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cancerous web of deception Al-Ahram Weekly
1 - 7 February 2001
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
A cancerous web of deception
By Ashraf El-Bayoumi*
Efforts over recent years by human rights activists to expose the disastrous
health consequences of using depleted uranium (DU) weapons were for
part unsuccessful. Weapons containing DU made their debut in combat
1991 Gulf war, when more than 300 tons were used -- substantially more
the 12 tons subsequently dropped on Kosovo and Bosnia. Large areas
Iraq, and parts of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, have as a consequence been
Thousands of Iraqi civilians and soldiers were exposed to DU. An unprecedented
number of deadly cancers and unusual deformities has since been documented
amongst them. Babies born to these victims are more likely to be severely
deformed than is statistically normal. Thousands of Kuwaiti and Saudi
civilians were also likely to have been exposed to DU dust, as were
of US, UK and Arab soldiers who participated in the war. Egyptians
undoubtedly exposed as well.
DU weapons were used in Bosnia in 1994 and then Yugoslavia in 1999.
widespread outbreaks of cancer related to radioactive DU among Iraqi
and soldiers were met with repeated denials. Ailments among thousands
and UK soldiers who participated in the Gulf war, known as Gulf War
received a persistent "lack of evidence" argument, as did initial reports
"the Balkan Syndrome" among NATO soldiers and civilians.
However, when 15 European peace keepers who served in the Balkans suddenly
died from leukaemia, the catastrophic effects of DU weapons became
news. Several European leaders expressed their alarm and called for
identification and clean-up of areas targeted by DU weapons and for
screening of those who were exposed to it.
So the wall of silence and denials has slowly begun to crumble. Previously
concealed official reports that clearly warned in advance of potential
hazards are now being openly written about in the media. One example
confidential paper issued by the UK Atomic Energy Commission that warned
radioactive contamination as a result of the use of DU. Another is
issued by the US Army Surgeon General's Office requiring more details
DU, "because the effects on soldiers from exposure to DU dust include
possible increased risk of cancer (lung and bone) and kidney damage."
Shells tipped with DU are highly effective in piercing armour due to
high density (1.7 times that of lead) and inflammable properties that
ignite instantly and, therefore, roast alive anyone inside the armoured
vehicle it penetrates. DU is the byproduct of the enrichment process
produce weapons-grade nuclear material and nuclear fuel.
As a result of 50 years of nuclear weapon and nuclear fuel production
US, there are now in excess of one million tons of DU in existence.
large amounts of radioactive and poisonous material presents a problem
US government, which, therefore, provides it free to arms manufacturers
reap huge profits as a result.
Despite its name, the percentage of fissionable (and more radioactive)
isotopes in DU is roughly fifty per cent of that present in natural
The name "depleted" is deceiving, since DU remains radioactive. Moreover,
heavy metal, DU is highly toxic. Upon impact, it burns and produces
aerosolised particles of oxidised uranium that become airborne and
for 40 kilometres or more. This radioactive toxic dust enters humans
inhalation and by the ingestion of contaminated animals, water and
There is, for obvious reasons, tremendous resistance at the Pentagon
release of any information that may eventually lead to a ban on those
effective "wonder" weapons. The Pentagon wants to protect DU weapons
future wars. A main concern is the possibility that compensation amounting
billions of dollars would be paid to hundreds of thousands of victims,
with billions more to finance clean-up operations. Admission that there
link between DU weapons and cancer would also have damaging political
since several scholars have already determined that DU weapons are
according to international law.
All these considerations help explain the official denial campaign
aided by a
general blackout by the Western media on the subject. One can compare
the years of effort undertaken by many activists to expose the use
highly toxic Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Last week it was reported that traces of Uranium-236 have been found
DU shells retrieved from the battlefields of Kosovo. This has resulted
alarm and anxiety in Europe, since U-236 is 10 times more radioactive
and "acts very quickly." These new revelations may explain the quick
exposed soldiers. U-236 does not occur in natural uranium, but rather
created by nuclear reactors. Its presence must, therefore, mean that
been contaminated with recycled nuclear fuel.
Moreover, it could mean that other highly dangerous isotopes such as
are also present. On 20 January, the German defence minister strongly
criticised the US for failing to inform its NATO partners of these
were previously known to Pentagon officials. A newly published book
Depleted Uranium, Invisible War, refers to a US military report in
stating that DU provided by the US government "may contain trace amounts
Scientific studies in Iraq have shown a four-fold increase in the incidence
cancer in battleground and neighboring areas. The relationship of this
increase to the Gulf war has been confirmed. Other studies examined
relative frequencies of various types of cancer and found them to be
to those in Chernobyl after the infamous nuclear accident there.
A recent international conference organised by the Spanish Solidarity
Committee also dealt with DU's health effects. One of the papers revealed
there is a clear correlation between the incidence of cancer and the
where DU was used in Iraq. Isotopes found in plants near battlefields
conclusively that uranium is its source. As a scientist who had the
opportunity to attend two international meetings on DU and reviewed
available data, I personally find that the methodology is sound, and
Recently, Ramsey Clark (former US attorney general) and Damacio Lopez
health activist researcher) reported in the Italian parliament that
samples they had collected a day earlier from the Iraqi desert have
high radioactivity." Undoubtedly, more comprehensive studies, surveys
medical screenings are urgently needed. Only then will the extent of
damage be adequately assessed and individuals requiring medical attention
identified. An independent international scientific study would be
particularly welcome. This will counter claims that there is a lack
evidence and "no epidemiological data". Moreover, it would provide
necessary legal evidence.
Particularly important to consider is that the amount of DU weapons
the Balkans was only a fraction of what was used in the killing fields
Iraq. Moreover, DU shells are suspected of having been fired at Palestinians
during the Intifada.
Why is it that the Western media has not given proportional coverage
disastrous effects of use of DU in Iraq? Why have the Arab governments,
including the Egyptian government, not initiated independent studies
investigate the matter? Why did the authorities not carry out medical
amongst the thousands of soldiers -- Egyptian, Kuwaiti, Iraqi, and
Saudi -- to
determine the extent of exposure to DU during the Gulf war?
Why have questions not been raised in the People's Assembly in Egypt?
the Egyptian and other Arab media not thoroughly examined the issues
to DU? Why do we not hear protests and condemnation from the Arab world
against the Pentagon and the British military for their use of DU in
for concealing information regarding the hazards of DU dust during
* The writer is a professor of physical chemistry & biophysics in
State University and Alexandria University, and Vice- President of
Human Rights Association.
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