From Boston to Babylon
Dr Chris Busby is scientific secretary of the European Committee on
Radiation Risk, and sits on the UK government's Depleted Uranium
Oversight Board. He is an international expert on low-level radiation, and
Green Party Science and Technology speaker. He spoke to Al-Ahram
Weekly about nuclear terrorism and his recent journey to Iraq in search of
evidence of the effects of depleted uranium
In September 2000, I was approached by Yousri Fada, the London bureau
chief of Al-Jazeera. He wanted to interview me about how depleted uranium
might be able to cause harm, even at radiation levels which were
conventionally believed to be far too low. There was plenty of evidence, both
through Gulf War syndrome, and through the effects seen in Iraq, of some
enormously powerful agent causing ill health. Congenital malformations,
cancers, various other illnesses -- all seemed to point to radiation as a
Since about 1995 I've been suggesting that Gulf War syndrome is partly
wholly caused by exposure to depleted uranium, through high local doses
from particles to tissue. This is not a model which is used by the
International Commission on Radiological Protection, though this is
beginning to change. At that time, it was believed that uranium had a very
low radiological impact, because it was an alpha emitter, and because it
was a very weak emitter (ie had a very long half life). On the other hand, the
amount of radiation involved in the Gulf was very great, because the
quantities used were huge. DU is not very radioactive, but they were
chucking it about in very large quantities. The 350 tonnes of uranium
dropped in Iraq are equal to about a kilogramme of plutonium. If somebody
dropped a kilogramme of plutonium on this country, there would be hell to
Yousri asked me how I would convince scientists that these kinds of
were due to DU. I said the obvious way was through an epidemiological
You find the people who are ill, and show that they've been contaminated in
some way, by measuring the contamination in the area where they live.
Then you compare them with people who are living in areas that are not
Shortly afterwards, Yousri got back to me, and said: the Iraqi government
would like you to come out. I was a bit nervous: it seemed to me that Iraq
was a really dangerous place to go, and I'm not a fantastically brave person.
But in the end I thought I'd go and see what was going on, because I felt
sorry for the people.
I flew to Jordan, and from there I travelled by taxi to Baghdad, where
I met up
with the film crew. On the Saturday, I was taken to see the director of public
health, and then I was given a tour of the public hospital, and visited the
radiotherapy and oncology departments.
The hospitals in Iraq are in a terrible state. They can't get the drugs,
can't get the parts for the radio- therapy machines, they can't repair their
computers -- they can't even get bloody pencils. They have to cut all their
pencils into little sections, and then work out the calculations they can't do
on their computers with a tiny stub of pencil on a piece of paper. It makes
me cry to see what they're doing to them.
When the World Health Organisation sent Dr Max Parkin out there to report
on the alarming increase in cancer, his response was: "They don't have
proper computers. All we found was a 286, so their cancer registry can't be
of a sufficiently high standard for us to believe their figures." That was just so
arrogant! Whatever computers they may have, they can certainly count!
The Iraqis I met were very nice people. It's terribly sad the way that
been treated. They're just very nice ordinary human beings, who are being
destroyed on the basis of some concept of "culture". It's enough to make a
cat laugh, that people like George W Bush consider America more cultured
than this civilisation which goes all the way back to Babylon.
I looked at their public health records, and found some things in them
nobody would have thought of inventing. For example, if you look at the
number of cases of childhood leukemia by age cohort, in any place where
there is no change in leukemogenic stress -- radiation or chemicals -- you
would expect to find the peak in the 0-4 age group. There are various
theories about why this is, but this is what you find. In Iraq, in 1998-99, the
peak in childhood leukemia was in the 5-9 age group -- the group that was
born immediately after the war.
I think that's a real result. And since then I've seen various papers
by people in Iraq showing that the increases in leukemia and other
malformations are quite general, and point to contamination by some
radiological agent. I've got the results by district, and you can correlate the
increases in leukemia in children with the districts where they used DU.
The next day we travelled down south to the desert near Basra, where
Mother of All Battles" was fought. All the dead tanks were still lying there.
We found a lot of contamination. I'd already measured the levels of alpha
emitters in the air in Baghdad. I found that there was a 20-fold increase in
alpha activity in the air in the desert round the Desert Storm area. In Basra
itself, it was already 10 times higher than it was in Baghdad.
For me, taken together, the cancer registry information and the radioactivity
readings constitute strong prima facie evidence that these illnesses and
deaths were being caused by depleted uranium.
The military know perfectly well that DU has all these effects, but
to use it because it wins them the battles. It's actually destroyed tank
warfare. Tanks are of no use any more, because they can come down with
an A10 with a Gatling gun, fire these cheap bits of nuclear waste, and just
wipe them out.
I've seen a picture where they've put a bullet through one tank and
out the other side and destroyed the tank behind it as well. This is just a
piece of DU, which the nuclear industry should be paying them to take away!
Professor Doug Rokke says that the corpses they discover after these
tanks have caught fire are called "krispie critters" -- they're like little bits of
charcoal, but highly radioactive. Anyone who handles them gets the
disease. It's awful.
Most countries, even countries that don't have nuclear weapons, could
create weapons of mass destruction. It's a catch-all phrase. Certainly the
Iraqis had a nuclear programme, and they have nuclear physicists, who I
met, who know all about how to make nuclear bombs. If it comes to that, I
could make a nuclear bomb, given the parts. I think it's possible that
Saddam Hussein has got enriched uranium from somewhere. But I can't
imagine that he would use it. And to be honest, I can't imagine that
terrorists would use it either. Because I think if they were going to, they
would have done so by now.
Nor do I think that Saddam has got any more weapons of mass destruction
than he had at the time of the last Iraq war, and he probably has a lot less.
The Israelis, on the other hand, have certainly got WMD, they admit to it,
and so have the South Africans, and the Koreans, and the Indians and the
Pakistanis, and Uncle Tom Cobbly and all... So what the hell are we doing,
going to war with the Iraqis, for no good reason?
The Green Party isn't just about environmental justice. You cannot have
environmental justice without social justice. And we don't have social
justice. So we should support people because we believe that it is right to do
so under the circumstances. Morally right. And it's morally right to oppose
the imperialism of the Americans, their attempt to spread the American
dream all over the planet, and all the craziness that comes with that. Just
as it is right to oppose the way in which the Israelis are behaving against the
Palestinians. We must always support those people who are fighting for
freedom and their own rights.
For more information on his research, see: