What if depleted uranium had been used at Gallipoli?

by Commander Robert Green Royal Navy (Ret'd)

Since the first Gulf War in 1991, I have read with growing concern about a surge of unexplained illnesses, cancers, and children born with genetic deformities among the Iraqi people, especially in the south near the battlefields. At the same time, both US and UK veterans have reported similar health and reproductive problems.

The official US casualty total for the Gulf War was less than 300 dead and another 500 wounded or ill. Now, 8,000 are dead and 221,000 of those same troops are claiming disability benefits. In Britain, more than 600 veterans have died and 9,000 are seriously sick with multiple ailments. This amounts to around thirty per cent of US and seventeen per cent of UK troops who went to the Gulf. (The disparity could relate to the relative intensity of use of depleted uranium.)

No one knows how many Iraqis died. Estimates range between 100,000 and 200,000. However, the average monthly death rate in Iraq has increased from just over 2,000 a month in 1989 to over 15,000 in recent years. By 1998, UNICEF was citing a total of half a million excess deaths of children under five years of age. This was due in part to the bombing of vital civilian infrastructure and the continuation of sanctions. But more insidious has been this eruption of illnesses, and deformities among children, of both the Allied military and the Iraqi people. For example, a survey made by the US Veterans’ Administration of 250 veterans’ families in Mississippi showed that sixty seven per cent of children conceived and born since the war had rare illnesses and genetic problems.

The 1991 Gulf War saw the first operational use by the US of several new conventional weapons. Precision-guided missiles and bombs made their debut, and less indiscriminate ‘collateral damage’ was promised. Less fanfare, however, was given to a new material called depleted uranium, or DU, in anti-tank shells. This mainly comprises natural Uranium 238, and is what is left after the fissionable isotopes Uranium 234 and Uranium 235 have been extracted from the ore for use as fuel for nuclear reactors or bomb material.

About 700,000 tons of this radioactive waste had accumulated over the past half century throughout the United States and in Britain, until the American military discovered it had a use. An extremely hard ‘heavy’ metal nearly twice as dense as lead, it has excellent armour-piercing capability. Unlike other heavy metals that tend to flatten on impact, DU ‘self-sharpens’ as it ignites on impact at high speed. The nuclear industry, desperate to find solutions to its waste problem, was only too happy to give it away. Thus any alternative, like tungsten (which is lighter), would be much more expensive.

However, when DU burns it oxidises into tiny, insoluble aerosol particles. These are chemically toxic, and if ingested can cause a kidney disease called nephritis. Though forty per cent less radioactive than natural uranium, the greatest radiological danger comes from inhaling the dust into the lungs, where particles can remain for years emitting alpha radiation, which is very damaging to soft tissue. With a half-life of 4.5 billion years, its effects are forever unless it can be removed. DU can damage cells in the lung, bone, kidney, and lymph glands, causing cancer in those organs, including leukaemia.

DU dust was found in the air in Iraq five years after the initial bombings. It enters the soil, surface water and eventually the ground water. The dust is deposited on plants, which are grazed on by animals later used for food.

At least 350 tons of DU were fired in munitions in Iraq in 1991. The Pentagon has been reticent about the details of its use in Afghanistan in 2001. Several hundred tons of smart bombs and cruise missiles were used there, including some designed against hardened or deeply-buried targets. Many of these types of bombs and missiles almost certainly contain DU – up to 1.5 tons in the GBU-37 Bunker Buster bomb. This means that New Zealand SAS forces, as well as innocent Afghani civilians, could have been affected. However, it may take a generation before the effects appear, as has been experienced by the New Zealand nuclear test veterans.

During the invasion of Iraq, the US used twenty-three weapon systems suspected of containing between 300 grams and seven tons of DU metal each. A US Special Operations Command Colonel – who has requested anonymity for obvious reasons - has admitted that US and UK forces used over 500 tons of DU munitions, including in Baghdad, and that the Pentagon has known for years that DU is hazardous to health.

The Colonel was clearly sufficiently troubled to have decided to whistleblow. As a key targeting officer who chose which munitions should be used, he is the most authoritative source so far. He also confirmed that:

What about the Iraqi people? A minimal response should be to issue everyone with a service respirator, warning them to stay away from bomb craters, not to touch any metal from munitions, and to wash their hands thoroughly before eating. The same advice should go to anyone entering a bombed area.

The alarm may at last have been raised. In the 2 April edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Brian Vastag wrote that although the US government claims DU is safe, the consensus among US medical researchers is that not enough is understood about its acute and long-term effects.

