November 5, 2007: This website is an archive of the former website, traprockpeace.org, which was created 10 years ago by Charles Jenks. It became one of the most populace sites in the US, and an important resource on the antiwar movement, student activism, 'depleted' uranium and other topics. Jenks authored virtually all of its web pages and multimedia content (photographs, audio, video, and pdf files. As the author and registered owner of that site, his purpose here is to preserve an important slice of the history of the grassroots peace movement in the US over the past decade. He is maintaining this historical archive as a service to the greater peace movement, and to the many friends of Traprock Peace Center. Blogs have been consolidated and the calendar has been archived for security reasons; all other links remain the same, and virtually all blog content remains intact.THIS SITE NO LONGER REFLECTS THE CURRENT AND ONGOING WORK OF TRAPROCK PEACE CENTER, which has reorganized its board and moved to Greenfield, Mass. To contact Traprock Peace Center, call 413-773-7427 or visit its site. Charles Jenks is posting new material to PeaceJournal.org, a multimedia blog and resource center.
Read about HR 1483, 'depleted uranium' legislation filed by Rep. Jim McDermott
See important resources on 'depleted uranium' - with original material from Major Doug Rokke, Denise Nichols (combat nurse in Gulf War), Leuren Moret, Dai Williams and others.
US Government Refuses to Clean-up Contamination of Iraq with 'Depleted' Uranium -
Royal Society (UK) Demands Coalition Reveal DU Targets - UK to Offier to Check Soldiers for DU and to Aide Clean-up; ABC (May 5th) reports US says it will test soldiers when return from Gulf War II. See Recent Media Coverage Below (with media contacts at end of page)
Commentary by Doug Rokke
April 18, 2003 Department of Defense officials (Austin Camacho, 1-800-497-6261) have confirmed in a telephone conversation at approximately 9:40 a.m. on April 15, 2003 that they will not clean up the uranium munitions contamination as required by Army Regulations throughout Iraq, Kuwait,and Saudi Arabia that has been and will be left my ongoing combat actions during Gulf War II and by previous a combat actions during Gulf War I. I asked about compliance with 6/93, 8/93, 10/93, 7/99 and 4/00 medical care directives and that also will not be done.
This refusal to clean up uranium contamination caused by deliberate use of uranium munitions and to provide medical care to all 'depleted' uranium casualties is a crime against God and humanity.
The citizens of the world, all government leaders, and United Nations representatives who value human life and our environment must demand complete environmental clean up or isolation of contaminated areas and prompt and effective medical care for all uranium munitions casualties.
Please help me finish my Pentagon assigned tasking to clean up the DU mess and ensure medical care is provided.
Dr. Doug Rokke, Ph.D. Major, Medical Service Corps U.S. Army Reserve
former Gulf War I Deplted uranium assessmnt team health physicist; former U.S. Army / Department of Defense Depleted Uranium project director
May 22 - Afghan's Uranium Levels Spark Alert (BBC) - per Dr. Asaf Durakovic (photo ©2003 Traprock Peace Center)
May 15 - Remains of Toxic Bullets Litter Iraq - Christian Science Monitor
May 6 - TV Not Concerned by Cluster Bombs, DU - FAIR
May 5 - When the Dust Settles - (concerning 'depleted' uranium) ABC News
May 5 - Casualties from Iraq War Will Mount - Pacific News
May 3, 2003 - Hear Doug Rokke's major talk (mp3) in Albany, NY (see photo and more links to right.) See also IndyMedia report on talk
May 2, 2003 - Depleted uranium toxicity concerns Jefferson Proving Ground Board
April 25, 2003 - Pressure on US to remove depleted uranium in Iraq (transcript of interviews) - Australian Broadcast Corporation News
April 25, 2003 - Uranium hazard prompts cancer check on troops - The Guardian
April 24, 2003 - Coalition 'must reveal DU targets' - BBC
April 24, 2003 - Top UN environmental body calls for urgent action in Iraq - United Nations
April 24, 2003 - UK to aid Iraq DU removal - BBC
April 24, 2003 - Scientists Urge Depleted Uranium Testing in Iraq - Reuters
April 18, 2003 - "Science Friday" debate with Dan Fahey Navy Veteran Veteran's Advocate for Depleted Uranium Issues San Francisco, California and Michael Kilpatrick Deputy Director Deployment Health Support Directorate Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Health Protection and Readiness Falls Church, Virginia
April 17, 2003 - Scientists urge shell clear-up to protect civilians - Guardian
April 17, 2003 - "Depleted uranium may be far more dangerous than previously thought. " - Guardian
April 15, 2003 - Depleted uranim casts shadow over peace in Iraq - New Scientist
April 15, 2003 - Editorial - Before the dust settles - New Scientist
April 14, 2003 - US Rejects Iraq DU Cleanup - BBC
April 13, 2003 - Ammo spurs health debate: The "silver bullet" is a brutal killer. - New Haven Register (CT, USA)
April 11, 2003 - Gulf War Syndrome, The Sequel "People are sick over there already." Steve Rosenfeld interviews Doug Rokke.
April 4, 2003 - WBAI (NYC) panel on depleted uranium - with Leuren Moret and Sunny Miller
Spring, 2003 - YES! Magazine publication of Sunny Miller interview with Doug Rokke (hear original interview on Tufts University radio.)
April 2003 - Idaho Observer - Death by slow burn - how America Nukes its own troups
US Forces' use of depleted uranium weapons in 'illegal' - Sunday Herald (Scotland) piece by Neil Mackay
[Notice that the US media represented above are Science Friday (on NPR stations), WBAI (NYC - part of the Pacifica network), the Idaho Observer and YES! Magazine, with websites TomPaine.com and grassrootspeace.org. A serch of the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN sites shows that none of these giants (in terms of size) have printed one story on depleted uranium during the past 30 days. This topic has been heating up internationally, in light of the US administration's refusal to clean up uranium contamination in Iraq. Yet the NY Times, Post and CNN see fit to ignore it. The other TV networks have ignored it as well, except for Fox News, which blames concern about depleted uranium on 'junk science.' http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,84472,00.html
What to do? Contact media in the US and tell them how you feel about this lack of coverage. Point to some of the coverage above as good 'role models.'] Follow this LINK to a contact list for US media at the bottom of this page.
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Pressure on US to remove depleted uranium in Iraq
Australian Broadcast Corporation News
April 25, 2003
Reporter: Nick Grimm ( This is a transcript from AM. The program is broadcast around Australia at 08:00 on ABC Local Radio.)
LINDA MOTTRAM: Well, among the many other questions that remain in Iraq after the war is the issue of the likely impact of depleted uranium weapons.
It's not known exactly how many of these weapons have been used in the conflict, but it is estimated to be well in excess of the 340-tonnes of so-called "DU ammunition" which was used during the 1991 Gulf War.
The United States has resisted calls for it to assist in the clean-up and removal of depleted uranium in Iraq.
But pressure is building on the Coalition nations as international experts warn that too little is known about the lasting health dangers posed by the use of such weapons.
And Britain's Ministry of Defence concedes that it has a moral duty to the people of Iraq to clean up the depleted uranium.
Nick Grimm reports.
