Weapons Dust Worries Iraqis
Provisional Government Seeks Cleanup; U.S. Downplays Risks

by Thomas D. Williams, Hartford Courant, November 1, 2004

Despite assurances from the U.S. military that depleted uranium from exploded munitions does not pose a significant health threat, Iraq's provisional government is asking the United Nations for help cleaning up the low-level radioactive, metal dust spread across local battlefields by U.S. and British forces during the Persian Gulf wars.

The request comes as the United States continues to defend depleted uranium weaponry - prized for its tank-piercing and bunker- or cave-smashing ability - against strong opposition by other countries, scientists and veterans organizations.

Great Britain, a major partner in the coalition now fighting in Iraq, has provided the U.N. with the coordinates where its forces used depleted uranium, also known as DU, in southern Iraq, but the United States has not. Britain and Germany are supplying money to train Iraqis in environmental science. The United Nations plans to survey for DU hot spots from both wars in Iraq and says it needs the coordinates for an effective survey.

Neither British nor U.S. authorities have offered to augment the $4.7 million donated mainly by Japan to the United Nations to evaluate sites of wartime contamination that health experts say threaten the well-being of Iraqi civilians.

In late October, Army Lt. Col. Mark Melanson said a five-year, $6 million Defense Department study of a simulated DU tank explosion shows "the chemical risks of breathing in uranium dust are so low that it won't cause any long-term health risks," even for the tank crew.

Health Concerns Remain

Concern about the health effects of depleted uranium is not limited to overseas countries. The Defense Department's contention that depleted uranium has not been shown to affect health adversely and therefore doesn't need to be cleaned up is contrary to its own rules for handling it. Those rules mirror the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's treatment of depleted uranium as an environmental hazard and danger to public health. Federal regulators have shut down some U.S. nuclear weapons and uranium processing and munitions plants, found to be contaminated by depleted uranium. Billions of dollars are being spent on its cleanup in the United States.

Depleted uranium, or U-238, is a toxic, heavy metal byproduct of uranium enrichment that gives the world uranium suitable for use in nuclear weapons and reactor fuel. It is also used in munitions, ballast for airplanes, tank armor and other products. It has a half-life of 4.5 billion years.

In 2002 at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., researchers found that even though the alpha radiation from depleted uranium is relatively low, internalized DU as a metal can induce DNA damage and carcinogenic lesions in the cells that make up bones in the human body.

Depleted uranium was first used widely in combat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The material in armor-piercing munitions ignites and burns on impact at temperatures of several thousand degrees Celsius. While burning, tiny particles, or dust, of uranium oxide aerosol are created. Wind can carry these considerable distances.

Since 1991, the cancer rates in Iraq have risen sharply in areas where depleted uranium was used, according to Iraqi medical studies reviewed by scientists from other countries. In addition, more than 230,000 of the 697,000 U.S. soldiers who served in that war have filed disability claims for various maladies, the majority of which fall under the broad category of gulf war syndrome.

With many of the causes of these illnesses still eluding researchers, several lawmakers, at the urging of veterans groups, pushed for legislation to study depleted uranium further, to see if there is a connection with gulf war and other wartime illnesses. It called also for cleaning up depleted uranium munitions firings.

In the Republican-controlled Congress, the measures quietly died this fall inside the House Health Subcommittee. Congress and three presidential administrations have either remained silent on the dispute or have dismissed the environmental and health concerns raised.

Council Urges Ban

U.N.-related organizations, citing studies showing more cancers and birth defects among civilians and soldiers in countries where depleted uranium munitions have been used, have pressed for more studies and a ban on their use until the effects are better understood. The Council of Europe, Europe's oldest inter-governmental organization of 46 nations, has called for a ban on the production, use, testing and sale of munitions containing depleted uranium or plutonium.

But U.S. political leaders in Congress and at the White House have refused to acknowledge that depleted uranium might seriously harm soldiers and civilians.

At home, the United States has spent billions of dollars cleaning up depleted uranium - at former munitions factories, military firing ranges and nuclear fuel production sites. A General Accounting Office report in 2000 put the cost of cleanup at the uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, Ky., where DU is processed for use in weapons and nuclear reactors, at $1.3 billion. By December 2003, the cost of cleaning up and closing the plant, estimated to take until 2070, was up to $13 billion

Cleaning up DU contamination in Iraq, experts say, would come with a multibillion-dollar price tag.

Any money spent on cleaning up depleted uranium in Iraq would be in addition to the estimated $225 billion that the United States will be spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan if Congress approves the Bush administration's estimated $70 billion in emergency funding request early next year.

Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Agency, said the United Nations has not asked the Department of Defense or State Department for assistance in cleaning up depleted uranium in Iraq.

The U.N. Environmental Programme's chairman, Pekka Haavisto, however, said his organization has kept the State Department informed of those needs.

Since 1991, the United States and Britain have fired hundreds of tons of DU munitions during four wars - in the Balkans, Afghanistan and twice in Iraq.

U.N. environmental spokesman Michael Williams said the United States has not supplied coordinates on the sites where DU munitions were fired in Iraq or offered to clean it up. Haavisto added: "U.S. government has the information that if field assessments will be done, exact DU coordinates are needed."

Bill Dies Quietly

Last year, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Washington, a U.S. Navy psychiatrist during the Vietnam War, sponsored a bill to pay for a definitive study of the health effect of DU munitions and to clean up dust and fragments after their use. The bill was referred to the House Armed Services and Energy and Commerce committees and then to the committee's Health Subcommittee, where it died.

McDermott's spokesman, Mike DeCesare, said the Republican leadership blocked the bill's passage. But a spokesman for the Health Subcommittee said the committee counsel could find no "aggressive action" by McDermott to get a hearing for it. DeCesare insisted, however, that if McDermott is re-elected, he intends to reintroduce the bill, which was supported by Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays, R-4th District.

"Depleted uranium is a potential health hazard for the Iraqi people and we need to do all we can to make sure that as Iraq is rebuilt, we help the new Iraqi government mitigate any public health threats," Shays said.

The debate over DU has not made much of an impact on the presidential race. President Bush sides with the Pentagon. The Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts does not have a position on the use of depleted uranium munitions, his communications director, Andy Davis, said recently.

Independent candidate Ralph Nader, a Connecticut native, said DU munitions are environmentally dangerous and should never have been used in the first place.

"The denial and cruel coverup has gone on too long," Nader said. "These soldiers and civilians who suffered [adverse health from exposure to DU] deserve the truth and respectful assistance. The first step is to admit the problem. The second step is to measure the size of the problem and then clean up the environmental toxins. The next step is to stop using depleted uranium munitions."

But the Bush administration, which insists DU poses little environmental risk so cleanup is not needed, takes the Pentagon's advice on such matters.

"If the [Defense Department] indicated to us that the DU rounds or explosions were a cause of concern, and they have not done so, a study or inquiry of their use would be warranted," said Bush's National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones. "Then we would be faced with that decision. The [Defense Department] has not contacted us, nor to the best of my knowledge has any international body contacted us." Jones said.

Kuwait Cleanup

There have been many instances when the military directed depleted uranium cleanups overseas.

For example, a private contractor working for the Department of Defense was paid $3.5 million to cleanup DU-contaminated military equipment and a practice firing range in Kuwait. MKM Engineers Inc. based in Stafford, Texas, performed a limited cleanup in Kuwait from February 2003 to June 2004. The company recovered 22 tons of DU fragments and 75 pieces of non-DU ordnance scrap. The unexploded DU ordnance was destroyed with Kuwaiti assistance. MKM also cleaned military hardware, including tanks, and wrapped them to contain surface contamination before sending them back to the United States.

The U.S. Army Material Command, responsible for the Kuwaiti project, described the work as retrieval of equipment and munitions, not a clean up.

The Department of Defense "does not clean up DU once it leaves a U.S. weapons system such as a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and hits an enemy building, or vehicle," said Melissa Bohan, an Army public affairs official. Army regulations require the clean-up and proper handling of U.S. equipment hit by depleted uranium munitions.

MKM referred to some of its work in Kuwait as a cleanup. And, the Defense Department has a low-level radioactive waste cleanup program, whose goal is "the safe and compliant disposal of low-level radioactive waste," including depleted uranium. It includes the Army Contaminated Equipment Retrograde Team, which supervises cleanup of low-level radioactive contamination of Army equipment worldwide.

Military regulations require immediate medical tests and treatment for any soldiers exposed to dust and fragments from depleted uranium shell explosions. Some nuclear scientists studying the health effects of those inhaling DU believe even a speck of the dust in the lungs or bloodstream can eventually cause cancer or kidney disease in adults or cancers or deformities in babies if even one parent has been exposed.

Marion Fulk, 83, a former nuclear chemical physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who was involved with the Manhattan Project's development of the atomic bomb, said that even nano-size particles of DU in the blood and lungs are a serious destructive force.

Others who support the Defense Department position say only inhalation of large quantities creates serious health problems.

Copyright © 2004 by The Hartford Courant


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