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February 2003 • Vol 3, No. 2 •

Something is Killing the Children

By Robert Collier

Something is killing the children in Dr. Emad Wisam’s hospital ward, and filling it up again and again with more sick and dying kids.

Walking a visitor through the halls of Al Mansour Children’s Hospital in Baghdad last weekend, Wisam stopped briefly at his small patients’ bedsides to commiserate.

After checking five-year-old Nur Abdullah, who has a tumor in his throat, Wisam turned away with a pained look in his eyes.

“He will die soon,” he said. “Most of these kids will die. And there’s almost nothing we can do.”

Iraq has experienced a dramatic increase in child cancers, leukemia and birth defects in recent years. Wisam, Iraqi medical authorities and growing numbers of American activists cast blame on the U.S. weapons containing depleted uranium (DU) that were used in the 1991 Gulf War and in the 1998 missile attacks on Baghdad and other major cities. They also assert that such munitions—which were also used by U.S. forces in Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia in far smaller quantities—may be a cause of Gulf War diseases, elusive maladies that have affected 50,000 to 80,000 U.S. veterans of the 1991 conflict.

The Pentagon says studies it has sponsored have found no evidence that depleted uranium, known as DU, causes serious illnesses, while many international medical experts remain on the fence, citing the lack of definitive scientific evidence on the issue.

But with the renewed use of DU weapons by the U.S. military considered likely in the event of a new war with Iraq, the controversy is being stirred up again.

Depleted uranium is the low-level radioactive waste left over from manufacturing nuclear fuel and bombs. It is used in bullets and missiles by the United States, Britain, Russia and several other nations—though, from all indications, not by Iraq.

Military experts regard DU as an almost magically effective material. DU is 1.7 times denser than lead, and when a weapon made with a DU tip or core strikes the side of a tank or bunker, it slices straight through and erupts in a burning radioactive cloud. In addition, armor made of DU appears to make tanks far less vulnerable on the battlefield.

During the Gulf War, U.S. airplanes and tanks fired off munitions containing 320 tons of DU. According to Iraqi health statistics, the country’s recent increase in health problems has been concentrated in the same areas of the country that took the brunt of U.S. attacks: Baghdad, the southern port city of Basra, and the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.

No similar problems are known to have occurred in Kuwait, where DU was also used, because such weapons were used mainly outside of population centers and because Kuwait carried out a comprehensive, well-funded postwar cleanup of spent munitions and combat wreckage.

Among children throughout Iraq, the number of cancer cases has risen five-fold since 1990, and congenital birth defects and leukemia have tripled, say government health officials. Overall cancer rates among all Iraqis have risen by 38 percent, the Iraqi government says.

“There are thousands of cases of DU poisoning in Iraq by the Americans and British,” said Health Minister Dr. Omeid Mobarik.

Future use is predicted

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that branches of the U. S. military are looking for alternatives to DU, but officials refuse to say publicly whether DU weapons will be used in a new war against Iraq. Defense Department spokeswoman Barbara Goodno has acknowledged, “Depleted uranium is an important component in the U.S. arsenal.”

“Despite being engaged multiple times (during the Gulf War), often at close range, by Iraqi tanks and anti-armor weapons,” she added, “not a single U.S. tank protected by DU armor was penetrated or knocked out by hostile fire.”

Experts say the crucial edge that DU technology affords makes it too effective to pass up.

“Yes, certainly the U.S. will use it,” said John Eldridge, editor of the authoritative book Jane’s Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense.

Christopher Hellman, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, said U.S. and British military planners are likely to be swayed more by DU’s effectiveness than by possible health concerns.

“Their view is very simple,” said Helman. “This is war, and a destroyed enemy tank is less dangerous than one that’s shooting at you, regardless of whatever residual effects DU may have.”

Just what those health effects may be, however, is hotly debated.

The Pentagon passes the buck

Pentagon officials deny any links, either to Iraqi civilians or American Gulf War veterans. They dismiss Iraq’s reports of increases in cancer, birth defects and leukemia, saying their pre-1990 baseline figures are unreliable.

They point in particular to a Pentagon-funded review of scientific literature on cancer and DU carried out by the Rand Corp. in 1999. It concluded that no link had been found. Initial studies by the World Health Organization and the European Community also have found no link.

But the Rand report—which leans heavily on research into the relatively mild effects of conventional uranium—acknowledges that “few studies to date … have focused directly on DU.”

While the Veterans Administration has conducted limited studies of some veterans exposed to DU, and found no links so far to serious illness, U.S. activists point out that none of the published studies have tested broad numbers of sick Americans or Iraqis who have been exposed to DU. The U.S. military has conducted several such studies, but they remain classified. The Iraqi military refuses all comment on whether its veterans have experienced their own Gulf War illnesses.

One American with personal experience of DU is Doug Rokke, former director of the U.S. Army’s Depleted Uranium Project. He was in charge of a team of about 100 soldiers who examined and cleaned up Iraqi tanks and American vehicles struck by DU shells during the Gulf War.