[sound of shells being fired]
NICK GRIMM: As the war in Iraq has demonstrated, depleted uranium weapons are a frighteningly effective battlefield tool to have in your arsenal.
Even heavily armoured vehicles like tanks offer scant protection when hit by a shell or missile containing depleted uranium, or "DU" as its known in military parlance.
The weapons punch straight through thick steel before vaporising into a chemically poisonous and radioactive dust.
It's that dust many experts believe could then pose an on-going health danger not only to soldiers, but to civilians as well.
MALCOLM HOOPER: I mean there is real evidence that this stuff is into people. It gets into people. It stays there. And it does very nasty things to them.
NICK GRIMM: Professor Malcolm Hooper is from Britain's University of Sunderland and is chief scientific adviser to the UK Gulf Veterans' Association.
Today he's welcomed an admission from Britain's Ministry of Defence that it has at least a moral duty to the people of Iraq to help clean up the mess left by its DU weapons.
MALCOLM HOOPER: All the evidence is that this is very unpleasant material. It's long-term action, it's going to contaminate the environment for, well forever, really because it's got a half life of 4.5 billion years. So there's a really big problem.
NICK GRIMM: If the depleted uranium is actually inside the weapons that have been used to bomb Iraq, it must have been blasted to smithereens. Now how do begin to clean that up?
MALCOLM HOOPER: It's more than that. What happens, when it hits the hard target you get a very fine dust liberated of uranium oxides, very tiny particles which can be inhaled. And it just spreads everywhere.
I mean there's just no way of controlling it. The material moves about from the site of the explosion. It can be transferred 25, 30 miles. So once the genie's out of the bottle, cleaning up is going to be extremely difficult.
NICK GRIMM: For it's part, the United States has so far resisted international calls for it to also clean up its DU weapons. But pressure is building, with respected organisations like Britain's national science academy, The Royal Society, also speaking out.
Today, it said that Coalition forces must urgently reveal where and how much depleted uranium was used in the conflict so that clean-up and monitoring programs can begin.
The Royal Society's Professor Brian Spratt.
BRIAN SPRATT: DU is radioactive and it's toxic. So we're asking for a scientific study to understand how much DU there is in the bodies of soldiers and also of civilians. So if we knew what the exposures were, I think we'd be much, much more secure in trying to talk about what the health risks are.
NICK GRIMM: The British Ministry of Defence has already conceded that it has a moral obligation to assist with the clean-up. Is that an important concession?
BRIAN SPRATT: Yes. It's, it is. We're not, we're a scientific organisation so we're not talking about who should do the clearing up. But we just think that clear-up is an important thing to achieve.
LINDA MOTTRAM: Professor Brian Spratt from Britain's national science academy, The Royal Society, speaking to Nick Grimm.
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Uranium hazard prompts cancer check on troops
MoD heeds warning from scientists despite reassurances from Hoon on radiation risk
Friday April 25, 2003 The Guardian
Soldiers returning from the Gulf will be offered tests to check levels of depleted uranium in their bodies to assess whether they are in danger of suffering kidney damage and lung cancer as a result of exposure, the Ministry of Defence said last night.
The ministry was responding to a warning earlier in the day from the Royal Society, Britain's premier scientific body, which warned that soldiers and civilians might be exposed to dangerous levels. It challenged earlier reassurances from the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, that depleted uranium was not a risk.
A ministry spokeswoman said that if soldiers followed instructions correctly and wore respirators in areas where depleted uranium might have been used they would not suffer dangerous exposure, but all would be offered urine tests. The overall results would be published.
The ministry said it would also publish details of where and how much depleted uranium was used, and hoped the Americans would do the same.
Brian Spratt FRS, chairman of the society's working group on depleted uranium, said: "It is highly unsatisfactory to deploy a large amount of a material that is weakly radioactive and chemically toxic without knowing how much soldiers and civilians have been exposed to it.
"It is only by measuring the levels of DU in the urine of soldiers that we can understand the intakes of DU that occur on the battlefield, which is a requirement for a better assessment of any hazards to health. It is vital that this monitoring takes place and that it takes place within a matter of months."
He said civilians in Iraq should be protected by checking milk and water samples for depleted uranium over a prolonged period. Some soldiers might suffer kidney damage and increased risk of lung cancer if they breathed in substantial amounts.
He added: "It is essential that we measure exposures in a sample of soldiers across the battlefield, not just those who may have had substantial exposures, but also foot soldiers and field hospital staff across Iraq.
"We also need to know the exposures of Iraqis living in any residential areas where DU munitions were deployed. We believe that exposures to DU will be low for most individuals, but we need to take measurements."
Last month Mr Hoon was dismissive about the threat. He told the Commons that there was "not the slightest scientific evidence" to suggest that depleted uranium left a poisonous residue.
The report from the society was released on the same day as assessment by the United Nations environment programme (Unep) on the situation in Iraq, which also included concerns about depleted uranium.
Depleted uranium is standard in a number of anti-tank weapons. Amounts in bullets, shells and bombs vary from 300 grams to 7 tonnes in the bunker-busters of the type dropped on Baghdad. The bombs used on the restaurant in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Saddam Hussein are believed to have contained tonnes of depleted uranium which would have contaminated the surrounding area.
Experts have calculated that from all sources between 1,000 and 2,000 tonnes of depleted uranium were used by the coalition in the three-week conflict.
Unep said immediate priorities should include restoring the water supply and sanitation systems, and cleaning pollution hot spots and waste sites to reduce the risk of epidemics.
Prof Spratt added: "About 340 tonnes of DU were fired in the 1991 Gulf war. The coalition needs to make clear where and how much DU was used in the recent conflict.
"Fragments of DU penetrators are potentially hazardous, and a recent Royal Society study recommended that they should be removed, and areas of contamination around impact sites identified, and where necessary made safe."
mpact sites in residential areas should be a priority and he urged long-term monitoring of water and milk.
"The question of who carries out the initial monitoring and clean-up is a political rather than scientific question," he said. "Monitoring, however, is likely to be a long-term task, spanning many years, so it is vital that Iraq acquires the capabilities to undertake this itself.
"The coalition needs to acknowledge that depleted uranium is a potential hazard and make in-roads into tackling it by being open about where and how much depleted uranium has been deployed."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003
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Coalition 'must reveal DU targets'
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
People in Iraq need urgent advice on avoiding exposure to depleted uranium (DU), the United Nations has said.
It wants the US and UK to provide precise details of sites targeted with DU weapons. The Royal Society, the UK's national science academy, is also demanding targeting data to enable a clean-up to begin.
It says it is "highly unsatisfactory" to continue using DU without knowing people's exposure levels.
The UN Environment Programme (Unep) expressed its concern about DU in a report on Iraq. It says humanitarian issues like restoring water and power, and cleaning up waste sites to reduce health risks, are priorities.
Another priority activity is "a scientific assessment of sites struck with weapons containing DU". It wants guidelines distributed immediately to military and civilian personnel, and to the Iraqi people, on how to minimize the risk of accidental exposure to DU.
The report, the Unep Desk Study on Environment in Iraq, was prepared by Unep's Post-Conflict Assessment Unit.
Unep said: "The intensive use of DU weapons has likely caused environmental contamination of as yet unknown levels or consequences.
