Depleted uranium: a 4.5 billion year threat to Iraq

By Meer Ako Ali:

Our concept of the consequences of war is of shelled buildings, barren lands and disfigured men. We rarely think of malformed children, stillborn babies and raging cancers – although these are the worse consequences of war.

War-torn countries produce war-torn children. War-torn children are the ingredients of war-torn societies. The greatest harm war can render to a community is the damage done to its kids.

We have all heard of club-footed Japanese babies and the leukemia of Sadako Sasaki of the ‘Thousand Paper Cranes’ fame, caused by radiation from the 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We all remember the chemical attacks on Halabja and the sharp increase in birth defects and fetal losses that followed. But perhaps a less familiar source of post-war agony is depleted uranium (DU). Iraq and its people have been exposed to DU from military weaponry since 1991.

Depleted uranium is the byproduct of the uranium enrichment process used to make nuclear fuel. It contains three times less U-235 isotope than natural uranium. Even though DU is about 60-75% as radioactive as natural uranium, it has been observed that DU is very toxic and has potential long-term health effects due to its long half-life which is estimated at around 4.5 billion years. Dr. Rosalie Bertell, an environmental epidemiologist, says “The damage [caused by DU] is due to the length of time of the exposure more than the strength of the source.”

Depleted uranium has a mass of 19,050 kg/m³ and is 1.67 times denser than lead. Because of its high density, DU is valued for certain civilian and military purposes. It is used as counterweight in aircrafts and as protective material in radioactive settings. It is also used in ammunition and armors. Depleted uranium can penetrate armors, ignite on impact, and protect against normal bullets because of its high density. At impact, 20% of a DU penetrator’s mass turns into dust and can contaminate miles of land.

About 18 countries make use of DU in their military equipment as it is relatively cheap and readily available. The United States has used DU in its military equipment since the 1970s, contaminating Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War and again in the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the Gulf War, 375 tons of DU ammunitions were used. In OIF, more than 2200 tons were used a year into the war.

Research conducted since 1990 indicate that exposure to depleted uranium can affect the function of the organs – including the brain, liver, kidney, and heart – in addition to causing genetic, reproductive, and neurological problems. And reports of high birth defect rates have always followed DU usage, especially in areas where DU munitions have been fired.

Malformed babies

DU results in dreadfully malformed babies. Anyone who browses Google Images for “depleted uranium” will either baulk at the images of hideously misshapen babies or have nightmares for the rest of the week.

During the Gulf War, Iraqi and American troops in the city of Basra received a total whole body radioactive dosage of 442-577 millisievert (mSv): the “recommended” yearly dosage is 1 mSv. In 2001, veterans of the Gulf War were reported to have about 14 times more chromosomal and DNA abnormalities in their genes and they had 220% more risk of having children with congenital malformations than their non-veteran peers. In 2004, another study showed that the risk of Gulf War male veterans having children with malformations was 50% higher than for non-veterans. It was also reported that even eight years after their brief exposure to DU in the Gulf War, US troops still had traces of DU in their semen and 100 times the “recommended” amount of uranium in their urine. Today, a third of the 1991 Gulf War veterans receive VA Disability Benefits. The damage was so immense that it is now referred to as the “Gulf War Syndrome”.

Reports from doctors in Iraq show that birth defects have increased by 2-6 times and that some types of cancer are 3-12 times more frequently seen since 1991. The Lancet, the world’s leading general medical journal, published a report in 1998 stating that around the world about 500 children die everyday as a result of Iraqi warfare, and that the mortality rate among Iraqi children under age 5 has increased from 2.3% in 1989 to 16.6% in 1993. In 2001, a decade after the Gulf War, doctors in Basra, one of the most contaminated cities in Iraq, reported sharp increases in the rate of congenital malformations at birth. 18 out of 1,000 children were born with some kind of defect. Doctors also reported a horrible new trend: mothers after labor no longer ask for the gender of their infants, but whether they are “normal or not.” This trend is likely to continue and become more frequent as the very genes of the exposed may have been damaged and the DU dust remains present.

Dr. Chris Busby, a British radiation expert, says:

“I’m horrified. The people out there – the Iraqis, the media and the troops – risk the most appalling ill health. And the radiation from depleted uranium can travel literally anywhere. It’s going to destroy the lives of thousands of children, all over the world. We all know how far radiation can travel”.

