BAGHDAD, Iraq – The ideal legacy of the war in Iraq is a free and democratic society, but a sinister legacy of another kind is possible as well – cancers and birth defects.
Depleted uranium weapons used by the U.S.-led forces in the war have left battle sites throughout Iraq contaminated with abnormally high levels of radiation.
Although there is no firm consensus, nuclear experts and laymen alike generally agree that depleted uranium, which is toxic as well as radioactive, is at the very least a potential cause of cancers and birth defects. Some Iraqi physicians and others blame depleted uranium weapons used in the 1991 Gulf War for a major increase of cancers and birth defects that occurred a few years later. It is also a prime suspect for the Gulf War Syndrome that has sickened and killed thousands of U.S. veterans.
The Pentagon and United Nations estimate that U.S. and British forces used 1,100 to 2,200 tons of armor-piercing shells made of depleted uranium during attacks in Iraq in March and April – far more than the estimated 375 tons used in the 1991 Gulf War.
U.S. tanks, Bradley fighting machines, A-10 attack jets and Apache helicopters routinely used depleted uranium rounds, but in the recent war, the ammunition was used in and near heavily populated areas, not just in the desert.
There are some studies under way that could shed more light on the effects of depleted uranium, a highly complex and poorly understood subject. Critics say DU shouldn’t be used until the studies have been completed, while supporters, primarily the military, say it is critical to success on the battlefield.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., has introduced legislation requiring the U.S. government to conduct studies of DU’s effects on health and the environment, and cleanup of DU contamination in the United States. The bill, co-sponsored by 23 other Democrats, remains in committee. He said DU may well be associated with increased birth defects.
“We continue to get these sporadic reports of various places where a lot of people are getting sick, and nobody is willing to connect the dots yet,” he said. “I’m afraid we’re going to have a lot of people get sick before they finally admit that depleted uranium really causes a problem for us (U.S. veterans and their families) as well as for the Iraqis.”
After NATO’s use of DU weapons in Kosovo in 1999, the Council of Europe parliamentarians called for a worldwide ban on the manufacture, testing, use and sale of weapons using depleted uranium, asserting that NATO’s use of DU weapons would have “long term effects on health and quality of life in South-East Europe, affecting future generations.” The call went unheeded.
An independent policy analyst on the use and effects of DU, in a June 24 report, was critical of both the British and the Americans for not doing more to protect their troops and civilians from DU in Iraq. But the report held criticism for those on all sides of the DU issue.
“What is clear … is that elements of the U.S. government will manipulate information and even lie about the health of U.S. combat veterans to avoid liability for DU’s health and environmental effects,” said Dan Fahey, who has testified on DU at a number of congressional hearings. “Equally as clear is the willingness of some anti-DU activists to promote theories as fact, fabricate data and manipulate statistics, and exploit the suffering of people to further political or financial interests.”
‘A well-established risk’
In June, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer conducted tests at six sites from Basra to Baghdad, and found elevated levels of radiation at all of them. One destroyed tank near Baghdad was 1,500 times more radioactive than normal background radiation. Another was 1,400 times more radioactive than background. To get additional evidence that DU was used on these tanks, the P-I used swabs of cloth to gather samples of residue from the blackened bullet holes on two tanks on the outskirts of Baghdad, and from the black ash on a tank in Kut.
Bruce Busby, radiation safety officer for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle analyzed the swabs. Although stressing that far more sophisticated equipment and tests are required to positively identify DU and precisely measure contamination levels, he was able to determine that the swabs had elevated levels of radioactive contamination, consistent with DU. Still, Busby is not convinced it is a severe problem in Iraq. “ … Considering all the other hazards those people are exposed to, this is a small risk,” he said.
Others were more alarmed by the P-I findings.
“… if you found it (DU), it’s possible kids could get it on their hands by playing on tanks, and adults could inhale re-suspended dust if salvaging equipment,” Fahey said.
Tedd Weyman, deputy director of the Uranium Medical Centre, an independent research group in Canada and Washington, D.C., was also concerned about DU in Iraq.