"Conducting a DU study would require receiving precise coordinates of the targeted sites from the military."
The Royal Society says details of the DU used in Iraq are essential to allow "an effective clean-up and monitoring programme of both soldiers and civilians".
While Unep had extensive experience, it said, it was vital for Iraq to acquire the capability to undertake long-term monitoring itself.
Concern for civilians
Professor Brian Spratt chaired a Royal Society working group which published two reports on DU's health hazards.
He said: "The coalition needs to acknowledge that DU is a potential hazard and make inroads into tackling it by being open about where and how much has been deployed.
"Fragments of DU penetrators are potentially hazardous, and the Royal Society study recommended they should be removed, and areas of contamination around impact sites identified and where necessary made safe.
"Impact sites in residential areas should be a particular priority. Long-term monitoring of water and milk to detect any increase in uranium levels should also be introduced in Iraq." The society's study concluded that few soldiers or civilians were likely to be exposed to dangerous DU levels. But it is now calling for tests for soldiers exposed to "substantial" levels.
No time to waste
Professor Spratt said: "It is only by measuring the levels of DU in the urine of soldiers that we can understand the intakes of DU that occur on the battlefield, which is a requirement for a better assessment of any hazards to health.
"It is vital that this monitoring takes place, and that it takes place within a matter of months." Professor Spratt called as well for monitoring of DU levels in a wide sample of soldiers, including "foot soldiers and field hospital staff across Iraq", and Iraqi civilians.
He said: "It is highly unsatisfactory to deploy a large amount of a material that is weakly radioactive and chemically toxic without knowing how much soldiers and civilians have been exposed to it."
The UK has said it will make available records of its use of DU rounds. It offers veterans voluntary DU tests.
The US says it has no plans for any DU clean-up in Iraq. It does not test all exposed veterans. DU, left over after natural uranium has been enriched, is 1.7 times denser than lead, and effective for destroying armoured vehicles.
When a weapon with a DU tip or core strikes a solid object, like the side of a tank, it goes straight through before erupting in burning vapour which settles as dust.
Unep found DU traces in air and water in Bosnia-Herzegovina up to seven years after the weapons had been fired there.
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Top UN environmental body calls for urgent action in Iraq
24 April, 2003 Æ The top United Nations environmental body today called for urgent action in post-war in Iraq, ranging from immediate humanitarian relief to assessing the threat from weapons with depleted uranium to the longer-term recovery of an environment that has suffered from decades of damage.
"Many environmental problems in Iraq are so alarming that an immediate assessment and a clean-up plan are needed urgently,î said Pekka Haavisto, study chairman of a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report released in Geneva today. ñThe environment must be fully integrated into all reconstruction plans if the country is to achieve a strong and sustainable recovery."
Stressing the need for urgent measures to address humanitarian issues, the report cites as priorities restoring water supply and sanitation systems, and cleaning-up possible pollution ñhot spotsî and waste sites to reduce the risk of disease epidemics from accumulated municipal and medical wastes.
The report says another priority should be a scientific assessment of sites struck with weapons containing depleted uranium (DU). It recommends guidelines be distributed immediately to military and civilian personnel and to the general public on how to minimize the risk of accidental exposure to DU. The intensive use of DU weapons has likely caused environmental contamination of as yet unknown levels and a study would require receiving precise coordinates of the targeted sites from the military.
"Environmental protection is a humanitarian issue," UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said. "Not only do environmental hazards threaten human health and well-being, but they can impede aid operations." The report says action is needed to integrate environmental protection into the wider post-conflict clean-up and reconstruction, including environmental impact studies and the use of environmentally friendly technologies for major reconstruction projects.
Noting the need to build strong national institutions for long-term environmental management, the report declares: ñThe environment must be treated as a priority issue in the development of democratic governance and institutional structures. Working within a UN framework, national and international experts should be engaged in defining the institutional, legislative, capacity building and resource needs for effective and sustainable environmental management.î
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UK to aid Iraq DU removal
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online
The UK Government says it will help to clean up depleted uranium (DU) ammunition in Iraq.
The US has said it has no plans to remove DU debris, despite international recommendations for its retrieval
There is widespread controversy over the use of DU, which some veterans believe has made them ill.
One UK adviser on DU welcomed the British announcement as evidence of a fresh approach.
A spokeswoman for the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) told BBC News Online: "Legally, we have no obligation to clean up the remains of the DU we used. It's the responsibility of the new regime in Baghdad.
"But morally we do recognise an obligation, as we have in the past. We helped in the removal of DU from Kosovo.
"We'll be helping in any way we can, specifically by providing money for the clean-up, and by making available records of where the ammunition was fired.
"There may not always be any records, for instance where there was a skirmish - but insofar as we have them, we'll make them available."
The evidence is piling up that DU is not benign at all
Professor Malcolm Hooper, Gulf Veterans' Association
DU, left over after natural uranium has been enriched, is 1.7 times denser than lead, and very effective for punching through armoured vehicles
When a weapon with a DU tip or core strikes a solid object, like the side of a tank, it goes straight through before erupting in a burning cloud of vapour. This settles as chemically poisonous and radioactive dust.
Both the US and the UK acknowledge the dust can be dangerous if inhaled, though they say the danger is short-lived, localised, and much more likely to lead to chemical poisoning than to irradiation.
Almost all the UK ammunition containing DU was fired from Challenger 2 tanks, the MoD says.
It is also used in "bunker-busting" bombs, in some naval armaments, and in A-10 anti-tank aircraft.
The MoD could give no figure for the amount of DU used in Iraq: one unconfirmed estimate suggests the total could be about 1,500 tons, five times more than was used in the 1991 Gulf war.
A Pentagon spokesman said on 14 April he believed the US had no plans for a DU clean-up in Iraq. The British initiative is an unusual departure from a common Anglo-American approach.
The United Nations Environment Programme's Post-Conflict Assessment Unit has published a report on DU contamination found in Bosnia-Hercegovina up to seven years after the conflict there.
It recommends collecting DU fragments, covering contaminated points with asphalt or clean soil, and keeping records of contaminated sites.
'Denied for decades'
Malcolm Hooper, emeritus professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Sunderland, is chief scientific adviser to the UK Gulf Veterans' Association.
He told BBC News Online: "I welcome what the MoD has said, because it suggests someone may now be starting to say: 'Hang on, perhaps this stuff isn't as benign as we thought'.
"And I think the evidence is piling up that DU is not benign at all. The inhalation of these fine dust particles represents a health hazard that was known to the military as long ago as 1974.
"The ministry is right to say it has a moral duty to act. I think it has a legal duty as well, in the light of the child cancers and birth defects we've been seeing in Iraq since DU was used in the 1991 war."
Many UK and US veterans of that war believe exposure to DU has damaged their health, and in some cases killed their comrades.
They also blame it for some of the health problems seen in southern Iraq, though many scientists say there is no known mechanism by which DU could have caused the damage.
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Scientists Urge Depleted Uranium Testing in Iraq
Thu April 24, 2003 01:55 PM ET
LONDON (Reuters Health)
Britain's national science academy has called on U.S. and British military officials to reveal where depleted uranium was used during the conflict in Iraq. The Royal Society said on Thursday the information about where ammunition containing depleted uranium (DU) was is needed so a clean-up and monitoring program for soldiers and civilians can begin.
Depleted uranium is used to harden the tips of armor-piercing shells. It is 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium, but the Royal Society says soldiers exposed to very high levels could suffer kidney damage and an increased risk of lung cancer. It could also pose a risk to civilians through contaminated soil or water.
"The coalition needs to make clear where and how much depleted uranium was used in the recent conflict in Iraq," said Professor Brian Spratt, chair of the Royal Society working group on depleted uranium.
"Although there are more pressing problems in Iraq ... the coalition needs to acknowledge that depleted uranium is a potential hazard and make in-roads into tackling it by being open about where and how much depleted uranium has been deployed."
ASSESSMENT A PRIORITY: UN
The Royal Society's demand came as the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) launched a study on Iraq's environment, saying a scientific assessment of sites hit by DU weapons should be a priority.
"The intensive use of DU weapons has likely caused environmental contamination of as yet unknown levels or consequences," the UN agency said on Thursday. "Conducting a DU study would require receiving precise co-ordinates of the targeted sites from the military." The report recommends that military personnel and civilians be given guidance on how to minimize their risk for exposure to DU.
SOLDIERS SHOULD BE TESTED
The Royal Society also wants soldiers to be tested -- those who were exposed to high levels and others from across the battlefield.
"It is only by measuring the levels of DU in the urine of soldiers that we can understand the intakes of DU that occur on the battlefield, which is a requirement for a better assessment of any hazards to health," Spratt said.
He added that it was crucial to know the exposures of Iraqis living in areas where DU munitions were deployed. "We believe that exposures to DU will be low for most individuals but we need to take measurements," he said.
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Scientists urge shell clear-up to protect civilians
Royal Society spells out dangers of depleted uranium
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Thursday April 17, 2003
Hundreds of tonnes of depleted uranium used by Britain and the United States in Iraq should be removed to protect the civilian population, the Royal Society said yesterday, contradicting Pentagon claims it was not necessary.
The society's statement fuels the controversy over the use of depleted uranium (DU), which is an effective tank destroyer and bunker buster but is believed by many scientists to cause cancers and other severe illnesses.
The society, Britain's premier scientific institution, was incensed because the Pentagon had claimed it had the backing of the society in saying DU was not dangerous.
In fact, the society said, both soldiers and civilians were in short and long term danger. Children playing at contaminated sites were particularly at risk.
DU is left over after uranium is enriched for use in nuclear reactors and is also recovered after reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. There are thousands of tonnes of it in stores in the US and UK.
Because it is effectively free and 20% heavier than steel, the military experimented with it and discovered it could penetrate steel and concrete much more easily than convential weapons. It burns at 10,000C, incinerating everything as it turns to dust.
As it proved so effective, it was adopted as a standard weapon in the first Gulf war despite its slight radioactive content and toxic effects. It was used again in the Balkans and Afghanistan by the US.
DU has been suspected by many campaigners of causing the unexplained cancers among Iraqi civilians, particularly children, since the previ ous Gulf war. Chemicals released in the atmosphere during bombing could equally be to blame
Among those against the use of DU is Professor Doug Rokke, a one time US army colonel who is also a former director of the Pentagon's depleted uranium project, and a former professor of environmental science at Jacksonville University. He has said a nation's military personnel cannot wilfully contaminate any other nation, cause harm to persons and the environment and then ignore the consequences of their actions. He has called on the US and UK to "recognise the immoral consequences of their actions and assume responsibility for medical care and thorough environmental remediation".
The UN Environment Programme has been tracking the use of DU in the Balkans and found it leaching into the water table. Seven years after the conflict it has recommended the decontamination of buildings where DU dust is present to protect the civilian population against cance
Up to 2,000 tonnes of DU has been used in the Gulf, a large part of it in cities like Baghdad, far more than in the Balkans. Unep has offered to go to Iraq and check on the quantities of DU still present and the danger it poses to civilians.
Professor Brian Spratt, chairman of the Royal Society working group on depleted uranium, said that a recent study by the society had found that the majority of soldiers were unlikely to be exposed to dangerous levels of depleted uranium during and after its use on the battlefield.
"However, a small number of soldiers might suffer kidney damage and an increased risk of lung cancer if substantial amounts of depleted uranium are breathed in, for instance inside an armoured vehicle hit by a depleted uranium penetrator."
He said the study also concluded that the soil around the impact sites of depleted uranium penetrators may be heavily contaminated, and could be harmful if swallowed by children for example.
"In addition, large numbers of corroding depleted uranium penetrators embedded in the ground might pose a long-term threat if the uranium leaches into water supplies.
"We recommend that fragments of depleted uranium penetrators should be removed, and areas of contamination should be identified and, where necessary, made safe."
He added: "We also recommend long-term sampling, particularly of water and milk, to detect any increase in uranium levels in areas where depleted uranium has been used. This provides a cost-effective method of monitoring sensitive components in the environment, and of providing information about uranium levels to concerned local populations."
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When the Dust Settles
Depleted uranium may be far more dangerous than previously thought - and we could be dealing with the fallout for many generations to come. Ian Sample and Nic Fleming report.
Thursday April 17, 2003
The change in wording seems innocuous at first. During the 1991 Gulf war, US army guidelines recommended surgeons do their best to remove fragments of depleted uranium (DU) shrapnel from soldiers struck by flying chunks of metal from armour-piercing shells. In practice, that meant smaller bits of shrapnel were rarely removed. Getting those out just caused more damage to surrounding muscle and other tissue. Today, the guidelines are different: surgeons should be "aggressive" in removing any fragments of depleted uranium.
The small change betrays a big leap in understanding the threat posed by depleted uranium. Evidence is building that DU causes more genetic damage than scientists suspected - even at levels deemed so low as to be non-toxic.
Depleted uranium shells are designed to be lethal: the metal is so dense it can crash through the heavy armour of a modern battle tank. But those who escape the intended effect face other risks. When the depleted uranium rod inside an armour-piercing shell disintegrates, it showers toxic and weakly radioactive dust and fragments over a wide area.
It is not just soldiers who risk exposure. In Iraq, land where people once lived, and will doubtless return to, is now littered with the stuff. In 1991, armour-piercing shells containing around 340 tonnes of DU were fired at targets too tough to take out with standard shells. Hundreds more tonnes have been added to that during the past four weeks. People returning to places where the shells were used breathe in the dust as it is churned up by wind and traffic. The metal can also seep into water supplies, contaminating them for years.
Alexandra Miller at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, is due to complete an investigation into DU for the US department of defence next year. Already she has some insight into the damage it can do. Last year she showed that depleted uranium from pellets implanted in rats dispersed all over the animals' bodies, turning up in bones, muscles, kidneys and liver. Rats breeding six months later had fewer offspring than normal.
Her latest study reveals something even more unusual. When human bone cells are exposed to DU, some suffer immediate genetic damage. The type of damage varies but often fragments break off chromosomes, the strings of genes in almost every cell, and form tiny rings of genetic material. This much was expected. But as other cells evidently undamaged by the depleted uranium started to divide, creating new cells, Miller noticed the genes in some of these new cells were damaged. More than a month after the DU was removed, new cells were forming with broken chromosomes or other genetic damage. The DU was having a delayed effect.