On 27 March, US Democrat Congressman Jim McDermott introduced legislation entitled the ‘Depleted Uranium Munitions Study Act’. Cosponsored by six other Democrats, this Act demands studies on the health and environmental impact of DU munitions, as well as the cleanup and mitigation of DU contamination at sites within the United States where it has been used or produced. McDermott, a medical doctor, has been concerned about this issue since veterans of the first Gulf War started experiencing unexplained illnesses. His concern deepened after visiting Iraq, where Iraqi pediatricians told him that the incidence of severely deformed infants and childhood cancers had skyrocketed.

On 8 April, the US Embassy in Wellington felt sufficiently pressured by critical media reports to arrange a video conference entitled ‘Depleted Uranium: the Facts’, which I attended. We were linked up with a retired British Army Colonel in Washington, who was a complete apologist for US policy and DU. The Embassy issued copies of a Pentagon briefing from 14 March, which openly acknowledged the military advantages of DU, before stating that ‘independent studies conducted by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Office, the World Health Organisation (WHO)…and the United Kingdom Royal Society have found no cause and effect between DU use and illnesses’.

None of these reports involved original field work or tested victims exposed to DU. Also, the WHO is compromised by a 1959 agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whereby it is required to consult with the IAEA over any study into health effects of radioactivity, and ‘adjust’ any findings ‘by mutual consent’. This may help to explain why the WHO study concluded by emphasising the need for further studies on kidney damage caused by DU, shifting attention away from its radioactivity to its toxicity.

On 15 April, the Royal Society – apparently furious that the Pentagon had claimed it had its backing – issued a media release highlighting recommendations from its study last year into the health hazards of DU. These included the need for DU fragments to be removed, and areas of contamination around impact sites to be identified and ‘made safe’. The Pentagon has no plans for such a cleanup. However, the UK government has announced that it will publish details of how much DU was used by British forces and where, will help clear up DU munitions, and hopes the US will do the same. Also, the Royal Society called for long-term sampling of water and milk in areas where DU munitions have been used. This may have been prompted by a recent UNEP report that DU has been found in drinking water seven years after it was fired in the Balkans, and that alternative water sources should be used.

At the same time, New Scientist magazine weighed in with an editorial arguing that US and UK government statements ‘imply a level of knowledge that we simply do not have’. A feature article highlighted Alexandra Miller, a radiobiologist at the US Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, who is due to complete an investigation into DU for the Pentagon next year. She has found that tiny amounts of DU, too small to be toxic and only mildly radioactive, cause more genetic damage in cells than either the toxicity or radiation alone could explain. Her latest results corroborate a tentative report by the Royal Society, which suggests that the toxicity and radioactivity of DU reinforce one another in an unknown way, to the extent that more than eight times as many cells suffer genetic damage than predicted. Thus, the health risk of DU could be grossly underestimated. This could have huge implications for the nuclear industry.

On 6 April, UNEP recommended that a scientific assessment of sites targeted with DU munitions be conducted in Iraq as soon as possible. This research will examine risks to water resources, waste management and other environment-related infrastructure, factories and other potential sources of toxic chemicals. (When looking at Iraq’s strategic resources, it should not be forgotten that, in addition to having the second largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia, it has the most extensive river system in the Middle East, including the Tigris and Euphrates.)

On 22 April, Foreign Minister Phil Goff announced that New Zealand will provide up to fifteen Defence Force personnel to assist the UN with clearing unexploded mines and other munitions in Iraq. It is vital that they are fully briefed about the hazards of DU, and are equipped with the latest respirators and other protective clothing to minimise the risk to them of inhaling or ingesting DU dust. I also urge the government to offer full support to the UNEP proposal for a proper field study in Iraq, and if possible to provide participants. Finally, there is an urgent need to sponsor a UN General Assembly resolution reflecting these needs.

To understand my fear, just imagine that depleted uranium had been used at Gallipoli. If the latest revelations about cell damage are confirmed, by now there might be widespread genetic deformities among the surviving Anzac troops’ descendants, and the battlefield could still be contaminated.

I think it is highly significant that Israel, which first used DU in the invasion of Lebanon, withdrew it from service in the late 1980s, apparently because of fears of ‘fouling their own backyard’. Similarly, Australia withdrew it in 1990 because of health concerns. Note that the US and UK have only used DU in operations far from their own territory.

The struggle of the New Zealand nuclear test veterans for justice and compensation continues. DU has all the signs of being a similar problem, where there is a clear US and British military and political vested interest in avoiding or suppressing evidence of health effects. If such effects are proven, there will be public outrage and international pressure to outlaw and withdraw DU munitions, followed by the prospect of huge compensation payments.

Has the point been reached where some of the latest weapons have become too destructive and polluting not just for the defeated military and innocent victims, but for the ‘victorious’ military forces and others brought in afterwards to help clear up the mess?