“… Alpha emitters – DU is one – are carcinogenic and … inhalation exposure of low quantities of low-level radioactive material is a well-established risk,” Weyman said. Externally, the radioactivity travels a very short distance – centimeters – before fully releasing all its energy and disintegrating, (But) if inhaled and lying adjacent to cells in the body, it is a serious hazard.”
Although the Pentagon has said depleted uranium is the material of choice because its density allows it to slice through heavy tank armor, the Army is currently looking at an alternative. A Florida company, Liquidmetal Technologies, says it can get comparable performance from ammunition using an exotic alloy of tungsten, and if the Army decides to switch, the new rounds could be in service within two years.
The Pentagon has sent mixed signals about the effects of depleted uranium, saying there have been no known health problems associated with the munition. At the same time, the military acknowledges the hazards in an Army training manual, which requires that anyone who comes within 25 meters of any DU-contaminated equipment or terrain wear respiratory and skin protection, and says that “contamination will make food and water unsafe for consumption.”
According to the Army Environmental Policy Institute, holding a spent DU round would expose a person to about 200 mrem per hour. That’s a level of radiation equivalent to receiving eight chest X-rays per hour, said Tom Carpenter, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Nuclear Oversight Campaign. That’s also twice the annual radiation exposure limit allowed by Washington state.
The Environmental Protection Agency Web site says, “There is no firm basis for setting a ‘safe’ level of exposure (to radiation) above background. Most regulatory and advisory bodies around the world (including EPA) assume that any exposure carries some risk and that the risk increases as the exposure increases.”
The April issue of New Scientist magazine reported that Alexandra Miller, a radiobiologist with the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., has discovered the first direct evidence that radiation from DU can damage chromosomes. “The chromosomes break, and the fragments reform in a way that results in abnormal joins. Both the breaks and the joins are commonly found in tumor cells,” the article says. The implication is that it could cause cancer.
Miller’s work suggests that the toxic nature of DU, combined with its radioactivity, could produce effects more dire than either of those characteristics acting alone.
“I think that we assumed that we knew everything that we needed to know about uranium. (But) This is something we have to consider now when we think about risk estimates,” the article says.
Cancer on the rise
Researchers aren’t the only ones concerned.
The U.S. and British use of DU during the latest conflict, also alarms doctors in Iraq. Cancer had already increased dramatically in southern Iraq. In 1988, 34 people died of cancer; in 1998, 450 died of cancer; in 2001 there were 603 cancer deaths. The rate of birth defects also had risen sharply, according to doctors in Iraq.
Now, doctors in Iraq say, the number of cancers and birth defects may be “devastating.”
“This is the right time for active support to help prevent the catastrophic effects of the bombing,” said Dr. Alim Yacoub, on his last day as dean of the Al Mustansiriya Medical School in Baghdad.
“It is the right time for our U.S. friends to alleviate the consequences of depleted uranium and dirty weapons,” he said.
“If there isn’t a centralized health plan soon, the consequences could be devastating,” said Yacoub, the foremost Iraqi authority on the effects of DU. Yacoub has tracked the rise of cancer in Iraq for years, and places the blame squarely on DU.
“For the past 12 years, we have only been able to watch what’s going on in this country, now it is time for a comprehensive health plan for cleaning up DU and for treating cancer,” he said. Yacoub has carefully preserved his studies and is eager to present them to other researchers.
From the cancer ward at the Mother and Child Hospital in Basra, Dr. Janan Ghalib Hassan has also tracked the rise in cancer in Iraq, primarily in the south, for years. It is a phenomenon that she also says is most likely caused by the DU used by U.S. forces in the Gulf War in 1991.
“I worked here in this hospital in 1980 and never saw so much cancer, but after 1991, I started to see many more cancer cases,” Hassan said.
She said that because the incubation period for cancer is about five years, the effects of the latest war should start showing up in 2008. “I think the number of cancer cases will be as much as 10 times or more higher,” she said. “It is a crime; a crime.”