More intriguing still is Miller's latest suspicion that DU punches above its weight in terms of the damage it does to genes. She knew that depleted uranium could damage genes not only by emitting radiation, but by its chemical make up - like nickel, it can switch on cancer genes by its sheer toxicity. But she found that tiny amounts of DU, too small to be toxic and only mildly radioactive, cause more genetic damage in cells than either the toxicity or radiation could explain. Her latest results suggest that the toxicity and radioactivity of DU reinforce one another, causing more damage than the two just added together. It's no small difference either. "You can get more than an eight-fold greater effect than you'd expect," she says. In other words, more than eight times as many cells suffer genetic damage than predicted. Without taking the effect into account, the health risk of DU could be grossly underestimated.
"People have always assumed low doses are not much of a problem, but they can cause more damage than people think," says Miller. It may be some time before the risk of DU is revised though. "None of these studies has yet impacted on the regulations."
Opinion among scientists is divided about the dangers of the genetic damage caused by DU. "There's a debate in the field. It looks like DNA damage in cells will make them weaker and more susceptible to becoming cancerous. But some say this could just be the cells adapting to the radiation," says Miller.
One person who is convinced DU-induced genetic damage causes real health problems is Albrecht Schott, a biochemist who recently retired from the Free University of Berlin. The day before the start of this Gulf war, he published a study carried out with scientists at the University of Bremen. The study, the first of its kind, looked at genetic damage in the white blood cells of 16 former soldiers who believed they had been exposed to DU in the 1991 Gulf war or in the Balkans. They found that damage to chromosomes in the white blood cells was on average five-and-a-half times higher in the veterans than the rest of the population.
Kenny Duncan, one of the soldiers tested, was 21 when he served with the Royal Corps of Transport, helping to shift Iraqi tanks destroyed by DU shells in the 1991 Gulf war. He believes his exposure to DU has left his family with a painful legacy. His eight-year-old son suffers constant headaches and has deformed ears and toes. His two other children also have deformed toes and both suffer bowel and bladder problems. One is also partially deaf.
The reason is likely to be down to DU, says Schott. "The high levels of genetic damage we observed do not occur naturally. I believe alpha radiation from DU to be the cause of these chromosome aberrations.
"Uranium molecules in the blood can travel to every part of the body, including the areas where sperm and eggs are. This, and the presence of chromosome aberrations, increases the probability of cancer and other genetic conditions significantly. They lead to a higher probability of genetic damage in the person's babies and then damage can be passed on to the children's children."
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence dismisses the study. "We consider the tests undertaken in Germany neither well thought out nor scientifically sound," he says.
Miller also has doubts about the Bremen study. The soldiers suspected they had been exposed to DU, but how could they be sure? "How do they know they weren't exposed to something else, like weapons cleaning fluid?" she asks.
Virginia Murray who heads the chemical incident response service at Guy's hospital, London, and contributed to the Royal Society's investi gation into DU last year says the effects of DU on people can only be assessed accurately if the amount they were exposed to is known precisely. The society's report recommended that in any future conflict when DU was used, levels of uranium should be regularly monitored in soldiers exposed to the metal and their kidney function checked to ensure it is not impaired.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence says soldiers who believe they have been exposed to DU in Iraq can have their urine tested on their return. If they test positive for DU, they can have follow-up checks on their kidneys.
Next week, the United Nations environment programme will publish a study into the environmental dangers posed by the war on Iraq, including those from DU. Pekka Haavisto, chair of Unep's Iraq task force said scientists would take soil, water and air samples and test them for traces of DU. "Based on previous experience, we have seen that in targeted areas, this type of ammunition poses possible environmental and health risks. We found that DU can corrode in the soil and exist for a long time in the dust." Without a clean up, and the Pentagon says they have no plans for one, people returning to DU hotspots might find themselves unwitting volunteers in testing just what effects depleted uranium really has.
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Depleted uranium casts shadow over peace in Iraq
15 April 03
Exclusive from New Scientist www.newscientist.com
Wrecked tanks and vehicles litter the Iraqi countryside. Ruined buildings dominate towns and cities. Many were blown to pieces by shells tipped with depleted uranium, a material that the US and Britain say poses no long-term health or environmental risks. But many Iraqis, and a growing band of scientists, are not so sure.
Last week, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) announced it wanted to send a scientific team into Iraq as soon as possible to examine the effects of depleted uranium (DU). People's fears that DU leaves a deadly legacy must be addressed, says UNEP. Some scientists go further. Evidence is emerging that DU affects our bodies in ways we do not fully understand, they say, and the legacy could be real.
DU is both radioactive and toxic. Past studies of DU in the environment have concluded that neither of these effects poses a significant risk. But some researchers are beginning to suspect that in combination, the two effects could do significant harm. Nobody has taken a hard look at the combined effect of both, says Alexandra Miller, a radiobiologist with the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. "The bottom line is it might contribute to the risk."
She is not alone. The idea that chemical and radiological damage are reinforcing each other is very plausible and gaining momentum, says Carmel Mothersill, head of the Radiation and Environmental Science Centre at the Dublin Institute of Technology in Ireland. "The regulators don't know how to handle it. So they sweep it under the carpet."
Read "Before the dust settles", the New Scientist editorial on this story here
A by-product of the uranium enrichment process, DU is chemically identical to natural uranium. But most of the 235 isotope has been extracted leaving mainly the non-fissionable 238 isotope. It is used to make the tips of armour-piercing shells because it is extremely dense: 1.7 times as dense as lead. Also, unlike other heavy metals that tend to flatten, or mushroom, upon impact, DU has the ability to "self-sharpen" as material spread out by the impact ignites and burns off as the munition pierces its target.
During the Gulf war in 1991, the US and Britain fired an estimated 350 tonnes of DU at Iraqi tanks, a figure likely to be matched in the course of the current conflict. In the years since then, doctors in southern Iraq have reported a marked increase in cancers and birth defects, and suspicion has grown that they were caused by DU contamination from tank battles on farmland west of Basra.
As the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence point out, this claim has not been substantiated. Iraq did not allow the World Health Organization to carry out an independent assessment. Given its low radioactivity and our current understanding of radiobiology, DU cannot trigger such health effects, the British and American governments maintain.
But what if they are wrong? Though DU is 40 per cent less radioactive than natural uranium, Miller believes that its radiological and toxic effects might combine in subtle, unforeseen ways, making it more carcinogenic than thought. It's a controversial theory, but one for which Miller has increasing evidence.
Uranium is "genotoxic". It chemically alters DNA, switching on genes that would otherwise not be expressed. The fear is that the resulting abnormally high activity in cells could be a precursor to tumour growth.
But while the chemical toxicity of DU is reasonably well established, Mothersill points out that the radiological effects of DU are less clear. To gauge the risk from low-dose radiation, researchers extrapolate from tests using higher doses. But the relationship between dose and effect is not linear: at low doses radiation kills relatively fewer cells. And though that sounds like good news, it could mean that low radiation is having subtle effects that go unnoticed because cells are not dying, says Mothersill.
