The hidden cost of depleted uranium (DU)
by Dr Robert Anderson 11:20pm Sat Apr 12 '03
The hidden cost of depleted uranium (DU) 
by Dr Robert Anderson 11:20pm Sat Apr 12 '03 

We are regaled every night by the growing destruction
of Iraq and it’s people, our brave journalists
bringing the horror of war into our very living rooms.
But I am becoming increasingly uneasy that a vital
message is failing to get through. 

We are regaled every night by the growing destruction
of Iraq and it’s people, our brave journalists
bringing the horror of war into our very living rooms.
But I am becoming increasingly uneasy that a vital
message is failing to get through. How many times have
we heard a journalist report, “Behind me the air is
thick with smoke and dust from tanks, armoured
vehicles and buildings that have been hit.” Few may
realise that, like Kosova and the Gulf veterans before
them, they are breathing that deadly dust into their
lungs. 320 tonnes of depleted uranium (DU) was left in
the region after the Gulf war and 200 000 soldiers are
said to be suffering Gulf war syndrome. The danger of
biological weapons (that Hans Blix assured us Saddam
has not got1) may prove less lethal in the long run
than the Uranium shells with their “cocktail of
nuclear waste.” It requires far more soul-searching to
admit the indiscriminate adverse health effects of
these weapons. 

Physicists the world over have come as near to
shouting as they can to warn the US senate and arms
manufacturers not to use depleted uranium (DU)
warheads. Books and videos have been produced, but to
no avail.2 Ammunition, tipped with this toxic dense
metal, penetrates virtually all armour plate like a
knife through butter and is seen as the avant-garde of
modern weaponry. The heat produced vaporises the metal
and contaminates the air, not only with uranium, but
small amounts of impurities such as plutonium and
other highly toxic nuclear by-products. Until now, the
Pentagon has maintained that DU ammunition is safe
because they contain only mildly radioactive uranium.
This is not true. Depleted is a misnomer. American
army and government documents suggest that the
military in Kosovo and Iraq used DU ammunition
containing traces of elements that indicate the
probable presence of plutonium and other highly toxic

The increasing use of this vile material is
frightening. Out of 3,700 Iraqi tanks destroyed, more
than 1,400 were hit by DU rounds. The military depend
on DU as a preferred weapon of war, and use it to
destroy everything from tanks to light-armoured
vehicles. Of the 2,058 US tanks used in combat
operations during Operation Desert Storm, 654 had DU
heavy armour. The problem of DU is more urgent than
possible exposure to chemical weapons, for two
reasons. While no treatment is available for delayed
neurotoxicity,3 most cancers can be cured when
detected early. Cancer is the expected long-term
consequence of both the radiological and toxic effects
of DU exposure. There has been a 700% increase in
cancer in Iraq between 1991 and 1994.4 The second
reason is post-battlefield contamination. While most
organic compounds produced for use in chemical
warfare, such as nerve gas, decay within weeks after
their release, DU does not. On the contrary, its
radioactivity remains for years.5 Unless some cleanup
is organized soon, the contamination will plague not
only journalists but the population of the war
affected areas for centuries to come. The continued
contamination of our planet by the US military is
becoming outrageous. 

1. Transcript of Blix's remarks Monday, January 27,
2003 Posted: 4:38 PM EST (2138 GMT)

2. “Hazards of Uranium weapons in Afghanistan and
Iraq” Williams D., ISBN 0-9532083-8-9, Politicos
bookshop, London. 
3. Hon. D. Burton: Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses: VA,
DoD Continue to Resist Strong Evidence Linking Toxic
Causes to Chronic Health Effects, House Report
105-388; Committee on Government Reform and Oversight,
(November 1997). 
4. “The shape of the World War IV by number” Menon V.,
Toronto Star. 
5. In fact it is slowly increasing due to the secular
equilibrium build-up of the uranium decay series

add your own comments 

Saramago - 10:48am Jan 15, 2001 BST (66.)  | Reply 

Sick, bleeding and losing nails: 
the girl who played with Nato uranium 

By Robert Fisk in Bratunac, Bosnia 

14 January 2001 

Sladjana Sarenac remembers the pieces of a depleted-uranium bomb that she picked up outside her home in Sarajevo. "It glittered and I did what all children do," she says. "I was six years old and I pretended to make cookies out of the bits of metal and the soil in the garden. Then I hid the pieces on a shelf because my puppy Tina was playing with it." 

