Some called it a “dirty bomb” dropped on the Pentagon, namely the report last month that eight out of 20 men who had served in the same unit during the invasion of Iraq now have malignant cancers. That’s 40 percent in 16 months. The soldiers were reportedly exposed only to vaccines and depleted uranium, and vaccines are not known to cause cancer.
It was the second such bomb in only a few months. The New York Daily News had earlier reported that four out of nine military police returning from Iraq had tested positive for depleted uranium (DU) contamination. The four - none of whom had been exposed to the heat of battle - approached the paper after being refused testing by army doctors. Here’s a wild guess why: Each DU test costs $1,000 - and hundreds of thousands of U.S. servicemen are, or have been, in Iraq, (not to mention, of course, some 26 million Iraqis).
Critics of DU weaponry say money has always been at the heart of the refusal to acknowledge, and properly investigate, the effects of the low-level radiation contained in DU. On the eve of the 1991 Gulf war, the bill to clean up waste uranium from America’s nuclear industry would have amounted to many tens of billions of dollars. Cheaper, by far, to recycle it in the arms industry. (DU makes the most effective anti-tank weapon ever devised.) Then, too, there is the issue of compensation: Imagine the bill if it were proven that DU is even contributing to the “anecdotal” - i.e. insufficiently researched - surge of illness among Iraqi civilians and war veterans. (Gulf war veterans on medical disability since 1991 number 518,739. There are no statistics for Iraqis.)
Government scientists say DU presents an insignificant hazard. Its radioactivity dose falls within permitted levels. But opponents of DU challenge old assumptions about the safety of even minimal exposure. They say new risk models indicate that the dangers of low-level radiation are 100 to 1,000 times greater than hitherto believed.
DU is, admittedly, only one of the possible causes of the health problems that have followed in the wake of the Allies’ wars in Iraq. Professor Doug Rokke, the former director of the Pentagon’s Depleted Uranium Project, has pointed out that when the U.S. military decided to blow up Iraq’s chemical, biological and radiological stockpiles, in situ, “chemical agent detectors and radiological monitors were going off all over the place.” Not easy, then, to prove a causal link to any one contaminant. But looking at the properties of DU and the effects it could have on the body, and comparing these with the medical problems of DU workers, Gulf war veterans and Iraqi civilians, it is clear that DU cannot be - must not be - ruled out as one of the possible causes.
The little research that has been done into the effects of low-level radiation has not been done with the victims of war, but with the perpetrators. This preoccupation with “us” as opposed to “them” is nothing short of criminal. The rate of cancer in Basra has multiplied 15 times since the Gulf war. “The only factor that has changed is radiation,” says Dr. Jawad al-Ali, a British-trained oncologist at Basra’s Talimi Training Hospital. Even more horrifying is a U.S. government study of 251 veteran families in Mississippi. Of children born to these families after the war, 67 percent had congenital deformations. Before the war, none had.
Coincidence, say those who fight with DU. War crimes, say those who fight against it. Cause for serious investigation, say those with any sense (or humanity). Despite differing short-term conclusions, final recommendations from the UN Environment Program, the World Health Organization and Britain’s Royal Society agree on two things: There can be no definitive conclusions without more research, and areas where DU is detected must be cleaned up.
If the silence of governments can be understood - DU disposes of nuclear waste in an extremely cheap and “effective” way - the near-silence of human rights groups cannot be. Although Amnesty International has expressed “concern” about “the possible indiscriminate effects on health” of DU munitions, a Human Rights Watch report published in February 2003 about international humanitarian law issues in the coming war in Iraq did not even mention the words “depleted uranium.” DU munitions, admittedly, are not specifically prohibited by international law. But a sub-commission of the UN Human Rights Commission called for their “complete elimination” almost a decade ago, in 1996, after human rights lawyer Karen Parker successfully argued that the military use of DU violates several of the requirements of the UN Convention on Human Rights - weapons must not be unduly harmful to the environment, must not act off the battlefield, and must not continue to act after battle is over.
Until it is proven, beyond a shadow of doubt, that DU is harmless, DU weapons should surely be banned. If the worst-case scenario proves correct, the effects of DU will be felt for years to come - in and around Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia. Dust storms will carry DU particles far and wide, and old DU munitions will retain their radioactivity for all eternity - in wrecked tanks where children play and in cooking pots made from recycled scrap.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that those who dispose of their DU in weapons have no right to claim the moral high ground in Iraq. A restricted British Defense Ministry document obtained by Scotland’s Sunday Herald newspaper and dated Feb. 25, 1991, four days before the Gulf war cease-fire, warned that inhalation or ingestion of particles from DU shells is a health risk. It said full protective clothing and respirators should be worn when close to DU; bodies exposed to it should be hosed down before disposal; and that DU contaminated food. Yet even today the fertile, DU-contaminated grasslands west of Basra are being used to grow food and rear livestock!
A critic of DU has recalled the words of the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre during another brutal war: France’s war in Algeria. He said: “It is not right, my fellow-countrymen, you who know very well all the crimes committed in our name. It’s not at all right that you do not breathe a word about them to anyone, not even to your own soul, for fear of having to stand in judgment of yourself. I am willing to believe that at the beginning you did not realize what was happening; later, you doubted whether such things could be true; but now you know, and still you hold your tongues.”
Not much, it seems, has changed.