The work was ghastly—the DU explosions so badly burned the dead soldiers inside that the team dubbed them “crispy critters.”

The team’s members, uninformed about the danger of DU residue, were themselves contaminated. Most have suffered serious health problems in the intervening years, and “too many” have died, says Rokke, who says he eschews exact numbers because of the difficulty of proving direct links to DU exposure.

Rokke, who has a Ph.D. in physics and until recently was a professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, says he has “5,000 times the recommended level of radiation in my body” and has called the health woes among residents of southern Iraq and his own colleagues “the direct result” of DU exposure.

In an interview on Saturday, Rokke said of his own health: “I’m trashed.” He said that Pentagon officials routinely tell him and others who were contaminated in the Gulf theater that the elevated levels of uranium in their bodies are “just coming out of our diets.”

The use of DU has been condemned

But organizations outside the United States have come down against DU munitions:

•In 1999, the European Parliament voted to urge NATO to suspend the use of DU munitions pending results of an independent study. The request was ignored.

•Last August, the U.N. Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights authorized a study of the dangers of DU, which the panel had already labeled a weapon of mass destruction. The move—coming over the objections of the United States and Britain—was a significant victory for Karen Parker, a San Francisco lawyer who works with the International Educational Development/Humanitarian Law Project and has campaigned against DU for years.

•A 1991 study by Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority found that use of DU weapons in the Gulf War could eventually lead to half a million “potential deaths from cancer.” The report was suppressed by the British government until 1998.

Hard science on the DU issue remains scarce, however.

Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist at Boston University School of Public Health and one of the few experts to investigate the DU-cancer relationship, is carrying out a study of Gulf War diseases among Massachusetts veterans.

His initial findings suggest increased incidences of Hodgkin’s disease in Gulf War veterans exposed to DU, but no increases in other types of cancer.

But Clapp cautions that further comprehensive study is needed. In an e-mail interview, he wrote: “The potential for a DU-cancer link (especially lung cancer in those who breathe DU through dust and smoke particles) is still an open question. I certainly would not rule it out on biological grounds, and ‘no proof of harm is not proof of no harm,’ as we say.”

Iraq’s health problems and Americans’ Gulf War illnesses could have many additional causes besides DU, Clapp and other U.S. experts say. Other possible factors include pollution breathed in from the oil fires ignited in Kuwait by retreating Iraqi soldiers or from Iraqi chemical weapons stores hit by U.S. missiles.

No one has seriously looked at DU

“The reason there is no proof of causality between DU and any particular disease is that no one has seriously looked for it,” said Steve Leeper, co-director of the Global Association for Banning DU Weapons, a U.S.-Japanese coalition based in Atlanta, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“The biggest problem with radiation, especially involving a low-level radiation source that is also a toxic chemical, is that it can get you in so many ways,” said Leeper.

“Which disorder you wind up with depends on where the DU winds up in your system and what sort of damage it does to what sort of cells. To really find an effect, the government would have to study all the veterans, especially the 205,000 that have applied for medical help from the Veterans Administration, and the people of southern Iraq and test for uranium in their urine, organs and bones, then look for correlations with various pathologies.”

Dr. Alim Yacoub, a British-educated epidemiologist who is dean of the medical school at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, expressed anger at the world’s response to the Iraqi health crisis.

“Why have no international studies been carried out?” he asked. “Where is the World Health Organization? This issue is highly political and has been affected by propaganda, by American pressure.”

WHO officials say that in 2001, the U.N. organization proposed to Iraq a comprehensive study of all cancer problems, including DU, but received no response.

Yacoub insists that the project was blocked by the strict U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq since the Gulf War. He said the International Atomic Energy Agency has refused to allow Iraq to import radiology equipment needed to carry out the research because it is termed “dual use,” meaning that it could be used to help develop nuclear weapons.

Defense analyst Hellman summed up the standoff over DU by saying, “The science on this is not unanimous.”

“My approach is: If you can’t use it safely, then you shouldn’t use it. The military’s approach is 180 degrees from that. They say, ‘If you can’t prove it isn’t safe, we’re going to keep using it.’”

Depleted uranium (DU) is a byproduct of the process during which fissionable uranium (uranium 235) used to manufacture nuclear bombs and reactor fuel is separated from natural uranium, a heavy metal found in soil and water everywhere on earth, mainly in trace quantities.

DU (uranium 238) is about 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium, but it remains radioactive for 4.5 billion years. Because it is such a highly dense metal—heavier than lead or steel—it is prized for its abilities to both penetrate military armor and provide shielding against attack.

Upon impact, DU produces extremely fine uranium oxide dust that is both chemically toxic and radioactive. Easily spread by wind, it is inhaled and absorbed into the human body and absorbed by plants and animals, becoming part of the food chain.

—San Francisco Chronicle, January 13, 2003





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