Back to Main page Depleted Uranium Hazard

Concerns about DU

Malignant Bullets: The A-10 Warthog fighter plane fires rounds made of toxic depleted uranium.
The Pentagon used radioactive bullets in the Gulf War. Now the controversial weapon is being used in Yugoslavia.

By Jim Rendon

IN 1991, CASSANDRA GARNER was an MP serving in the Gulf War. Late in the conflict, she took a trip with her unit to see the highway of death in Basra, where U.S. planes bombed thousands of Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait.
The aftermath, miles of charred bodies and twisted tank parts, became a destination for souvenir-hunting American soldiers. Garner was curious. That curiosity may cut her life short.

Following her visit to the highway of death, Garner, now 29 and living in Berkeley, suffers from asthma, aching joints, muscle fatigue and abdominal and gynecological problems. She is unable to work and is not supposed to lift more than five pounds.

Garner and thousands of other U.S. troops were exposed to a fine radioactive dust--a residue left by munitions made from depleted uranium. Depleted uranium weapons were used for the first time in the Gulf War, and medical researchers now suspect they are responsible for many health problems plaguing Gulf War vets. Yet depleted uranium rounds are being dropped from U.S. planes again, this time in heavily populated Yugoslavia.

"The use of DU [depleted uranium] weapons is a war crime. It is a radioactive heavy metal. We are not cleaning it up. It has an effect on noncombatants. Using it is wrong," says Doug Rokke, a professor of environmental science at Jackson State University in Alabama and an Army health physicist who was exposed to depleted uranium in the Gulf.

But while depleted uranium weapons were used primarily in sparsely inhabited desert areas during the Gulf War, they are falling now on parts of Yugoslavia to which 700,000 refugees one day hope to return.

"This is not the desert of southern Iraq, this is agricultural land that is mountainous and gets a lot of rainfall; ground water could be contaminated," says Dan Fahey, a Gulf War veteran from Santa Cruz now working with Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco veterans group.

Radioactive Residue

DEPLETED URANIUM is a byproduct of the refinement process that creates highly radioactive uranium 235, which is used in nuclear reactors. Though less radioactive than its power-generating counterpart, depleted uranium remains radioactive for 4.5 billion years.

It is also a heavy-metal toxin like lead. Because depleted uranium is nearly twice as dense as lead, munitions made with it can pierce the armor of tanks and other war equipment. Though the army has experimented with depleted uranium for decades, it was in the Gulf that the Department of Defense found out how deadly it could be.

"Depleted uranium weapons are extremely effective. They protected our troops and took out Iraqi tanks. It's a good weapon," says Lt. Col. Dian Lawhon, the Department of Defense's spokesperson on the Gulf War.

When a shell with a depleted uranium core hits a target, like a tank, it not only punches its way through the armor, but also ignites. Anywhere from 20 to 70 percent of the uranium core turns to dust as it burns through the tank's plating.

Rokke led a team of 15 soldiers who recovered some Iraqi tanks and American vehicles that were hit with depleted uranium shells during friendly-fire incidents in the Gulf. The bodies, he says, were so black and badly burned by the uranium that the soldiers gave them a euphemistic name: crispy critters.

Rokke and his unit were often in tanks just minutes after they'd been hit. "Inside the vehicles, you couldn't see three feet in front of you," he says of the thick radioactive dust. "We were in there for months."

Rokke's unit prepared the damaged equipment to be shipped back to the United States, scraping charred body parts from the inside of the tanks, throwing out badly destroyed equipment. They identified which tanks had been hit with the radioactive bullets and which hadn't. Though the unit was made up of radiation specialists, they had no training or equipment that prepared them to deal with all the contamination they faced. "No one knew what to do. We made it up as we went along," he says.

Every man but one in his unit has experienced severe health problems and Rokke himself has rashes, diarrhea, and respiratory and kidney problems. In 1997, he received the results of tests performed by the Department of Energy showing he was exposed to 5,000 times the permissible radiation limit.

Environmental Fallout

EIGHT YEARS AFTER the Gulf War, Rokke and others in his unit were finally admitted into a Pentagon program studying the health effects of depleted uranium exposure.

But the Army denies that there are any health problems that can be specifically attributed to such exposure. In 1993, the military began a health monitoring project for the 33 vets who were wounded by depleted uranium shells, many of whom have depleted uranium shrapnel in their bodies. Lawhon says that while many of these vets have health problems, none of them can be attributed to their depleted uranium exposure.

"The preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the way DU was used by the military in the Gulf War, that there is no tie between that and health concerns," Lawhon says.

But the Army and other government agencies considered the effects of depleted uranium before the Gulf War, Fahey says, particularly lung and bone cancer. Since the war, however, the Army has done nothing besides deny the effects.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations published in 1966 characterize depleted uranium as hazardous to the lungs if it is inhaled and hazardous to kidneys and bones if ingested. In a paper outlining the threat of depleted uranium to Kuwait's population in 1991, the British Atomic Energy Authority warned about the spread of radioactive and toxic contamination following the war. "DU can also be a danger if taken into the body by ingestion or through a cut. Furthermore, if DU gets into the food chain or water, then this will create a potential hazard," the authors wrote.

Depleted uranium emits alpha radiation, generally considered to be the least harmful type of radiation since it is unable even to penetrate clothing. But once in the body, this type of radiation can be very harmful, says Steve Dean, a Superfund radiation expert with the EPA. The soft tissue in the lung is particularly vulnerable when particles are inhaled, he says.

Dr. Hari Sharma at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, tested urine samples from U.S. vets and the local population in Basra, Iraq, near the site where the most depleted uranium weapons were used. Eight years after the fighting ceased, he was able to find detectable levels of depleted uranium in the urine of both soldiers and residents.

While the Department of Defense estimates that only 300 servicemen during the Gulf War were exposed to depleted uranium, Fahey says the Pentagon's own maps show that hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were moved through areas that were littered with uranium shells.

Sharma puts the number closer to 2 million possible exposures among civilians and soldiers, and he estimates that this group could develop between 20,000 and 100,000 additional cancers at the exposure levels he detected. And the toxin, he says, may have spread even further. In 1993, two years after the Gulf War ended, he says, a Kuwaiti scientist found detectable levels of depleted uranium in the air more than 20 miles away from the battlefield.

The potential for disaster in Yugoslavia is tremendous, Rokke says. "No one is going to know if children are playing in this stuff. There is no protection. If we can't provide adequate medical attention here for our own troops, who is going to do it over there?"