all other circumstances is considered safe in battlefield conditions. As the AEPI admits on page 78, `As much as 70 percent of a DU penetrator can be aerosolized when it strikes a tank (Fliszar et al., 1989). Aerosols containing DU oxides may contaminate the area downwind. DU fragments may also contaminate the soil around the struck vehicle.' DU munitions aerosolize when used, DU tank armor can aerosolize when struck, and there are many paths by which the resulting particles may enter the body - by inhalation, ingestion, or through open wounds. On page 101, the AEPI also concedes, `If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences. The risks associated with DU in the body are both chemical and radiological.....' Once inside the human body, uranium particles tend to stay, causing illnesses such as lung cancer and kidney disease that often take decades to manifest. According to pioneering radiation biomedical researcher Dr. J. W. Gofman, particles of uranium smaller than 5 micron in diameter can become permanently trapped in the lungs. Leonard A. Dietz, former Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory scientist has estimated that a trapped, single uranium oxide particle of this size can expose the surrounding lung tissue to approximately 1,360 rem per year. This is 8,000 times the annual radiation dosage permitted by federal regulations for whole body exposure to the general public. Particles not trapped in the respiratory system may be ingested and find their way into the kidneys and reproductive organs.10
One thing the report does make clear is that the DU exposure of most Gulf War veterans has not been taken seriously, documented, or studied, although the Army's own admissions suggests hundreds of thousands of soldiers and citizens may be at risk from having internalized DU. Only the small minority with actual DU shrapnel in their bodies is currently being studied for DU effects (DU bullets killed 35 U.S. soldiers and wounded 72 - 22 of whom have embedded DU fragments). However, DU is equally toxic and radioactive when it enters the body by other avenues, such as inhalation and ingestion. Potential risks for medical personnel treating contaminated soldiers, for cleanup crews and for civilian populations who come or return to the DU battlefield regions are completely overlooked, as are risks at other points in the weapons production, use, and disposal cycle. In 1980, workers at a Jonesboro, Tennessee plant, which manufactures DU penetrators, had the highest radiation exposures of any nuclear workers in the nation. One DU manufacturer, National Lead Industries of New York, was forced to shut down in 1980 because their emissions exceeded 150 micro-curies (385 grams) in a given month. Leonard Dietz, in a letter to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, asked `If New York State authorities were concerned about the release each month of radiation equivalent to the particles from one or two uranium projectiles, why isn't the U.S. government concerned about the effects of tens of thousands of projectiles being fired in a few days of war?' Citizens Research and Environmental Watch (CREW), a Concord, Massachusetts grassroots organization concerned about local DU munitions manufacturer Nuclear Metals, Inc., had soil samples from six Concord locations analyzed. The tests found uranium levels up to 18 times background levels and as far as nine-tenths of a mile away from the plant. It is urgent that assessment and appropriate medical treatment begin for everyone exposed by any of these avenues.11
Despite such omissions, the AEPI report is most useful as a document of some of the existing dangers and poor practices. Among them are:
The authors of the DU report themselves sometimes indulge in baseless assertions and sometimes acknowledge they do so, as in this astounding statement from page 4: `The potential for health effects from exposure to DU is real; however it must be viewed in perspective. It is unlikely that any of the DU exposure scenarios described in this report will significantly affect the health of most personnel. In several areas, neither the scientific community nor the army have adequate medical or exposure information to defend this assertion.'