Miller has found one way this may happen. She has discovered the first direct evidence that radiation from DU damages chromosomes within cultured cells. The chromosomes break, and the fragments reform in a way that results in abnormal joins (Military Medicine, vol 167, p 120). Both the breaks and the joins are commonly found in tumour cells
More crucially, she has recently found that DU radiation increases gene activity in cultured cells at doses of DU not known to cause chemical toxicity (Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, in press). The possible consequences are made all the more uncertain because no one knows if genes switched on by DU radiation enhance the damage caused by genes switched on by DU's toxic effects, or vice versa. "I think that we assumed that we knew everything that we needed to know about uranium," says Miller. "This is something we have to consider now when we think about risk estimates."
Britain's Royal Society briefly referred to these synergistic effects in its report last year on the health effects of DU munitions. "There is a possibility of damage to DNA due to the chemical effects being enhanced by the effects of the alpha-particle irradiation." But it makes no recommendations for future research to evaluate the risks.
The bystander effect
Miller points to another reason to be concerned about DU: the so-called "bystander effect". There is a growing consensus among scientists that radiation damages more than just the cells it directly hits. In tests using equipment that allows single cells to be irradiated by individual alpha particles, gene expression increases both in irradiated cells, and in neighbouring cells that have not been exposed. "At high doses, 'bystander' is not an issue because you are killing so many cells. But at low doses that's not really true," says Miller. There is a danger that experiments not specifically looking for this effect could miss an important source of damage.
A body of research has also emerged over the past decade showing that the effects of radiation may not appear immediately. Damage to genes may be amplified as cells divide, so the full consequences may only appear many generations after the event that caused it.
And while the chemical toxicity of DU itself is more clear-cut, the possibility remains that there may still be some unforeseen synergistic effects at a genetic level. Other heavy metals, such as tungsten, nickel and cobalt are similarly genotoxic. When Miller and her team exposed human cells to a mixture of these metals, significantly more genes became activated than when the cells were exposed to the equivalent amount of each metal separately (Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, in press).
Miller and Mothersill say that recommended safe radiation limits are often based on the idea that only irradiated cells will be affected, and ignore both the bystander effect and the possible amplification over the generations. "Nothing should be written in stone when it comes to risk assessment," agrees Michael Clark at Britain's National Radiological Protection Board. But even if there were a case for re-evaluating the dosimetry for low-dose radiation, he says we should be cautious of the significance of Miller's lab-based research. "An in vitro effect is not a health effect."
Also, says Clark, everyone has traces of natural uranium in their bodies. "If there was some sort of subtle low-dose effect I think we would have seen it," he says. Because none has shown up in epidemiological studies, it seems unlikely there are any health effects associated with DU, which is less radioactive. But Miller is not convinced. While most people have small amounts of uranium in their bodies, she says no studies have been done to see whether this contributes to cases of cancer in society at large.
The military tends to dismiss such hazards as being of only theoretical significance, at least when it comes to civilians. According to the Pentagon, the only risk of exposure is during combat, when DU shells hit hard targets and the metal ignites. This creates clouds of uranium oxide dust that can be breathed in. But heavy oxide particles quickly settle, it says, limiting the risk of exposure. "A small dust particle is still very heavy," says Michael Kilpatrick of the US Deployment Health Support Directorate. "It stays on the ground."
That sounds reassuring until you read UNEP's latest report on DU left over from conflicts in former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s. Last month, a team of experts collaborating with the International Atomic Energy Agency, WHO and NATO concluded that DU poses little risk in Bosnia although it can still be detected at many sites. Just 11 tonnes was fired in that conflict.
But evidence that DU may be moving through the ground and could contaminate local water supplies should be investigated further, UNEP says. And on rare occasions, wind or human activity may raise DU-laden dust that local people could inhale. The Royal Society admits that localised areas of DU contamination pose a risk, particularly to young children, and should be cleared up as a priority. They also recommend the environmental sampling of affected areas (see Royal Society Reports on DU, 2002", below).
Such evidence is partly why UNEP is keen to study DU fired during the present conflict in Iraq. Assessments in former Yugoslavia were made up to seven years after DU weapons were used, UNEP admits, and a more immediate study in Iraq would give us a much better understanding of how DU behaves in the environment. Any hazards such a study identifies could be dealt with immediately, says UNEP. And even now, an investigation in Iraq could reveal risks remaining from DU fired during the Gulf war in 1991.
Veterans show ill effects
Cracks are also appearing in the argument that DU munitions have not proven harmful even to troops. In the 1991 war, more than 100 coalition troops were exposed to DU after being accidentally fired on by their own forces. The majority inhaled uranium oxide, while the rest suffered shrapnel injuries. Some still have DU in their bodies. Britain and America point out that none has developed cancers or kidney problems, as might have been expected if DU posed a long-term danger.
But researchers at the Bremen Institute for Prevention Research, Social Medicine and Epidemiology in Germany have found that all is not well with the veterans. Last month they published results from tests in which they took blood samples from 16 of the soldiers, and counted the number of chromosomes in which broken strands of DNA had been incorrectly repaired. In veterans, these abnormalities occurred at five times the rate as in a control group of 40 healthy volunteers (Radiation Protection Dosimetry, vol 103, p 211). "Increased chromosomal aberrations are associated with an increased incidence of cancers," says team member Heike Schrùder. The damage occurred, they say, because the soldiers inhaled DU particles in battle.
The NRPB is unconvinced. "It is possible that exposure to significant amounts of DU could cause excess chromosome aberrations, but this study has technical flaws," says Clark. "There are no proper controls to compare results with soldiers who were not exposed to DU. And some of the reported excess aberrations are well known to be linked to chemicals rather than radiation."
Tough decision to make
Deciding whether DU is to blame will be tough. Independent research may confirm that rates of cancer have increased in the Iraqi population. But the Iraqi government has used chemical weapons on its own people that can produce the same outcome, and it is impossible to know for sure who may have been exposed. Soldiers may similarly have been exposed to chemicals in 1991. The only way to resolve the issue is more research, says Dudley Goodhead, director of Britain's Medical Research Council's Radiation and Genome Stability Unit at Harwell, near Oxford. "It's something important that needs to be explained."
Miller admits it is entirely possible that DU contamination is safe. But many of the scientific investigations into DU have only just begun, and their results will be long coming. "None of this has been looked at or even thought about it until the last few years," she says. As the dust begins to settle in Iraq, it remains to be seen when the ravages of war will end.
Royal Society reports on DU, 2002 - Conclusions
´ Most soldiers have a negligible risk of dying of cancer caused by radiation from battlefield DU. It will be undetectable above the risk of dying from cancer over a normal lifetime. Soldiers should not suffer adverse effects on the kidney or other organs.
´ A few soldiers, for instance those who clean up vehicles struck by DU, may have an excess risk of lung cancer and may develop short-term kidney damage.
´ People living in areas where DU was deployed have a negligible risk of developing cancers as a result of inhaling DU resuspended in the air. But it is uncertain how much DU is inhaled in years following a conflict. Most people should not suffer any effects on kidney function from inhaled DU.
´ Ingestion of DU from contaminated water and food, and from soil, will be highly variable and may be significant in some cases: for example, children playing in areas where DU shells have impacted.