This radiation expert expresses his concern for troops, reporters, and Iraqis who might have been contaminated by Depleted Uranium in the Iraq war.

Six years into OIF, Dr. Busby and two other researchers conducted a survey in Fallujah, the most contaminated city in Iraq, and concluded that infant mortality has risen to 8%. In Fallujah, the incidence rate of leukemia had increased 38 times and breast cancer in females 10 times by 2009. Shockingly, these figures are higher than the ones reported in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after 1945.

In the world of politics, depleted uranium is a very sensitive subject. In 1996-1997, UN Human Rights Tribunals labeled the use of DU for military purposes as a violation of the Geneva Convention and marked DU munitions as weapons of mass destruction. Dozens of humanitarian organizations, like the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium (CADU), and documentary movies, like Poison DUst, raise awareness about the dangers of DU.

‘Crime against humanity’

Grave accusations were leveled against the coalition forces during the Gulf War and later during the Iraq War, and the propriety of many of their actions has been brought into question. Human rights activists around the world condemn the American and British occupation forces for using DU. One American veteran says American use of DU is “a crime against humanity which may, in the eyes of historians, rank with the worst atrocities of all time. [Iraq Military Veterans] are on DU death row, waiting to die.” This ex-soldier speaks for the quarter million US and UK troops who are now gravely ill allegedly because of DU exposure.

To avoid pressure from the UN and humanitarian organizations, the US, UK, and other coalition forces have refused to release specific information about the amounts and types of DU they used in Iraq. The US government’s Veterans Administration maintains that the Gulf War Syndrome is caused by the biological and chemical effects of the oil fields in Southern Iraq and, in one instance, it blocked an experiment by Dr. Asaf Durakovic.

This professor of radiology and nuclear medicine exposed a group of dogs to depleted uranium in an experiment and found that 84% of the dogs died of lung cancer. Dr. Durakovic concluded:

“Uranium does cause cancer, uranium does cause mutation, and uranium does kill. If we continue with the irresponsible contamination of the biosphere, and denial of the fact that human life is endangered by the deadly isotope uranium, then we are doing disservice to ourselves, disservice to the truth, disservice to God and to all generations who follow”.

By blocking controversial experiments like Dr Durakovic’s, the militaries of the superpowers communicate to us that they have an interest in continuing to use depleted uranium and will revert to force if necessary.

Even though in public the US Veterans Administration denies the dangers of DU, they privately acknowledge them. A leaked US administration report in 1995 purportedly admits the dangers of DU but states that the issue “must be viewed in perspective.” The report acknowledges that the cost of repairing the damage done would be “excessive.” They are just not ready to pay for the mistakes made.

Time to act

Even with all the research and international fuss about DU, most Iraqis are still ignorant concerning the subject of DU. But, just as someone walking with blindfolds cannot be sure that he will never hit a wall, we cannot be sure that we will never be affected by DU. Just because most of us have not yet fallen victim to DU does not mean it won’t happen. DU is patient: it can strike anytime during its 4.5-billion-year-stay.

What does it take for us to start worrying about DU contamination in Iraq? Do we all need get lung cancer and have malformed babies before we start to care?

Unless we start caring, we will all eventually suffer the deadly consequences of DU contamination, and mortality and birth defect rates will keep rising at a steady pace for the next 4.5 billion years.

Each and every one of us, as inhabitants of this land, is entitled to a share in the responsibility for decontaminating it and spreading awareness about the dangers of DU.

We should also work to:

  • secure the banning of DU for military purposes
  • convince the US military to submit necessary data about the types, amounts, and locations of all DU expenditures in Iraq
  • cooperate with foreign organizations (like the Preemptive Love Coalition that works to provide life-saving heart surgeries for kids who have been born with heart defects, some allegedly from exposure to DU)
  • assist local doctors in providing best medical treatment to victims of DU warfare
  • allow the UN and humanitarian organizations to do extensive research about lingering DU effects in Iraq and find out if the damage done to the victims can be reversed.

But perhaps the first thing we need to do is to change our concept of the consequences of war from shelled buildings to malformed children.

Meer Ako Ali, aged 16, is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Awat Newspaper, an independent English newspaper run by Kurdish youth, and a Kurdistan Tribune columnist



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