- Page 89. `A large number of DU rounds used in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm were destroyed during a fire at an ammunition depot.' The depot is actually the Doha base used by the U.S. Army in Kuwait; no information is provided on whether any measures were taken to minimize exposure, what the exposure may have been, how many rounds were burned, and other crucial aspects of this underemphasized disaster. Independent information suggests no significant cleanup was made a year later. Nor has the overwhelming task of cleaning up the Gulf War battlefields been addressed by this report, except to point out the U.S. is not legally obliged to do so, on page 83, and in a comment a page later, `It does not appear that Kuwait has addressed the long-term management of hazardous and radioactive materials in captured vehicles.' 13
- On page 26, comes this information: `More than fifty current and former sites have been involved in the production, manufacture, development, testing and storage of DU for various DoD [Department of Defense] uses.' Cleanup of domestic DU test sites - which include Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana, Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland - has not yet begun and would require extensive measures: page 67 `The Army has never decontaminated or decommissioned soft-target impact areas at its test centers.'; and page 72 `First, NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] allows the Army to bury low concentrations of DU with no restrictions on burial method.'; and page 73, `Alternatively, NRC allows the Army to dispose of low concentrations of DU by burying them under prescribed conditions so that no subsequent land use restrictions and no continuing NRC licensing of the material are required.'
Thousands of acres of U.S. bases that house these firing ranges are contaminated, and in the executive summary comes this admission [p. A-9]: `At Aberdeen, localized soil contamination was discovered at depths of 20 centimeters (7.9 inches) below a penetrator corroding on the soil surface. This suggested that DU can become soluble and migrate....'
The report makes it clear that real cleanup will be enormously expensive, requiring disposal of vast quantities of contaminated soil, in some cases it may be impossible, and it has not yet begun. The recommendation cited above, that DU be recognized as radioactive waste and appropriately disposed of, conflicts with all these practices. The few low-level waste dumps in the U.S. are already overwhelmed, and adding to the material waiting for disposal seems, to say the least, unwise.
1: Pursue an international agreement to ban all weapons containing DU.
2: Issue appropriate radiation clothing to soldiers and workers who are exposed to the possible inhalation or ingestion of DU oxide particles during production, testing, training, or wartime exercises until all weapons containing DU are banned.
3: Research and develop safe and effective cleanup methods for contaminated sites.
4: Request President Clinton join in the call for a Blue Ribbon White House Commission to Review All Radioactive Waste Programs and Policies.
5: Conduct independent health studies of Persian Gulf War veterans that determine the toxic and radiological effects of exposure to DU and explain how these effects are distinct from Gulf War Syndrome. Examine the soldiers and civilians who were in locations where they could have been exposed to DU (e.g., soldiers or civilians within a radius of 25 miles of the DU ammunition fire in Doha, Kuwait, should have urinalysis and in vivo whole-body gamma counting tests for DU). Furthermore an epidemiological study of veterans who ingested a significant quantity of DU and of their families should be done. This should be done not only for discharged veterans, but for those on active duty as well. Additionally, their children conceived and born after the Gulf War should be examined for evidence of radiation-induced genetic damage. Health studies should also include military and civilian personnel at or near DU manufacturing sites and DU test sites across the United States.
6: Establish a peer review committee of leading radiation health experts from the civilian sector that would act as a `Citizens' Watchdog Authority' over the U.S. Army, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute on all studies on those who may have been exposed to DU contamination. Such a peer review committee could ensure that appropriate rules of research are applied, that the studies are free from bias, and that they fully account for the latency periods of the radiological health effects of DU in the human body. The studies should be conducted over the lifespan of each affected person.
Contributors: Pat Broudy, Grace Bukowski, Leonard Dietz, Dan Fahey, John Paul Hasko, Cathy Hinds, Damacio Lopez, Dolly Lymburner, Arjun Makhijani, Richard Ochs, Laura Olah, Coy Overstreet, Charles Sheehan Miles, Judy Scotnicki
Cover photo: Charles Sheehan Miles
Design: Nikki Fortunato Bas
For more information or to order additional copies of this report ($5 each), please contact:
Dolly Lymburner, Military Toxics Project , 60 Pine St. Suite 2, Lewiston, ME 04240, USA, Tel. +1-207-783-5091, Fax: +1-207-783-5096, , Email: email@example.com
(c) 1996 Military Toxics Project / Tides Foundation
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