Central Asia Concern Grows that U.S. Has Used Depleted Uranium

by Dr. Ali Ahmed Rind
Let there be light!” said God,
   and there was light!
“Let there be blood!” says man,
   and there’s a sea!

Italy, France and Portugal have asked NATO to institute a moratorium on the use of depleted uranium in its armaments until more studies are done. Canada stopped using its own DU weapons two years ago. Yet the Pentagon won’t admit DU is harmful.

As U.S. and NATO forces continue pounding Afghanistan with cruise missiles and smart bombs, people acquainted with the aftermaths of two recent previous wars fought by the U.S. fear, following the Gulf and Balkan war syndromes, the “Afghan War Syndrome.”

This condition is marked by a state of vague aliments and carcinomas, and is linked with the usage of Depleted Uranium (DU) as part of missiles, projectiles and bombs in battlefield.

As a result of the current conflicts, people of Afghanistan who had been dying of starvation up till now are likely to savor a more modern mode of death: death owing to radioactive materials pulverized over barren mountains and harsh plains in modern world’s war on terrorism. And the fear is that Afghan people will not be alone to go through it. The wind and rivers could take DU across the borders, making it likely that people in Pakistan and other neighboring countries will also be exposed to this health hazard.

What Is Depleted Uranium?

Depleted uranium is the super weapon of the ‘90s. It is not a weapon itself, but is a heavy metal used in the production of armaments. DU is a rather benign-sounding name for uranium-238, the trace elements left behind when the fissionable material is extracted from uranium-235 for use in nuclear reactors and weapons.

For decades, this refuse was a radioactive nuisance, piling up at plutonium processing plants. By the late 1980s there was nearly a billion tons of this material—called tailings—left over in U.S. dumps. Then Pentagon weapons designers came up with a use for the tailings: they could be molded into bullets and bombs. The material was free, and there was plenty at hand. Depleted Uranium is 1.7 times denser than lead, and this means that it can form the core of a shell that will easily penetrate the steel armor of tanks and other military vehicles. It is triumph of military technology. At high speed, it slices through tanks like a hot knife through butter. Some flying bombs (A-10s and possibly some Tomahawks, etc.), are made of DU metal.

DU is a concern, however, because it is a byproduct of the process that is used to make nuclear power fuel or nuclear weapons. Although ‘depleted’ of its powerfully radioactive component, DU does still contain minute traces of radioactivity.
The leukemia rate in Sarajevo, pummeled by American bombs in 1996, has tripled in the last five years.

When a hardened missile strikes a target and explodes, around 70% of the DU burns and oxidizes, bursting into minute particles that can be inhaled or ingested as dust. This can be harmful not only because of the residual radioactivity of the DU, which possibly could lead to cancer, but also because uranium itself, as a heavy metal, is toxic and can lead to kidney failure and other health problems.

DU is toxic only if the dust is inhaled or ingested, or if DU-contaminated shrapnel enters the body. The inhaled lethal dust sticks to the fibers of the lungs and eventually begins to wreak havoc on the body: tumors, hemorrhages, ravaged immune systems, leukemias.

Un-oxidized DU metal—in downed aircraft and in unexploded ammunition, rockets, bombs and missiles—rusts away into a very fine black dust. This dust, too, spreads around through the air, water and via people, animals and mobile objects that move over it.

Staying in a contaminated area is risky because one never knows how one might ingest a particle of DU oxide, and one particle is all one needs to become sick.

The radioactive and toxic DU-oxides don’t disintegrate. They are practically permanent. DU has a half-life of more than 4 billion years, approximately the age of the Earth. It means thousand of acres of land in the Balkans, Kuwait and southern Iraq have been contaminated forever. If our apprehension about the current war is correct, the Afghan terrain will suffer the same fate.

DU Stockpiling Is Spreading

The stockpiling of DU weapons is spreading. More than 20 countries now have DU in their arsenals, including Pakistan. A few months back, among the exhibits at IDEX 2001 (see:, held in Karachi, was a model of the new 125mm armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) projectile with depleted uranium (DU) long-rod penetration, which is being developed by the Pakistani National Development Complex (NDC) for use with T-80UD tanks.

