The Depleted Uranium Scandal – Pollution from Uranium Munitions

The Depleted Uranium Scandal

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has engaged in a massive cover-up to allow it to continue using a weapon that spreads radioactive contamination wherever it is used. This weapon, depleted uranium (DU), is the backbone of the U.S. military’s anti-tank arsenal, but the DOD has hidden this weapon’s true, insidious nature from the public and its own troops. Thousands of Gulf War veterans and Iraqi civilians who have been exposed to DU are suffering from damaged organs, leukemia, other cancers, neurological disorders, and birth defects. The DOD has suppressed information on DU exposure, suppresses or refuses to acknowledge the results of its own research, and continues to assert that DU is safe. Depleted uranium munitions are highly effective armor piercing weapons frequently used against tanks, reinforced bunkers, and buildings. Despite being “depleted” of much of their most radioactive isotopes, DU retains approximately 60% of the radioactivity of naturally occurring uranium. Spent DU munitions leave behind extremely minute particles of uranium dust that is a toxic heavy metal and remains radioactive for over four billion years. The DOD refuses to identify, quarantine, or clean-up DU contaminated sites.

Of the nearly 700,000 troops that fought in the first Gulf War, over 120,000 signed on with the Gulf War Health Registry. Approximately 20% of these suffer from undiagnosed symptoms such as sleep problems, mood swings, short-term memory loss, chronic fatigue, rashes, aching joints, headaches, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and blurred vision and sensitivity to bright light. The Iraqi government claims that cancer and birth defect rates have increased significantly after the Gulf War I, although the Bush administration countered that this was nothing more than Saddam Hussein’s propaganda. In Afghanistan, urine samples of Afghanis living in areas where military operations have occurred contained 100-400 times higher levels of radioactive isotopes than those found in Gulf War I veterans.

Recent studies, including some by the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, are finding that DU settles in the bone, brain, lung, muscle, kidney, liver, and testicles of animals; forms tumors in animals; was found in the semen of Gulf War veterans; and was associated with neurological disorders of Gulf War veterans. Despite these findings, the DOD continues to cling to old uranium exposure and absorption studies to justify its assertion that DU weapons are safe.
Military regulations during the Gulf War required that soldiers who entered areas with known or suspected radioactive contamination have their medical records so marked. This was never done. Any soldier carrying a simple radiation detector might be shocked to see how much radioactive contamination remained on the battlefield after an armored assault. After initial refusal, the DOD eventually produced a map indicating that over 400,000 troops travelled through areas where DU munitions were fired.

In 1993, a doctor and the chief of nuclear medicine at the Wilmington, Delaware, Veterans Administration hospital, Col. Asaf Durakovic, himself a Gulf War vet, was assigned 24 patients with undiagnosed symptoms. Based on his experience, he concluded that these veterans had been exposed to radioactive contaminants. Urine samples that were sent to a U.S. Army radiological chemistry laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland, mysteriously disappeared. Col. Durakovic’s continued research into his patients’ symptoms was met with animosity from his superiors and discouragement from his colleagues. Despite wanting nothing more than to relieve the pain and suffering of brave war veterans, Col. Durakovic was fired in 1998 after eighteen years of distinguished service.

Throughout DU’s development in the 1970’s and deployment in numerous conflicts throughout the world involving the United States and its allies, the DOD has fervently proclaimed that DU is safe, relying on old studies focusing on uranium compounds found in industrial conditions and incomplete medical records to bolster its claims. Few, if any, studies sponsored by the DOD investigated DU as it is encountered in the battlefield: a fine, uranium oxide dust that is deposited after a DU penetrator impacts its target, ignites, and disintegrates.

Ironically, the DOD isolated and decontaminated 23 U.S. vehicles from Gulf War II that were hit with DU munitions from friendly fire, or had ignited and burned for other reasons while carrying DU munitions, but will not admit that DU dust is a long term health hazard to its troops or civilians, even as it cautions American soldiers to take precautions or avoid coming in contact with destroyed Iraqi tanks. After the second invasion of Iraq in 2003, American soldiers carrying Geiger counters were seen hauling the topsoil away from U.S. Army bases in Baghdad and replacing it with sand, supposedly to eliminate the hazard from unexploded ordnance such as cluster-bomb munitions, but possibly to remove any risk of radioactive contamination.

