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A 'silver bullet's' toxic legacy

If US fights Iraq, it would use a weapon that left a radioactive trail in Gulf War.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 20, 2002


The rusting tanks are gathered in Iraq's southern desert like an open-air exhibit of the 1991 Gulf War.

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But these are not just museum pieces. This still radioactive battlefield - and the severe health problems many Iraqis and some US Gulf War veterans ascribe to it - may also be an omen of an unsettled future.

As American forces prepare to take on Iraq in a possible Gulf War II, analysts agree that the bad publicity and popular fears about depleted uranium (DU) use in the first Gulf War, and later in Kosovo and Afghanistan, have not dented Pentagon enthusiasm for its "silver bullet." US forces in Iraq will again deploy DU as their most effective - and most controversial - tank-busting bullet.

War seems more imminent as the White House indicated late this week that the decision for war could come by late January.

But this bleak desert just north of Iraq's border with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia offers a window on the human impact nearly 12 years after a toxic stew of DU, chemical agents, pesticides, and smoke from burning oil wells poisoned this war zone. Few suggest that a new war, if it involves Iraqi armored resistance, will have any less of an effect. "Nobody thinks about what is going to happen when the shooting stops," says Robert Hewson, editor of the London-based Jane's Air-Launched Weapons. "The people who are firing [DU] will demand that they have it...they will not want to go to war without it. The primary driver will always be the mission and getting the job done."

DU is made from nuclear-waste material left over from making nuclear weapons and fuel. American gunners used 320 tons of it in 1991 to destroy 4,000 Iraqi armored vehicles and swiftly conclude victory.

But the invisible particles created when those bullets struck and burned are still "hot." They make Geiger counters sing, and they stick to the tanks, contaminating the soil and blowing in the desert wind, as they will for the 4.5 billion years it will take the DU to lose just half its radioactivity.

Unaware of the risks, two shepherds earlier this week relaxed on the ground as their sheep picked at scrub grass near one tank. Similar tanks struck by DU during the Gulf War were deemed a "substantial risk" and buried by US forces in Saudi Arabia or a low-level radioactive waste dump in the US.

Pentagon spokesmen said yesterday that US troops are being given no new DU protection training for any Iraq campaign. In the mid-1990s, US troops were required to wear full protective suits and masks within 50 yards of a tank struck with DU bullets. Those rules, based on Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety guidelines, were dramatically revised in the late 1990s.

In most cases, the rules now say, any face mask is sufficient. Pentagon officials note their policy has been "inconsistent," but admitted in 1998 that their "failure" to alert soldiers to the risks before the Gulf War resulted in "thousands of unnecessary exposures." The latest rules, a US Army spokesman said yesterday, "reflect the most current ... data regarding DU."

Critics charge that the official downplaying of DU's dangers keeps the magic bullet in the arsenal, while thwarting DU-specific compensation claims by Gulf War vets.

The Iraqi battlefield will be "very dangerous" in the aftermath of a new war, says Asaf Durakovic, a former chief of nuclear medicine at a veteran's hospital and head of the private Uranium Medical Research Center. In the peer-reviewed journal "Military Medicine" last August, he published results that 14 of 27 ill Gulf War vets had DU in their urine nine years after the war.

Testifying before Congress in 1997, Dr. Durakovic predicted DU will ensure that "battlefields of the future will be unlike history," and "injury and death will remain lingering threats to 'survivors' of the battle for ... decades into the future."

Though DU clearly enhances the chances of victory, some say the price is too high. Risks are difficult to quantify, but US military and expert reports indicate DU can be a hazard that may cause cancer, and that total soil decontamination is impossible.