Royal Society reports on DU, 2002 - Recommendations
´ Long-term epidemiological studies of soldiers exposed to DU, and environmental sampling, particularly of water and milk, should be undertaken. Information about DU levels should be given to local populations, and contaminated areas cleaned up.
´ British veterans exposed to high levels of DU should be identified and independently evaluated. An independent study of anecdotal reports of death and illness in US veterans linked to DU is required.
´ In any future conflict using DU munitions, tests of kidney function should be completed on soldiers as soon after exposure as practical.
´ Better estimates of DU levels in the air around tanks, and models of DU oxide behaviour during impact, are required. More information is needed on the bioavailability of DU and titanium products from munitions, and whether these concentrate in plants and animals.
The full Royal Society reports can be obtained here and here (pdf files).
Duncan Graham-Rowe, with additional reporting by Rob Edwards
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Editorial: Before the dust settles
19:00 15 April 03
Exclusive from New Scientist Print Edition
The immediate humanitarian priorities in Iraq must be to distribute food and clean water to those in need and to try and restore the health system to some kind of normality. But once this emergency subsides, there is another health issue that needs urgent attention - clearing up the uncertainties over the long-term impact of depleted uranium.
Iraq offers a unique opportunity for helping resolve the issue - but there is a catch. To be of real value, any studies must begin as soon as possible. Delay will dilute the results and disadvantage not only Iraqi civilians but also the soldiers who have been exposed to DU.
DU is a formidable part of coalition forces' armouries. Shells tipped with the super-dense metal were used extensively in the Gulf war of 1991, which left parts of Iraq littered with the stuff. Saddam Hussein's government portrayed it as a chemical weapon and blamed it for causing cancers and congenital abnormalities. In contrast, the US and British governments claim that DU causes few if any health problems and regard suggestions that DU is harmful as ignorant and mischievous.
Take, for example, a letter to this magazine from Britain's veterans minister Lewis Moonie (5 April, p 28). He points out that many independent reports have considered the effects of using DU munitions, and that "none of these has found a connection between DU exposure and illness". He goes on to say that "media reports of cancers and birth defects in Iraq are not substantiated with credible scientific evidence".
But these statements imply a level of knowledge that we simply do not have. An investigation conducted by Britain's Royal Society and quoted by the minister makes clear that there are numerous ways in which DU can cause illness and even death. And those media reports about Iraq were not substantiated because no studies were ever carried out. Evidence of the absence of any health impacts would be reassuring but all we have at present is an absence of evidence.
The Royal Society highlighted huge gaps in our knowledge about DU, such as the level likely to cause kidney damage, the impact of DU on bone, how much DU can be inhaled in the years following a conflict, and the combined effect of DU's chemical and radiological effects. It even made recommendations for studies to be carried out on soldiers exposed to DU "in any future conflict". Environmental sampling, particularly of water and milk, would need to be done and local people informed of the results.
To reassure the Iraqi people, not to mention their own troops, coalition governments should set this research in motion, or let the WHO and UN Environment Programme carry it out. The UN agencies already have the study designs in place. Failing to support such research can only compound present uncertainties and fuel public suspicion.
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BBC news story: http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/science/nature/2946715.stm
April 14, 2003
US rejects Iraq DU clean-up
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
The US says it has no plans to remove the debris left over from depleted uranium (DU) weapons it is using in Iraq.
It says no clean-up is needed, because research shows DU has no long-term effects. It says a 1990 study suggesting health risks to local people and veterans is out of date.
A United Nations study found DU contaminating air and water seven years after it was used.
DU, left over after natural uranium has been enriched, is 1.7 times denser than lead, and very effective for punching through armoured vehicles.
When a weapon with a DU tip or core strikes a solid object, like the side of a tank, it goes straight through before erupting in a burning cloud of vapour. This settles as chemically poisonous and radioactive dust.
Both the US and the UK acknowledge the dust can be dangerous if inhaled, though they say the danger is short-lived, localised, and much more likely to lead to chemical poisoning than to irradiation.
One thing we've found in these various studies is that there are no long-term effects from DU Lieutenant-Colonel David Lapan, Pentagon spokesman But a study prepared for the US Army in July 1990, a month before Iraq invaded Kuwait, says: "The health risks associated with internal and external DU exposure during combat conditions are certainly far less than other combat-related risks. "Following combat, however, the condition of the battlefield and the long-term health risks to natives and combat veterans may become issues in the acceptability of the continued use of DU."
A Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel David Lapan, told BBC News Online: "Since then there've been a number of studies - by the UK's Royal Society and the World Health Organisation, for example - into the health risks of DU, or the lack of them.
"It's fair to say the 1990 study has been overtaken by them. One thing we've found in these various studies is that there are no long-term effects from DU.
"And given that, I don't believe we have any plans for a DU clean-up in Iraq."
Part of the armoury
The UN Environment Programme study, published in March 2003, found DU in air and groundwater in Bosnia-Herzegovina seven years after the weapons were fired.
The UN says the existing data suggest it is "highly unlikely" DU could be linked to any of the health problems reported.
But it recommends collecting DU fragments, covering contaminated points with asphalt or clean soil, and keeping records of contaminated sites.
Reports from Baghdad speak of repeated attacks by US aircraft carrying DU weapons on high-rise buildings in the city centre.
The UK says: "British forces on deployment to the Gulf have DU munitions available as part of their armoury, and will use them if necessary." It will not confirm they have used them.
Many veterans from the Gulf and Kosovo wars believe DU has made them seriously ill.
One UK Gulf veteran is Ray Bristow, a former marathon runner.
In 1999 he told the BBC: "I gradually noticed that every time I went out for a run my distance got shorter and shorter, my recovery time longer and longer.
"Now, on my good days, I get around quite adequately with a walking stick, so long as it's short distances. Any further, and I need to be pushed in a wheelchair."
Ray Bristow was tested in Canada for DU. He is open-minded about its role in his condition.
But he says: "I remained in Saudi Arabia throughout the war. I never once went into Iraq or Kuwait, where these munitions were used.
"But the tests showed, in layman's terms, that I have been exposed to over 100 times an individual's safe annual exposure to depleted uranium."
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[Traprock Comment: Nice to see an article in US media, but notice that the Department of Defense spokesperson (not an expert) gets the last word in the article. As for how a layperson can make an unchallenged statement that "radition exposure is not an issue" is beyond me. Two local 'experts' are consulted, neither of whom appear to have any expeience with DU or battlefield conditions. Dr. Lisa Bernaise's comments fly in the face of what is known about the risks of air-born DU particles. These particles are so small they penetrate masks. Also, Domenico DelliCarpini dismisses the risks of radiation. Yet the Royal Society in the UK has concerns, and has asked for a DU cleanup. At least the article calls for testing of civilians and soldiers. Charlie Jenks]
April 13, 2003
New Haven Register
Abram Katz, Register Science Editor
Ammo spurs health debate
The "silver bullet" is a brutal killer
The depleted uranium round rends and incinerates enemy tank crews in an instant. The burning hulks of Soviet-era Iraqi armor are testament to the silver bulletÍs destructive power in the hands of the U.S. Army and Marines.
WhatÍs far less clear is what long-term effects „ if any „ remnants of this armor-slaying ammunition may have on the health of soldiers and civilians in embattled areas. Critics contend that depleted uranium is indiscriminately deadly to friend and foe alike. After all, the heavy metal is a byproduct of enriched uranium, and is radioactive and toxic.
