Depleted Uranium and US Veterans
|By John Hepler|
by John Hepler
21 Feb 2006
After all the huff about Weapons of Mass Destruction, it is supremely ironic that the US Military use of Depleted Uranium in Iraq perfectly meets the definiton of WMDs. It is indiscriminate and potentially lethal to all the civilian population. In a more poignant irony, our own soldiers are subject to radioactive contamination from our own WMD weapons. DU is used in weaponry because of its high density and pyrophoric qualities, causing it to burn spontaneously on impact. These properties make DU ideal for use in armour-piercing anti-tank weapons. Amounts of DU used in bullets, shells and bombs vary from 3 ounces to 10 pounds, although there is speculation that some missiles may contain larger quantities. DU is also used in tank armour and for radiation shielding, ballast in missiles and aircraft counterweights.
One study estimates that between 100 and 150 tons of DU munitions was used in 2003 in Iraq-- in lesss than one year.(1) Depleted uranium is created-- a waste product-- in the refinement of uranium for fuel or bombs. Depleted uranium--U238-- has a half life of about 4.5 billion years, whcih means it is supposedly "cold" and unreactive. It means for every 10 billion atoms of U238, only two per year will decay, or break apart violently in a small radioactive explosion. When this happens inside the body, with just one atom, there is a fair chance (no one really knows how much) of damaging effects, such as cancer.
DU also contains .2% "hot" U235, which disintegrates radioactively much more quickly, and is considered far more dangerous. If 150 tons of DU were used in 2003, that means 600 lbs of it is hot U235 dust blowing around Iraq.
But there may well be more far-reaching effects than direct radiation from particles that have entered the body. A 2001 World health organization study from 2001 concludes: The health risks of exposure to DU are likely to be only partially reflected by the radiation dose per received. Further work on the chemical transforming ability of DU, the potential for an interaction between its chemical and radiological toxicities and the significance of the bystander effect in this context is required to fully estimate the public health significance of exposure to DU.(2)
As of April 29, 2004, the US military formally-- though not loudly in public-- recognized the problem, the right of soldiers to be tested and the means of testing, a 24 hour urine collection. (fully printed below, Appendix A)
Unfortunately, this needs to be done immediately after exposures to accurately reflect contamination, or at least as the soldier leaves Iraq. Because after the ingestion of DU, the DU migrates to the bones, organs and the body tries to excrete it in the urine. After a time, less radioactivity is excreted, but in a contaminated person, the process continues for several months, maybe more.
It is so far impossible to prove the effects ofDU on a general area. Iraq now has 320 tons of DU dust blowing around from the first Gulf (Iraq) War, and probably 500 more tons from this round of war. Obviously some sites are severely contaminated. Cancer rates, especially in children, are way up in Iraq, but in such a chaotic situation, statistics are very hard to gather.
Last year, the new York Daily News paid for (at $1100 each) the most sophisticated testing available , which concluded not only that 4 of the 9 soldiers tested were contaminated but that DU from exploded American shells was almost certainly the cause.(3)
It seems only fair if we send the poor bastards over there, that the Grateful Citizens-- that is, the US Military using Our tax dollars-- could pay to test them but so far this has only happened in Connecticut, where the state legislature passed bills that returning Vets should get screened for radioactive contamination,
Beginning October 1, 2005, the bill requires the adjutant general and the veterans' affairs commissioner to help eligible guardsmen and veterans get federal treatment services, including a best practice health screening test for exposure to depleted uranium, if they (1) are assigned a risk level I, II, or III for depleted uranium exposure by their branch of service; (2) are referred by a military physician; or (3) have reason to believe that they were exposed to depleted uranium during service. The best practice uranium test must use (1) a bioassay procedure involving methods sensitive enough to detect depleted uranium at low levels and (2) equipment capable of discriminating between different radioisotopes in naturally occurring levels of uranium and the characteristic ratio and marker for depleted uranium.
The bill prohibits the use of state funds to pay for the tests or other federal treatment services.
By October 1, 2005, the adjutant general was to have reported to the Veterans' Affairs Committee on the scope and adequacy of training guardsmen receive on detecting whether their service has exposed them to depleted uranium. The report was to have included an assessment of the cost and feasibility of adding predeployment training on exposure to uranium and chemical substances and recommended precautions in a combat zone.
One other important question: is whether being contaminated (by radoactive material) could possibly have any ill health effects. The US Military and Government agencies argue strenuously against this possibilty. There is considerable evidence to the contrary. This is another example of science battles contaminated by short-sighted political interests.
While this article focuses on veterans, I feel we have a profound moral obligation to examine the longterm ramifcations of the use of depleted uranium, not just for the sake of our soldiers, but for the civilian populations of countries on which we make war.
J Sandy Hepler
Note: An astounding percentage of vets returning from the first Iraq War are now considered disabled: "Out of the 580,400 soldiers who served in Gulf War 1, 11,000 are now dead. By the year 2000, there were 325,000 on Permanent Medical Disability. This number of "Disabled Vets" means that a decade later, 56% of those soldiers who served have some form of permanent medical problems. The "Disabled" rate for the wars of the last century was 5%, and 10% in Viet Nam. This does not necessarily have to do solely with Depleted Uranium.
(1) Dan Fahey, 'The Use of Depleted Uranium in the 2003 Iraq War', 24.6.2003,
(3) For testing details, see http://www.umrc.net/default.aspx