Depleted uranium is a by-product of uranium enrichment for nuclear fuel rods or weapons. Naturally occurring uranium consists of 99.2745 percent U238, an isotope with low radioactivity. The remaining uranium consists of highly radioactive U234 (0.0055 percent) and U235 (0.72 percent). The enrichment process removes about 60 percent of the U235 and about 80 percent of the U234 which are used for nuclear fuel. Consequently, DU is about 40 percent less radioactive than naturally occurring uranium.

The radioactivity of both naturally occurring uranium and DU consists of alpha and beta particles and gamma radiation. These constitute ionizing radiation and can damage human cells and DNA. Alpha and beta particles are relatively weak and are easily blocked by skin (alpha particles) or clothing (beta particles). However, when placed directly against living cells, they both are capable of doing damage. Gamma radiation is the most penetrating form of radiation and can be physically harmful both internally and externally, although very little of this type of radiation is emitted by DU. Uranium 238 has a half life of over four billion years and gives off primarily alpha particles. For a few months after processing, however, DU gives off more beta particles and gamma radiation as the remaining isotopes return to equilibrium.

The effects of radioactivity on the human body are well documented. Ionizing radiation can directly kill or damage cells, cell function, or DNA. Cells that reproduce rapidly such as those found in children, the testes, or in bone marrow, are the most vulnerable. Damage to the cells in the bone marrow that create white blood cells can cause leukemia. While the human body is able to repair a lot of the damage from radiation, irreparable damage from high radiation doses can lead to chronic illnesses, tumors, sterility, or birth defects. Studies on rats have found neurological effects from inhaled uranium collecting in the brain.

The World Health Organization recommends that the general public should not be exposed to more than 5 milli-Sieverts (mSv) in one year provided that the average dose over five consecutive years does not exceed 1 mSv per year. A milli-Sievert is a measure of the amount of radiation absorbed by human tissue. Depleted uranium processed to military standards yields about 0.12 mSv per milligram of DU dust. Inhaling 8.3 mg of DU dust would meet the WHO exposure limit of 1 mSv per year over a five year average. A single 120 mm DU round from an M1 Abrams tank can create roughly 700,000 to 3,000,000 mg of uranium oxide dust. The United Nations Environment Program/United Nations Center for Human Settlements Balkans Task Force estimated that 100 mg of DU dust could be inhaled immediately after and within close proximity to a DU munitions impact, and produces continuous exposure within 1,000 m2 of 0.3-30 mSv annually.

Uranium is also a heavy metal, and as such exhibits chemical toxicity. Inhaled uranium dust enters the bloodstream and is excreted by the kidneys. Kidney and lung damage has been documented at high, acute doses, although some kidney damage can be reversible. Studies on the toxic effects of long term uranium exposure on humans have been inconclusive or contradictory because of poor study design, limited sample size, antiquated analysis methods, or incomplete documentation. Few studies on the effects of DU on other organs have been conducted, and the effects of DU on the human body at exposure levels that are encountered in battlefield conditions have not been investigated.

The average human body contains about 90 micrograms of naturally occurring uranium ingested from food, air, and water. Under normal conditions, the human body eliminates approximately 98 percent of the uranium it ingests via the kidneys or the digestive tract. About two-thirds of the uranium found in the human body is stored within the bones and another sixth in the liver. The World Health Organization sets the following limits for Uranium ingestion: Soluble Depleted Uranium – 0.5 ug/kg body weight Insoluble Depleted Uranium – 5 ug/kg body weight Inhaled Insoluble or Soluble Depleted Uranium – 1 ug/m3 respirable fraction or 0.05 mg/m3 over an eight hour period.

Although used in a wide array of weapons, DU rounds are most notable for their use in the A10 Warthog attack aircraft and the M1A2 Abrams tank. Both of these weapons platforms were developed during the Cold War to counter the threat of vast columns of Soviet tanks sweeping across Western Europe. American tanks needed a round capable of defeating the Soviet’s thickest, most advanced armor from great distances. The A10 Warthog carries a multi-barreled cannon whose DU rounds can penetrate the thinner armor found on the top and the rear of tanks. The A10’s ability to engage large tank formations made it a “force multiplier” in a war where the United States would be facing wave after wave of Soviet tanks.

After two Gulf Wars, little remains of the Soviet supplied tanks that Saddam Hussein used to intimidate his enemies. Even so there are still technicians and contractors, Geiger counter in hand, scouring the battlefield for residual DU contamination. Hordes of Soviet tanks are unlikely to magically appear in the Iraqi or Afghani deserts any time soon. The need for DU weapons is past. The time has come to replace DU with the less toxic, but more expensive tungsten rounds that preceded it.