Now that the major combat of the Iraq war is over, concerns are mounting that the use of depleted uranium in allied munitions could pose long-term health hazards for Iraqis and coalition troops who served in the conflict.
"The United States took its nuclear waste and threw it at Iraq," says physicist Doug Rokke, who was a member of the U.S. military's command staff on the team sent to clean up depleted uranium following the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"You take solid radioactive waste, throw it in somebody's backyard and refuse to clean it up. That's what we've done."
Known in the military as a "wonder metal," depleted uranium was first used in combat in 1991 during the Gulf War, where some 300 tons of "DU munitions" were fired by strafing planes, helicopters and tanks. It was used again by U.S. forces in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
DU munitions are fired by Abrams tanks, Apache attack helicopters and A-10 tank-killer planes. Depleted uranium's extreme density — it is 1.7 times as dense as lead — hardens the tips of bullets and artillery shells, allowing them to pierce the toughest enemy armor.
Munitions’ Dangerous Residue
The radiation emitted by a typical DU round is relatively slight. However, once a DU round is fired, it travels at high velocity and begins to burn in midair. Upon impact with a target, its outer layer is shed, releasing a dusty residue of radioactive particles.
Paul Walker, a weapons specialist for the nonprofit environmental organization Global Green, said an intact DU round poses little, if any, health threat.
"The only problem with it is that when it's vaporized, when it hits a target, it becomes a cloud of microscopic particles and vapors that spread all over the battlefield and can be inhaled," he said.
Rokke said he and many other members of his team have suffered serious health consequences from their exposure to DU munitions during the cleanup after the first Gulf War. Rokke said 30 members of his cleanup team have died. He also said he has 5,000 times the acceptable level of radiation in his body, and suffers from reactive airway disease due to uranium poisoning.
Rokke contends that troops' exposure to depleted uranium is tied to the little-understood Gulf War syndrome.
"As of May 2002," according to Rokke, "over 221,000 Gulf War vets were listed as permanently disabled. When I spoke out within the military about how bad this stuff was, my life ended, my career ended. I received threats, warnings, sent to the reserve from full active duty."
Few might feel concern about firing radioactive material at an enemy on the battlefield, but nearby communities may be made to suffer when the fighting ends. In the 1991 Gulf War, allied forces were striking largely unpopulated desert areas. The most recent conflict took place in and around urban centers.
The U.N. Environmental Program is seeking access to Iraq to conduct field tests in areas where DU munitions were used and determine whether there are any lingering health hazards.
A study by UNEP following the use of DU munitions in the Balkans suggested the risk to civilians from DU is low. Individuals in the immediate vicinity of a DU attack who might inhale radioactive dust faced the greatest risk, according to the study.
In a report released April 23, UNEP said the heavy use of DU munitions in Iraq "has likely caused environmental contamination of as-yet unknown levels or consequences" and recommended that guidelines be distributed immediately on how to minimize the risk of accidental exposure.
Walker said there is a possibility of environmental contamination from the munitions. "It can spread to agricultural fields and cattle," he said. "Then, of course, this creates the possibility of radioactivity in the milk."
Link to Gulf War Syndrome Disputed
At a March 14 Pentagon briefing on depleted uranium, officials disputed suggestions that DU munitions pose any long-term health threats. Dr. Michael Kilpatrick of the Army's Deployment Health Support Directorate said the military has tracked 90 Gulf War veterans for the past 12 years and found no causal relationship between their exposure to DU and any ailments.
Regarding the possibility of environmental contamination, Kilpatrick said there is little chance that DU-laden dust would become airborne or leech into ground water supplies because of its weight. "Even if it's a small dust particle, it's still heavy and it stays on the ground," he said.
Kilpatrick prescribed a fairly minimal amount of protection for troops who might have direct contact with spent DU munitions.
"If somebody needs to go into a tank that's been hit with depleted uranium, a dust mask, a handkerchief is adequate to protect them — washing their hands afterward," he said.
Iraqi officials have said depleted uranium exposure is behind an alleged rise of cancer cases and birth defects in and around the southern city of Basra since the Gulf War. But Kilpatrick said there were no tank battles involving DU munitions near population areas in the Gulf War. He said there was no basis to tie any purported rise in cancers or birth defects in Basra to DU munitions.
Col. James Naughton of the Army Materiel Command told reporters at the Pentagon briefing that Iraqi complaints about depleted uranium had no medical basis. "They want it to go away because we kicked the crap out of them," he said.
Returning Troops Will Be Tested for DU Exposure
While the Pentagon contends it has seen no evidence linking DU munitions to serious health problems, officials on April 29 said that troops returning from Iraq will be screened for exposure to DU. The move is part of a broader effort to improve record-keeping on veterans' health.
Returning troops will be required to give a blood sample and complete an extensive questionnaire detailing any symptoms they experienced during their deployment and whether they had been exposed to chemical weapons, pesticides, smoke, lasers, or depleted uranium.
Rokke and other veterans who feel DU has contributed to their health problems want the Pentagon to take stronger action.
"There's gotta be some accountability," said Rokke. "There's gotta be medical care and you have to clean this stuff up. You physically take all the pieces of broken buildings, then pick up all the spent rounds, then bulldoze the whole area and physically get rid of all that material."