Physicians and public health experts doubt that depleted uranium poses a great risk. More radiation shines from the glowing instrument dials on Republican Guard T-72 tanks than from expended DU ammunition in the turret, they said.
The truth lies somewhere on tank battle wastelands, in the blackened hulls along the Tigris and Euphrates, and in the lungs, blood and bones of soldiers and civilians. All must be examined, experts agree.
But so far, only around 70 U.S. soldiers are being studied for the effects of depleted uranium.
Meanwhile, DU is more than popular with tank commanders, and Army and Marine aviators, because it slices through armor. ThatÍs how American tank crews came to call the 44-pound DU round the silver bullet: It can pierce any existing armor plate.
But depleted uranium worries many physicians, veterans and activists. Exposure to DU may lead to a range of medical problems, from kidney damage to cancer. And some scientists believe it is partly responsible for Gulf War Syndrome.
Activists contend that DU continues to sicken and kill unfortunate soldiers who inhaled DU-tinged smoke from burning tanks. Others breathed in particles of uranium when they climbed into demolished Iraqi tanks looking for souvenirs. The worst exposures were inflicted by fellow Americans, who accidentally fired DU rounds through Bradley Fighting Vehicles and into an Abrams tank. Some survivors were left with shards of depleted uranium shrapnel lodged in their bodies.
Scientists assert that the radiation risk posed by DU is barely measurable and would be difficult to discern from normal background radioactivity. The only human study so far is based on the 70 victims of "friendly fire."
"Depleted uranium is a very controversial issue. It can get lodged in the lungs. ItÍs radioactive and chemically toxic as well," said Tara Thornton, executive director of the Military Toxics Project in Lewiston, Maine.
"We donÍt say depleted uranium is the whole problem with the veterans that came back from the Gulf War. But it could be part of the problem," she said. "More studies should be done. Until then it shouldnÍt be used. Baghdad will have depleted uranium for thousands of years," Thornton said.
Austin Comacho, a Department of Defense spokesman, said, "There havenÍt been studies on the environmental effects of depleted uranium. The medical concern is toxicity from inhalation and ingestion. Radiation exposure is not an issue," he said. "ThereÍs a national fear of anything that sounds like radiation," Comacho said.
The Pentagon has solid reasons for using depleted uranium in ammunition for 20 mm, 25 mm, 30 mm and 120 mm canons. The DU ammunition is available for the Bradley Fighting VehicleÍs 25-mm canon; the massive multi-barrel 30-mm canon in the nose of the A-10 "warthog" airplane, and the 30-mm chain gun under the chin of the Apache attack helicopter.
Depleted uranium is almost twice as dense as lead. ThatÍs why DU can easily punch through the thickest armor from a great distance.
And DU is pyrophoric, meaning the metal ignites spontaneously on impact. The silver bullet, or M829-A1, consists of a combustible outer case containing propellant. Inside is a 10-pound finned needle of depleted uranium, known as the penetrator. Because the penetrator has a smaller diameter than the 120-mm smoothbore canon of the Abrams tank, it is jacketed with a "sabot" that peels off when the round leaves the barrel. The sabot design sends the penetrator streaking away at extremely high velocity. If the gunner is on target, the ultra-dense spear bites into the enemy armor. Unlike tungsten or lead, which spread or mushroom on impact, the depleted uranium rod becomes sharper. This makes the round effective against rounded or angled armor.
DU rounds, like the silver bullet, combust when they hit, sending spatters of molten armor plate into the turret. The penetrator blasts through a microsecond later creating a 1,000-degree fireball of vapor that rapidly condenses into fine particles. About half of the DU is transformed into dust. The residual powder is toxic and slightly radioactive and can lodge in lungs and travel through the blood to other organs.
Coalition forces fired about 900,000 depleted uranium rounds in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991, totaling about 820 tons. Experts assume that far more DU has been expended in the past three weeks. However much has been fired, thereÍs more.
The United States has an estimated stockpile of about 1 billion pounds. This is because depleted uranium is whatÍs left after the fissionable isotope U-235 is separated for use in reactors and nuclear weapons. DU is mostly U-238 with a mixture of other radioactive elements.
"The danger from depleted uranium is not radiation," said Domenico DelliCarpini, chief medical physicist at Greenwich Hospital. DU emits alpha and beta particles and weak gamma rays, he said. "You donÍt want to inhale or ingest the dust because itÍs a heavy metal," DelliCarpini said.
Alpha-particle emitters are not good for the lungs, but the half-life of depleted uranium is about 4 billion years, meaning that it releases energy extremely slowly, he said, probably too slowly to cause cancer. "DU on the ground will probably remain dormant. DU dust would be so diluted that it would be innocuous," he said.
"I donÍt like that weÍre spreading depleted uranium all over the place, but itÍs more dangerous to walk across the street," DelliCarpini said.
American soldiers are probably at minimal risk from exposure to depleted uranium, as long as they wash their hands and wear respiratory masks when venturing into tanks destroyed by DU munitions, said Dr. Lisa Bernaise, of the division of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center. " In the U.S. weÍd probably decontaminate the area. The problem would be with children playing outside, or people with a lot of interaction with the dust," Bernaise said. "For most of the population this is not going to affect mortality. The amounts seem negligible. It will be diluted by air and the turnover of soil," she said.
Bernaise said heavily populated sections of Iraq where there was intense fighting might have to be decontaminated.
ThatÍs the least the United States can do, said Lowell S. Levin, professor emeritus of public health at Yale University, and consultant to the World Health Organization. "The answer on depleted uranium is, we donÍt know. The warning flags are up. We should take a harder look at the implications of exposure," he said.
"There should be a war follow-up policy looking at the health of soldiers, sailors, Marines. It should be ongoing and also be applied to ïenemyÍ countries," he said. "Since we have a global environmental perspective we can get input from other scientists," Levin said. "Military people are here-and-now folks. All the scientific studies in the world wonÍt make a policy difference," he said. " ïWe need to do studiesÍ is not an adequate response. We should clean it up. That would be the best PR we could imagine," he said.
Comacho, of the defense department, said data on the effects of exposure to depleted uranium are scarce. "You want to be sure when you talk about peopleÍs health," he said.
The best, and perhaps only, study up to now is being conducted by Melissa McDiarmid, at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Hospital. McDiarmid is tracking around 70 veterans who were struck by depleted uranium in friendly fire accidents during the Gulf War. Some carry fragments of DU, while others inhaled significant amounts of DU dust. One third of the men still show elevated levels of uranium in their urine. All have embedded fragments of DU. None shows kidney problems and none of the 60 children fathered by the group has birth defects. Veterans with the highest levels of uranium showed slight cognitive problems, which later could not be confirmed.
McDiarmidÍs sample is small and measuring uranium levels in urine is not precise, skeptics contend.
"They have no health problems relating to heavy metal or depleted uranium," Comacho said. "No one from the U.S. or U.N. has been able to go into Iraq." The Gulf War revealed the importance of collecting and maintaining health data on troops, Comacho said. Now teams in Iraq are monitoring air and soil to analyze in the event of subsequent health problems, Comacho said.
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