U.S. Water News Online
WASHINGTON -- As soon as it's safe, the United Nations and
international scientists plan to fan out over Iraq's smoking
battlegrounds to investigate whether the leftovers of American
firepower pose serious health or environmental threats.
Thousands of rounds containing tons of depleted uranium were fired
in Iraq during the four-week war. Fragments of the armor-piercing
munitions now litter the valleys and neighborhoods between the Tigris
and Euphrates rivers. That's where most of the combat occurred and
where most of Iraq's 24 million people live.
Wounded fighters and civilians also may carry depleted uranium
shrapnel in their bodies.
Many medical studies have failed to show a direct link between DU
exposure and human disease, though a study of rats linked
intramuscular fragments with increased cancer risk. Test-tube
experiments also suggest DU may trigger potentially dangerous changes
The munitions are conventional and do not generate a nuclear
blast. Depleted uranium, a very dense metal fashioned from low-level
radioactive waste, allows them to easily pierce armor and buildings
that would deflect other projectiles.
The Pentagon vigorously defends the decisive battlefield advantage
that the super-hard metal provides and says the munitions do not
create pollution or health hazards. Tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles
and A-10 attack jets all fire depleted uranium rounds. Some missiles
also contain the material.
``There's going to be no impact on the health of people in the
environment or people who were there at the time,'' said Dr. Michael
Kilpatrick, a top Pentagon health official.
``You would really have to have a large internalized dose,''
Kilpatrick said. ``You are not going to get that with casual
However, experts differ as to what qualifies as casual exposure.
Some worry that it could affect civilian populations -- especially
children -- if it enters groundwater used for drinking water and
``The soil around the impact sites of depleted uranium penetrators
might be heavily contaminated,'' said Brian Spratt, chair of the
depleted uranium committee of the Royal Society, England's scientific
academy. ``We recommend the fragments should be removed.''
Some experiments suggest DU may cause serious illness even if tiny
particles are inhaled or ingested.
Critics complain that studies so far have not been nearly large or
long enough to conclude the munitions pose no long-term risks.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., has introduced legislation requiring
broader federal research.
``Depleted uranium is toxic and carcinogenic and it may well be
associated with elevated rates of birth defects in babies born to
those exposed to it,'' said McDermott, who is a physician.
Before the current war, Iraqi doctors were blaming high rates of
cancer and birth defects in Basra and other southern cities on U.S.
munitions fired 12 years ago -- when fighting was concentrated along
the southern border with Kuwait. Iraqi officials claim their number
of cancer patients has risen 50 percent in 10 years, although
complete medical surveys have not been conducted.
Some U.S. veterans also blame certain mysterious symptoms of Gulf
War Syndrome on DU exposure.
To many, the issue could mushroom into a controversy similar to
that involving Agent Orange spraying during the Vietnam War. Exposure
to the herbicide has caused catastrophic health problems even to
generations born after the war.
``The fact that most of the fighting in Iraq has been in
population centers is of great worry to me,'' said geochemist Vala
Ragnarsdottir of the University of Bristol in England. Ragnarsdottir
was one of 17 scientists from five European nations who conducted DU
field assessments for the U.N. in the Balkans in 2000.
That investigation, the first of its kind, found no direct link
between DU munitions and current disease rates in Serbia, Kosovo and
Montenegro. However, the study was limited to 11 combat sites. About
12 metric tons of depleted uranium ordnance was used in the Balkans;
that compares with 300 metric tons during the 1991 Persian Gulf War,
and far more in the current campaign.
In Iraq, Ragnarsdottir said, ``many hard targets were hit and
therefore DU dust was produced, which still could be blowing
``I think that DU water pollution is likely to occur with time,''
The U.N. inquiry would sample DU residues in soil, air, water and
vegetation throughout the battle theater, as well as measure for
Investigators will need information from the Pentagon to calculate
how much DU ordinance was used and the coordinates of specific Iraqi
``An early study in Iraq could either lay these fears to rest or
confirm there are potential risks which then could be addressed,''
said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the U.N. Environmental
Program, which will manage the investigation.
Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the industrial process in
national weapons labs that enriches the energy content of nuclear
fuel rods and warheads by adding more of the fissionable U-235
isotope. What's left is a concentrated metal waste that is about
twice as dense as lead, but 40 percent less radioactive than uranium
in its natural form.
A DU-hardened projectile can bore straight through an enemy tank.
DU shrapnel also ignites, engulfing the target in fire.
What happens then has been studied by several government labs and
international agencies with varying conclusions.
The Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Md.,
and other labs suggest that DU fragments embedded in the muscle of
laboratory rats cause cancerous tumors.
But do the animal trials really mimic battlefield exposures?
Studies of human patients and health records by the World Health
Organization and others found no direct link to cancer rates and
Studies by the RAND Corp. and others suggest the radiation danger
from handling the munitions is low.
A 2002 study by the Royal Society concluded that most battlefield
soldiers won't be at risk. But dangerous vapors are generated when
the weapons are fired or explode. If the particles are inhaled or
ingested, they might settle in the kidneys and skeleton of some
soldiers, or raise the risk of lung cancer.
But at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore, more than
500 urine samples from veterans concerned about DU exposure were
evaluated by toxicologists. The VA reported 20 samples showed
elevated uranium levels, but those could be attributed to natural
uranium in food and water.
Urine provided by patients carrying DU shrapnel in their bodies
from friendly fire during the Persian Gulf War also showed elevated
uranium levels, but the higher levels were not tied to disease.
DU critics complain the VA studies have examined fewer than 100
veterans of the 1991 conflict.
``The military's policy is don't look, don't find,'' said Dan
Fahey, a Navy veteran in the Persian Gulf who now works for a San
Francisco environmental group.
Fahey said: ``If they don't do proper studies of veterans, they
can say there is no evidence of adverse health effects.''
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