Sladjana is now 12 and has been seriously ill ever since. Her nails have repeatedly fallen out of her fingers and toes. She has suffered internal bleeding, constant diarrhoea and vomiting. When her Serb parents fled their home in the Sarajevo suburb of Hadjici after the Dayton Accord, she took her dog with her. It had three puppies. Then Tina died. Then the puppies. Sladjana has a desperately pale face and tired eyes. 

Everyone tells her she will be all right. I tell her that too. Sladjana's parents spend 450 German marks a month (£140) for her medicines – she takes 2mg of Benesedin twice a day, 600mg of magnesium tablets once a day – but the family are too poor to pay the bills. In their refuge home in Bratunac the electricity has been cut off. The landlady wants them out. And, needless to say, no one from Nato has bothered to enquire about Sladjana's mysterious sickness. 

Nato's raids followed the shelling of the Sarajevo marketplace and the Serb massacre of thousands of Muslim refugees in and around Srebrenica. Sladjana did not see the American A-10 aircraft that dropped the bombs around her home in the summer of 1995, including the round that exploded on her family's small farm. She was hiding downstairs. But her father Jovo watched the planes, so low that he could see the pilot of each aircraft as they dived. "The houses in our street were very close to a [Serb] army base which made the bombing very intense," he says. "From 30 August to 15 September 1995, we not only got Nato bombings but also shells fired by the [Nato] Rapid Reaction Force on Mount Igman. The pilots were breaking the sound barrier and Sladjana never slept." 

Sladjana's sickness yet again places a heavy onus upon Nato to disclose all it knows about depleted uranium munitions and to start an immediate investigation among Bosnian Serbs from Hadjici about how those closest to the bombings in 1995 became so frequently the victims of cancer and leukaemia. Nato has already acknowledged that ingestion of DU particles in the immediate aftermath of a bomb explosion can have a serious effect on health. Here are civilians who clearly were only metres away from DU explosions who are suffering a devastating incidence of cancer, who would willingly speak to Nato investigators, but who Nato has not made the slightest effort to talk to. 

Jovo and his wife, Sretanka – and Sladjana herself – believe that her fascination with the bomb parts was her undoing. "She was playing with them like all children do," Sretanka says. "Out of curiosity, we all went to see what it looked like after the bombings. We went into the fields where the craters were. Then in the middle of October Sladjana had this kind of yellow sand under the nails on her hands and toes. Then the skin round the nails became red and it hurt her a lot. She was upset, crying a lot, vomiting and suffering diarrhoea." 

That's when Sladjana began her calvary of hospitals; a clinic in Sarajevo, a clinic in Bratunac, medical examinations in Belgrade. Sretanka produces a wad of fading, thin carbon copies of typed hospital reports. In a hospital at Blazuj, she was given two-days of blood transfusions. Doctors told her she had somehow been irradiated. Her fingernails and toenails fell out. She spent 30 hours in a coma. "In the early stages, we didn't think it was anything to do with the bombing," her father says. "Now we are aware of the kind of bombs that were fired and of what happened to other people from Hadjici." Up to 300 men, women and children who lived close to the site of the bombings in 1995 have died of cancers and leukaemia over the past five years. 

It does occur to me – though I do not say so – that there are doctors aplenty in S-For, the Nato force now controlling Bosnia. And that those doctors must know all about depleted-uranium munitions and its risks. I have a feeling they will not be visiting the dark house in Bratunac where Sladjana lives. 

   caymantinsel - 09:51am Jan 18, 2001 BST (67.)  | Reply 
I see that the Swiss laboratory responsible for testing some of the samples taken from Kosovo has found that samples contain Uranium 236. This is not a naturally occuring isotope, it is produced in nuclear reactors - and is, in fact, one of the components that are supposed to have been removed in the process that produces DU. It is around 200,000 times more radioactive than U238(the main isotope found in DU). 

