VIEWPOINT ON DEPLETED URANIUM:
Scientists Dispute Pentagon Claims about DU
WASHINGTON, DC—A widely reprinted May 6 Associated Press wire story quoted Lt. Col. Michael Sigmon and Command Sgt. Major Kenneth O. Preston of the US Army’s V Corps saying that armor-piercing depleted uranium shells used in the 1991 Gulf War and this year in Iraq pose no health threat, and that children playing with expended DU tank shells would have to eat and then “practically suffocate on DU residue” before any health problems occurred.
But a growing number of scientists and experts are repudiating such reassurances as false. UN and other studies identify DU as a toxic hazard which can attack the kidneys and cause lung cancer if inhaled or ingested, and which risks contaminating the water supply if left unremediated.
Implying children ingesting DU contaminated soil are not at risk contradicts the UK Royal Society, the World Health Organization, and other scientific bodies who have flagged particular risk to children.
“Children playing with soil may be identified as the critical population group,” reported the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Radioactivity in February 2003 “with inhalation and or ingestion of contaminated soil as the critical pathway.”
Because depleted uranium is highly pyrophoric, 30-70% of the total material is converted to tiny particles when it hits a hard target, such as a tank. These particles can enter the body through breaks in skin and be inhaled or ingested by touching or disturbing contaminated equipment, drinking contaminated milk or water, or, in the case of children, playing in soil. Once internalized, the particles can cause cell damage.
Moreover, the Department of Defense’s own studies, including studies by the Armed Forces Radiobiology Institute, point to significant potential problems from DU exposure. Studies show internal DU exposure causes DNA damage, transforms cells to a precancerous phase and causes cancer in the muscles of rats.
“The Pentagon is reluctant to discuss its own laboratory studies linking DU to cancer,” says Dan Fahey, an independent researcher and veterans’ advocate. “Pentagon spokespeople have falsely claimed there are no tumors among vets in the government’s study, but a friend of mine who was wounded by DU fragments in ’91 had a bone tumor removed in 1999. Pentagon spokesmen also claimed there have been no cancers among vets in its study until we uncovered information proving one vet had lymphoma. Now they selectively deny certain cancers without presenting the whole picture.”
Army personnel quoted in the May 6 AP story also asserted that penetrating gamma radiation from DU is extremely low, and that DU emits 40% less radiation overall than uranium in its natural state.
“The US military is fond of saying that depleted uranium is less radioactive than naturally occuring uranium,” writes Dr. Helen Caldicott, author of The New Nuclear Danger. “[But] comparing DU with natural uranium is like comparing apples and oranges. It is simply not relevant.”
DU is not natural, but a man-made by-product of uranium enrichment sometimes contaminated with dangerous isotopes and fission products and especially rich in uranium 238, chemically toxic as well as radioactive.
It is true that U-238 has half the radioactivity of natural uranium, but, unlike diluted uranium ore, it is 100% pure uranium, dangerous when ingested or inhaled. Dr. Caldicott reports that external gamma radiation from DU shells can be as high as 200 milirads per hour, more than the yearly dose received from background radiation.
“Army medical regulations require testing in cases of known or suspected exposure, but those rules are simply being flouted,” said Charles Sheehan-Miles, director of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute. “It’s urgent that the Pentagon stops ducking this issue, and starts monitoring and cleaning-up now. It must heed the call of the Royal Society to reveal where and how much DU was used in Iraq. Fragments of DU penetrators and contaminated vehicles should be immediately identified, cordoned off, and removed to prevent the exposure of children and other civilians. We need immediate medical monitoring and follow-up of exposed populations and independent epidemiological studies, and environmental monitoring of water and milk in affected areas.”
For more information on depleted uranium, please call Stephen Kent, Kent Communications, at 845-758-0097.
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This story was published on June 4, 2003.