Contaminating Warriors and the Earth: Anthrax, Depleted Uranium, and More

By Michelle Mairesse

  From 1962 until 1971, the American. military sprayed 11 million gallons of a dioxin-based defoliant, Agent Orange, in South Vietnam. Although dioxin is a powerful toxin, twenty-five years elapsed before the American government conceded that sick servicemen acquired their diseases after exposure to Agent Orange. Finally, in the face of incontrovertible evidence, President Clinton announced in 1996 that he would expand disability benefits for those veterans exposed to agent Orange who suffered from chloracne, porphyria, cutanea tarda, peripheral neuropathy, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma, Hodgkin's disease, multiple myeloma, prostate cancer and respiratory cancers (including cancers of the lung, larynx, trachea and bronchus). Vietnam veterans' children with congenital spina bifida were also eligible for benefits. A new study just released by the Institute of Medicine suggests that the offspring of veterans exposed to Agent Orange are at increased risk of contracting leukemia.

  In 1991, thousands of veterans returning from the 1991 Gulf War reported a variety of disease symptoms, including chronic fatigue syndrome, immune dysfunction, urinary disorders, joint pains, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, but the Veterans Administration fobbed them off with the same all-purpose diagnosis they had first imposed on the Vietnam vets--battle stress. Government officials insisted that the use of depleted uranium in missiles, shells, bullets, and armor plating did not contribute to Gulf War Syndrome. The Rand Corporation announced that there was no evidence for radiation illness or kidney disease attributable to depleted uranium exposure.

  Both government officials and Rand associates should have known better. As early as 1990, the defense establishment realized that depleted uranium, a radioactive, toxic heavy metal, presented health risks for troops and civilians in combat areas. A July 1990 report from the U. S. Army Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command noted that depleted uranium is linked to cancer when exposures are internal. Another report by the AMCCOM (the army's radiological task group) states that long term effects of low doses of depleted uranium have been implicated in cancer and that "there is no dose so low that the probability effect is zero."

  The Rand Corporation report was based on data from uranium mining. Uranium miners were exposed to a soluble form of uranium, which the body eliminates during approximately twelve hours to twelve days. The depleted uranium deployed in the Gulf War burns at a high temperature, producing a ceramic aerosol of inhalable particles that can lodge in the body from five to ten years before being excreted. Because DU radiates alpha particles, the largest and heaviest of the three kinds of radiation, DU is easier to shield against than alpha or gamma rays. However, when released internally, alpha radiation lodged next to living tissue can damage the DNA nucleus of the cell and provoke mutations and cancers.

  The plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as a by-product of its uranium enrichment program, funneled much of its depleted uranium into Gulf War weaponry. Disease and mortality studies from Oak Ridge tend to nullify both the defense establishment's and Rand Corporation's bill of clean health for DU. Forty years after the wives of some Oak Ridge workers complained of their husbands' burning semen, the wives of Gulf War veterans made the same complaint. In the Oak Ridge neighborhood, there is a high rate of chronic fatigue syndrome, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and immune dysfunction, the most frequently reported symptoms of Gulf War veterans

   As for the defense establishment's assertion that chemical exposure to DU was insignificant, Dr. Asaf Durakovic, who in 1991 was chief of the Nuclear Medicine Clinic at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Wilmington Delaware, discovered significant evidence of uranium exposure in his patients, severe pathology of the renal and geneto-urinary systems. After two of the Gulf War patients died, Dr. Durakovic insisted on expanding the tests. He wanted samples of the patients' skeletal systems. The tests were not performed, medical charts disappeared, the uranium Registry Office was dismantled, and Dr. Durakovic was laid off in 1997. (Dr. Durakovic is presently professor of radiology and nuclear medicine and radiology at Georgetown University.)

  For six years, the official line was that Gulf War veterans reporting a variety of symptoms (brought together under the NEWet term "Gulf War Syndrome") were all suffering from wartime stress. In October 1997, a House panel disputed the conclusions of the president's Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, finding "no credible evidence" that wartime stress contributed to the Gulf War Syndrome. The House panel pinpointed toxic agents, including nerve gases, vaccines, pesticides, smoke from oil well fires, and depleted uranium from spent U. S. anti-tank shells. (About 320 tons of depleted uranium were fired by tanks or aircraft in the Gulf War.)

  The defense establishment maintained that the Iraqis might be responsible for the toxic agents, but the Army Surgeon General's office immediately declared that only 35 veterans had been internally exposed to depleted uranium and that further testing was unnecessary. By January 1998, the Pentagon's Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses revised the number of exposures in announcing that troops unaware that depleted uranium contaminated equipment (such as enemy vehicles disabled by DU rounds) required special handling. "The failure to properly disseminate such information to troops at all levels may have resulted in thousands of unnecessary exposures."