It also seems that Carla del Ponte will investigate charges of war crimes and breaches of rules of war by Nato on this issue. However, is there really any chance of it going further than last year's attempt which was abandoned because Nato wouldn't cooperate with the investigations. 

   csemmens - 10:29am Jan 18, 2001 BST (67.1)  | Reply 
This is indeed an interesting development. 

Of itself, the U236 does not constitute a significant worsening of the hazard, since the amounts will be tiny. It's actually only 200 times more radioactive than U238, not 200,000, and its decay products aren't significant either. 

However, the implication that "dirty" uranium is being used is more damaging to the nuclear lobby's case. It also raises the question of how effectively even more radioactive reactor products are removed from the material. 

   caymantinsel - 10:48am Jan 18, 2001 BST (68.)  | Reply 
Thanks, csemmens. That's what comes of copying numbers from an Italian paper. They like to add three zeros to everything - they're used to it with the money! 

   Tony50 - 11:24am Jan 18, 2001 BST (69.)  | Reply 
Personally I don't see any need for a 'debate'. DU was (is) used because it is cheap and plentiful, given that it is a by-product of the nuclear power industry, and is a substance that literally no-one else wants. 

There are other, inert, metals with equal penetrative capacities in the anti-armour role. They just happen to be more expensive. 

We just have to put DU in the category of someone's bright idea that had unfortunate side-effects. Like chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas. 

And stop using it. Tomorrow. 

   GulfWarVeterans - 12:21am Jan 26, 2001 BST (69.1)  | Reply 
Nearly 2 weeks has passed we still do not when,where & how we are going to be tested , pressure must be kept on the minsters to honour statements made. Yet another staling tatic in place , the veterans communitty needs testing and a health care plan put into operation NOW . BEST WISHES TO ALL TERRY 

    csemmens - 09:16am Jan 26, 2001 BST (69.1.1)  | Reply 
Dear GulfWarVeterans 

You are aware, I hope, of the parallel Depleted Uranium thread in the Science area? 

     GulfWarVeterans - 02:59am Feb 1, 2001 BST (  | Reply 
Dear csemmens It has been explained to me in the past , but my memory being what it is , could you please remind me ! best wishes Terry 

   csemmens - 08:31am Feb 1, 2001 BST (70.)  | Reply 
GulfWarVeterans: here, on Guardian Online, in addition to this online debate about depleted uranium, is another debate about depleted uranium under the Science heading. You might find the content interesting and/or useful, but it seems unnecessary to repeat it all here. 

That was all I was referring to. 



   goldwing3 - 07:15pm May 9, 2001 BST (71.)  | Reply 
Remember, it's not just war vetrans who are at risk, as, if I'm correct, the half-life of this material is measured in thousands of years, and if it is found to be harmful then the citizens living in the contaminated areas will also be affected until the sites are cleaned up. 

America in particular has a pretty shameful record in contaminating other countries and leaving them to clear up the mess, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Kuwait/Iraq and now Yugoslavia, of course Nato says there is no danger from DU, but I wonder how NATO governments would react to people trying to repartriate the material back to it's countries of origin. 

   csemmens - 04:33pm May 15, 2001 BST (72.)  | Reply 
goldwing3: more than just thousands of years! 4.6 billion years for U238, 0.7 billion for U235 (of which there is still some in depleted uranium). 

Almost half the radioactivity of natural uranium comes from U234, which has a much shorter half-life, but which is only present in tiny amounts - produced by the decay of the U238. A large proportion of this is removed along with the U235 in the process that produces the depleted uranium as a by-product. 

The quantity of U234 in depleted uranium increases as the U238 decays, until equilibrium is reached with the U234 decaying as fast as it's produced. This means the radioactivity of depleted uranium goes up over the first quarter million years or so, to almost twice what it is when it's first produced, only decreasing thereafter very slowly over billions of years.