Depleted uranium

It’s dirty, and it’s deadly. When you coat a shell with it, it slices through armored plating as if it was cheese, turning tanks, buildings and bomb shelters into exploding incinerators. It causes cancer among people who breathe its dust, or touch it. It causes horrible birth defects among the babies of pregnant women who breathe it or touch it. It causes a host of chronic ailments and sicknesses among returning troops.

It was used by the U.S. army in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. The United Nations wants a worldwide ban on it. The U.S. plans to use it again, in its war on Iraq.

What is it? It’s a waste product that arises during the production of enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and reactors. It’s called depleted uranium.

It has a radioactive half-life of 4.5 billion years. The earth is 4.5 billion years old. This means that the cities, battlefields, and locations where depleted uranium is used will be radioactive and remain radioactive for the next 4.5 billion years.

That’s as long as the earth has existed. That’s twice as long as the entire evolution of life on Earth. Seventy times longer than the time since the dinosaurs became extinct.

Depleted uranium is extremely dense; that’s what makes it capable of slicing into heavily armored vehicles. That’s why the American military likes it.

In the Gulf War, in 1991, the U.S. army fired off a million rounds of depleted uranium, totalling 300 tons. In Baghdad, where they thought they were attacking a secret bunker, they sliced into it with depleted uranium and incinerated 800 women and children who were hiding in a shelter. Along the “highway of death,” outside Basra, in southern Iraq, they incinerated every tank, every soldier.

Along that road, the shell-holes in the blown-up tanks are 1,000 times more radioactive than the background. The desert near the vehicles is 100 times more radioactive.

Seventy percent of the uranium burns on impact, turning into a fine ceramic dust of depleted uranium oxide particles which gets blown on the wind, and washed into the groundwater. In the Basra region, there has been a 100-fold increase in uranium in the groundwater.

And then there’s the birth defects. Children born with fingers missing. Children born with legs missing. Children born with parts of their face missing. Children born with their eyes missing. Children born with grossly deformed skulls. Children born with enormous distended bellies. Children born with no hands. Children born with no genitals. Children born with no skin over their bellies. Children born with open holes in their backs.

Children born whose bodies are beyond words, in their pitiful awfulness.

There has been a ten-fold increase in such birth defects in the Basra region since 1988. I have seen the photos of these children. You can see them for yourself at www.ngwrc.org/Dulink/du_link.htm. But be warned – these photos are not for the squeamish, and may give some people nightmares.

There has also been a 17-fold increase in cancer in southern Iraq since 1988, and a sudden increase in childhood leukemia.

That was Iraq. Then there was Afghanistan.

The data is still sketchy, but tests on residents in Jalalabad have found a level of uranium in the urine of residents that is 400 to 2,000 percent higher than normal. The contamination is also present in Kabul.

A scientific team from the Uranium Medical Research Centre that went to Kabul in September 2002 found that people who had been exposed to debris from the U.S./British precision bombing were reporting pains in their joints, back and kidney pain, muscle weakness, memory problems, confusion and disorientation. Members of the team began to complain of the same symptoms. They found that 25 percent of newborn infants were suffering from congenital and post-natal health problems that appeared to be associated with uranium contamination.

So what happened to the U.S. and British troops who were exposed to the same dust? It’s hard to sort out, because the troops who served in the Gulf were exposed to a cocktail of injections and chemical and biological hazards, as well as depleted uranium. But the symptoms are telling.

There were 700,000 U.S. troops who served in the Gulf War in 1991. Fifty percent were Black or Latino. Many were women. Of the troops, 260,000 have applied for medical benefits; 159,000 have been awarded disability allowances.

Many are probably on low incomes, and cannot afford expensive medical insurance.

They call it Gulf War Syndrome; nobody in the military wants to talk about it. The returning troops are suffering from reactive airway disease; neurological damage; cataracts; kidney problems; lymphoma; skin and organ cancer; neuropsychological problems; uranium in their semen; sexual dysfunction; and birth defects in their offspring. Birth defects are turning up four times more often in the children of those who served in the Gulf than normal.

That was Afghanistan. Now a new war on Iraq looms.

A new round of death. A new nightmare.

Unless we stand together, work together, pray together, and call out together to stop it, and to outlaw depleted uranium forever, as the United Nations has recommended.

Four and a half billion years.

Guy Dauncey is editor of EcoNews and author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change. He can be reached at guydauncey@earthfuture.com. This article is reprinted with permission from EcoNews.