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NEW YORK, Apr 28 2004 (IPS) - Washington’s insistence that depleted uranium (DU) munitions are not toxic has been undermined by revelations that four U.S. soldiers recently home from Iraq are suffering from radiation poisoning.
A by-product of the uranium enrichment process, DU is prized by the military for its use in ammunition that can punch through walls and armoured tanks. The main problem, experts say, is that DU munitions vaporise on contact, generating dust that is easily inhaled into the lungs.
Several months ago a dozen soldiers from the National Guard’s 442nd Military Police Company, stationed south of Baghdad, began suffering from dizziness, diarrhoea, blurred vision and other symptoms. Independent tests carried out by a New York newspaper found that four had high levels of depleted uranium in their systems.
The news does not come as a surprise for doctors working in parts of the world that have been bombarded with DU weaponry, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans.
“If it is true, it will be a great problem for the Pentagon,” said Dr Jawad al-Ali, a cancer specialist at the Oncology Centre in Basra, Iraq.
Al-Ali says that the number of cancer patients he treats has increased more than 10-fold since the 1990 Gulf War, and that many of the cases are suggestive of heavy metal poisoning.
Washington admitted to using some 300 tonnes of DU munitions during the 1990 Gulf War, although independent experts estimate that the real number is more like 1,700 tonnes.
In Afghanistan, U.S.-led forces in “Operation Enduring Freedom” likely fired thousands of DU armour-piercing shells, although no hard numbers have been released.
And in the most recent Iraq war, the Pentagon and the United Nations estimate that U.S. and British forces used 1,100 to 2,200 tonnes of DU during attacks in March and April 2003.
Last October, Tedd Weyman of the Toronto-based Uranium Medical Research Centre (UMRC), a non-profit scientific organisation that studies radiation contamination in war zones, led a field investigation to Iraq that found elevated radiation levels, even in the air.
“It was quite unusual because radiation tends to persist for a while in the soil and groundwater, but it usually disperses quickly in the air,” he said.
The UMRC team surveyed U.S. and British-controlled combat areas and bombsites in southern Iraq, including Baghdad, al Nasiriyah, al Suweiriah and Basra.
Weyman told IPS that about 30 percent of the civilian residents the team interviewed complained of symptoms consistent with DU exposure. Of that number, one-third had DU excretions in their urine.
Although the team was in Iraq for only 13 days, two members, including Weyman, became contaminated with DU.
“When you know what to look for, you can actually taste it,” he said. “You get numbing and splitting of the lips, coughing up blood, redness of the throat.”
His own radiation levels, he said, are about four to five times higher than normal.
Weyman also made two trips to Afghanistan, the last in October 2002, to collect urine samples from residents of Jalalabad and Kabul. His report found that “without exception, at every bomb site investigated, people are ill.”
Entire neighbourhoods complained of flu-like illnesses, and up to one-fourth of all newborn infants suffered from congenital and post-natal health problems, the UMRC researchers found.
Some residents experienced nosebleeds within minutes of bomb attacks, after giant plumes of dust kicked up from the detonation craters drifted through their neighbourhoods.
The UMRC findings are corroborated by other doctors with experience in the region.
“Afghanistan is a disaster in the making,” said Mohammed Daud Miraki, an Afghan doctor based in the United States who is trying to raise funds to clean up his home country. “I have seen children in the south and east of the country born with monstrous deformities, including huge tumours, and even no skin.”
“Reconstruction is a paradox when you have sentenced a whole population to death,” he said.
Miraki and other experts believe the magnitude of DU contamination in Afghanistan is even worse than in Iraq, because more weaponry was deployed in a smaller area.
Although the Pentagon recently announced that it would pay to test any soldiers who ask for it, and is reportedly conducting further tests on the recently returned troops, officials have not budged from their stance that DU is perfectly safe.
“What they’ve done is an interesting exercise in hair-splitting,” Weyman said. “They say that the effects of uranium have been adequately studied, but not depleted uranium, when the two elements are chemically and radiologically identical.”
“And despite the fact that we essentially created the methodology to find DU in urine samples, we’ve never received a single solitary phone call from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) or the Department of Defence,” he added.
Both UNEP and the WHO support Washington’s stance that DU is not an immediate health threat, although UNEP’s post-conflict assessment unit recommended this month that further studies be conducted in Iraq, “as soon as conditions permit”.
“Politics is muffling science,” said Ross Mirkarimi, who travelled to Iraq with scientists from Harvard University to conduct environmental assessments of the first Gulf War.
“Despite anecdotal reports of numerous DU-contaminated hot zones in Iraq, its impacts on the flora and fauna, coupled with reports of our troops exhibiting signs of DU exposure and sickness, any formal disclosure about the insidious effects of DU would be a liability to the Bush administration.”
“DU decontamination and mitigation measures amid an urban environment is uncharted science, making Iraq the petri dish,” he said in an interview.
Some experts, including the United Nations subcommission on human rights, argue that DU weapons violate the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war, because they have an ongoing killing effect, they are not contained to the legal field of battle, they cause undue suffering, and they harm the natural environment.
Maj Doug Rokke, the former head of the Pentagon’s depleted uranium project and now a leading critic of DU, believes deploying the weaponry is a war crime.
“I was assigned to the 3rd U.S. Army depleted uranium assessment team as the health physicist and medic,” Rokke says in an interview. “What we found can be explained in three words – oh my God.”
“After we returned to the United States, we wrote the ‘Theatre Clean-up Plan’, which reportedly was passed through the U.S. Department of Defence to the U.S. Department of State and consequently to the Emirate of Kuwaiti,” he said.
“Today, it is obvious that none of this information regarding clean up of extensive DU contamination ever was given to the Iraqis,” added Rokke.
“Iraqi, Kosovar, Serbian and other representatives have asked numerous times for DU contamination management and medical care procedures but this information has not been provided.”
Due to his work, Rokke currently has 5,000 times the normal levels of radiation in his body. At least 30 members of his DU clean-up team have died prematurely.
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