Gulf War Syndrome

The amount of DU used in the Gulf War was approximately 100 times greater than the amount used in Kosovo. In all, about 970,000 30mm rounds with DU expended in Gulf War against Iraq, for a total of over 300 tons

Roughly half of the DU fired in the Gulf War was shot in Kuwait, to oust Iraqi occupation troops. Months of bombing of Iraq by U.S. and British planes and cruise missiles during the Gulf War has left behind an even more deadly and insidious legacy: tons of shell casings, bullets and bomb fragments laced with depleted uranium. As allied bombing was intense in part of southern Iraq, an epidemic of carcinomas has erupted in that area. At present, the desert dust carries death all around southern Iraq.

The Legacy of DU in Iraq

Although downplayed by the U.S. administration and Western media, Iraqi physicians have been reporting sharp increases in cancers such as lymphomas and leukemia in Southern Iraq, as well as an increase in birth defects. Since 1990, the incidence of leukemia in Iraq has grown by more than 600 percent. One Iraqi oncologist who studied cases of rising leukemia among southern Iraqi populations calls conditions in southern Iraq “another Hiroshima.”

Most of the leukemia and cancer victims aren’t soldiers. They are civilians. And many of them are children. According to mortality figures compiled by UNICEF, as many as 180 children are dying every day in Iraq.

Because of the U.N.-sponsored embargo, Iraqi hospitals are short of drugs and equipment to face the endemic. Children are dying in their mothers’ laps without food and pills. Iraqi physicians call it “the white death”—leukemia.

The Victors Suffer, Too

Depleted uranium poses a threat to the victor as well as to the vanquished. Gulf War veterans, plagued by a variety of illnesses, have been found to have traces of uranium in their blood, feces, urine and semen.

The number of Gulf War vets who were in contact with radioactive tanks or breathed contaminated dust could be in ten of thousands. The shadows of that war still haunt them. The world came to know about Gulf War Syndrome—a variety of mysterious ailments—when U.S. and allied soldiers returned to their home countries. With the exception of the U.S. defense establishment, everyone believes that this condition is a direct outcome of using DU in conflict.

The Balkan Syndrome

In 1999 alone, NATO planes fired approximately 10 tons of DU in former Yugoslavia, about 3% of what was used in Iraq. The A-10, used in close combat support, was overwhelmingly the source. Now fears of a “Balkan Syndrome” are raging across Europe. Medical teams in the region have already detected cancer clusters near the bomb sites. The leukemia rate in Sarajevo, pummeled by American bombs in 1996, has tripled in the last five years. A U.N. report found evidence of radioactivity at eight of 11 sites tested in Kosovo that were struck by NATO ammunition made with depleted uranium. There is concern about civilians who stray too close to the lingering dust at the sites of crushed tanks.

It’s not just the assailed Serbs who are ill and dying, but NATO and U.N. peacekeepers in the region. Eight Italian soldiers who served in the region under NATO’s banner during the past one and a half years have died of leukemia. Five Belgians, two Dutch, two Spaniards, a Portuguese and a Czech are also viewed as victims of DU.

Consequently, Italy has asked NATO to institute a moratorium on the use of depleted uranium in its armaments until more studies are done. France and Portugal have added their voice to Italy’s. France has launched an inquiry into the effects of DU on their soldiers in Kosovo, and Portugal withdrew its soldiers from Kosovo. The Portuguese Defense Minister went public by declaring that Portuguese soldiers were not going to become “uranium meat” by taking further part in this military expedition.

In the meantime, Canada stopped using its own DU weapons two years ago, and has taken steps to deal with sick veterans, offering to pay for soldiers to be tested for DU exposure at independent American centers. However, Ottawa, like Washington, has so far rejected calls for a ban on weapons made from DU.

The U.S. Defense Department doesn’t want to admit that DU is harmful because they don’t want the liability. The Pentagon has shuffled through a variety of rationales and excuses. First, the Defense Department shrugged off concerns about DU as wild conspiracy theories by peace activists, environmentalists and Iraqi propagandists. When the U.S.’s NATO allies demanded that the U.S. disclose the chemical and metallic properties of its munitions, the Pentagon refused. It has also refused to order the testing of U.S. soldiers stationed in the Gulf and the Balkans.

Gandhi once wrote that morality is contraband in war. But the world should disagree with him by stirring international consciousness in favor of morality and ethos in all forms of war. Chemical weapons are banned by international agreement. Antipersonnel land mines are on their way out. DU rounds should go the same route. They may be military wonders. But they’re ethical horrors that the world should get rid of, and the sooner the better.

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This story was published on December 5, 2001.