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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.

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British troops deploying to Kosovo in 1999 were sent out with full suits and masks, and told to use them "if contact with targets damaged by DU ammunition is unavoidable." A report commissioned by the US Army on the eve of the Gulf War found that "no dose [of DU particles] is so low that the probability of effect is zero." Another report by the British Atomic Energy Agency used an estimate of 40 tons of DU to create a hypothetical danger level, and predicted that that amount of DU - one-eighth of what actually was fired - could cause "500,000 potential deaths."

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"I don't think we know if DU can be used safely, and until we know that, we shouldn't use it," says Chris Hellman, a senior analyst with Washington's Center for Defense Information. "The military's mindset is clear: 'This is war, war is hell...the guy who shoots first wins, and he hits them with everything he has.'"

In the US, every aspect of DU creation, use, and disposal is strictly controlled. The US Army alone has 14 licenses to handle the substance. Disposal requires burial in low-level radioactive waste dumps; particles must be mixed with concrete and encased in two barrels.

But when it comes to fighting armor, no substance can match DU bullets, denser than lead and self-sharpening. They burn through armor on impact and are cheap. US gunners love them and say DU saves lives on the front line.

This graveyard of tanks shows why. DU burns so hotly into its target that a targeted tank's own ammunition ignites, causing a blast that often rips the turret right off the top of a tank. In the process, however, the DU round aerosolizes into a lethal dust that emits alpha particles.

Though alpha particles have a limited range of a quarter-inch or so, they pack a punch 20 times more powerful than beta or gamma radiation, and can lodge easily in the body if inhaled or ingested. Many US vets believe DU may also be a key factor in Gulf War syndrome, the set of symptoms for which the Veteran's Administration has already provided compensation for nearly 1 in 4 vets.

Iraqis say DU is a major cause of the severe health problems such as cancer and birth defects that they graphically show are surging in southern Iraq, though they do not have the clinical capability to link DU to health problems.

"No one wins in war, everyone loses, and Basra will again be a great battlefield," says Thamer Ahmad Hamdan, an orthopedic surgeon in Basra. In 1998, when visited by the Monitor, he had one box of x-rays depicting grotesque abnormalities. "Now it is boxes," he says. "We will remember the Americans used this again, that it was killing miserable people. Hopefully, they are not going to do it."

Iraqi doctors say poverty, malnutrition, and poor water and sanitation are key to current health problems, along with DU and chemical exposures, and trauma from the last war. Jawad Khudim al-Ali, director of the cancer ward at Basra's Saddam Teaching Hospital, says pre-war cancer rates have increased 11-fold; the mortality rate 19-fold.

While US war planners in the Gulf War and in campaigns since have taken great care to minimize civilian casualties, the longterm impact of DU is tough to define. And the reviled Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein may limit concerns of civilian suffering, analysts say. "I don't think there is a consensus in this country about whether war is the right thing to do," says CDI's Hellman. "But there is a consensus that Saddam is right up there with Satan on the evil-people-in-the-world list. And therefore, whatever methods of warfare are going to bring him down, and safeguard American troops in the process, is going to be acceptable [to Americans]."

"If [fallout on civilians] was a serious consideration," concurs Hewson, of Jane's, "we would not be contemplating a major land battle in Iraq. At the levels where this stuff is being planned, no tears are being shed for those people."

Abdulkarim Hussein Subber, a gynecologist at the Basra Maternity and Children's Hospital, has three photo albums full of images of unimaginable birth defects that he claims are six times more prevalent today than before the Gulf War.

"We have become very familiar with these cases," Dr. Subber says, adding that numbers have leveled off since expectant mothers began using ultrasound to detect - and terminate - severe cases. "The problem is [our patients] are afraid of being pregnant again, because of the fear of malformations," Subber says. "The problem is the pollution from the war."