  Yet in April 1999, Harold Heilsnis, Director of Public Communications for the Pentagon, told the Sierra Club of Canada, "To the best of my knowledge, we are not using these rounds (DU) in the Balkans. We would not hesitate to use these rounds however, as we are confident they pose no risk to human safety or the environment."

  In December 2000, NATO officials said that U.S. aircraft fired more than 10,000 depleted uranium projectiles in Bosnia and Kosovo. The governments of Italy, Belgium, Holland, Spain, and Finland, and Turkey expressed alarm over illnesses developing in returning troops, but the UK Ministry of Defense blandly responded that there is no scientific evidence linking depleted uranium to the deaths of alliance soldiers.

  In January 2001, Edward N. Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, expressed contempt for a study in Kosovo conducted by a United Nations' environmental team, declaring that it had " provided quite enough farcical entertainment." After trotting out the misleading observation that there is more natural radioactivity in many homes in the United States and Europe than in an M1 tank armored with depleted uranium, Luttwak alludes to the "carefully monitored" 33 American soldiers wounded by depleted uranium fragments who are not suffering from any form of radioactive disease. Littwak denied the possibility that any Balkans service personnel had contracted leukemia from depleted uranium. "If DU armor is shattered in war, particles could be ingested. The result would not be leukemia but chemical poisoning, its severity depending on the amount of particles. That is why after the 1991 Gulf War, troops that came into contact with fragmented DU in examining destroyed Iraqi tanks wore face masks."

  The militarists' tactics of condescension, diversion, and denial are wearing thin. The questions surrounding DU cannot be answered by those wholly concerned with "national security". The manifest dangers of depleted uranium concern everyone on the planet.

  Dr. Rosalie Bertell, President of the International Institute of Concerns for Public Health, among the most respected researchers to advocate banning DU weaponry, has tirelessly informed the general public about the dangers of depleted uranium. Her lecture presented to the Hague Peace Conference, May 1999 appears on the web at and should be required reading for anyone who is gullible enough to believe in the veracity of public officials.

  How radioactive is depleted uranium? Bertell says, "The difference in radioactivity between natural and depleted uranium is that given equal quantities, depleted uranium has about half the radioactivity of the natural mixture of uranium isotopes. However, because of the concentration of the uranium in the depleted uranium waste, depleted uranium is much more radioactive than uranium in its natural state."

  Bertell states that the chemical action of all isotopic mixtures of uranium (depleted, natural and enriched) is identical and can only be separated from the radiological action in theory. "The direct damage to lungs and kidneys by uranium compounds is thought to be the result of the combined radiation and chemical properties, and it is difficult to attribute a portion of the damage to these separate factors which cannot be separated in life." Iraqi soldiers found dead inside their tanks succumbed to the aerosol spray given off by depleted uranium projectiles on impact. Bertell notes that "it was the radiation protection units of the military which designated these contaminated tanks off bounds. They were acting because of radiological (not chemical) properties of the aerosol."

  The statistics are piling up faster than the politicians and militarists can deny them, sick soldiers, radiation contaminated environments, and birth defects in children born to soldiers on both sides of the Gulf and Balkans conflicts.

  On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Gulf War, the (Amman) Jordan Times printed an editorial joining the call for international legal instruments to forbid the use of depleted uranium ammunition and asserting that the public in the "so-called developed world needs to be informed beyond governments' and militaries' propaganda, about what really happened in Iraq over those two months and the 10 years that followed."

  In March, NATO announced that a panel of experts found no evidence of a link between depleted uranium and disease. Is this the Ghost of Agent Orange Past?

   The force of public opinion finally ended the war in Vietnam, and today the force of public opinion could and should compel all nations to ban the use of depleted uranium weaponry.

   After the Gulf War tested radioactive depleted uranium weapons, Clinton fired more than 100 of them during the intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia, a territory currently suffering from an epidemic of cancer.

   After George W. Bush invaded Iraq, American and British planes dropped more than 970 radioactive missiles in Iraq, and an epidemic of leukemia followed. Since 1990, the incidence of leukemia has grown by more than 600%, and US Army clean-up crews in Kuwait are dying of cancer.

   A 1991 study by the UK Atomic Energy Authority predicted that if less than 10 percent of the particles released by depleted uranium weapons used in Iraq and Kuwait were inhaled it could result in as many as 300,000 probable deaths. But a new study revealed that debris from the weapons contains plutonium and the highly radioactive isotope uranium-236. These elements are 100,000 times more dangerous than depleted uranium.

   Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch says, "Depleted uranium has a half-life of more than 4 billion years, approximately the age of the Earth. Thousand of acres of land in the Balkans, Kuwait and southern Iraq have been contaminated forever. If George Bush Sr., Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Bill Clinton are still casting about for a legacy, there's a grim one that will stay around for an eternity."