Remains of toxic bullets litter Iraq

The Monitor finds high levels of radiation left by US armor-piercing shells.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At a roadside produce stand on the outskirts of Baghdad, business is brisk for Latifa Khalaf Hamid. Iraqi drivers pull up and snap up fresh bunches of parsley, mint leaves, dill, and onion stalks.

But Ms. Hamid's stand is just four paces away from a burnt-out Iraqi tank, destroyed by - and contaminated with - controversial American depleted-uranium (DU) bullets. Local children play "throughout the day" on the tank, Hamid says, and on another one across the road.

No one has warned the vendor in the faded, threadbare black gown to keep the toxic and radioactive dust off her produce. The children haven't been told not to play with the radioactive debris. They gather around as a Geiger counter carried by a visiting reporter starts singing when it nears a DU bullet fragment no bigger than a pencil eraser. It registers nearly 1,000 times normal background radiation levels on the digital readout.

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The Monitor visited four sites in the city - including two randomly chosen destroyed Iraqi armored vehicles, a clutch of burned American ammunition trucks, and the downtown planning ministry - and found significant levels of radioactive contamination from the US battle for Baghdad.

In the first partial Pentagon disclosure of the amount of DU used in Iraq, a US Central Command spokesman told the Monitor that A-10 Warthog aircraft - the same planes that shot at the Iraqi planning ministry - fired 300,000 bullets. The normal combat mix for these 30-mm rounds is five DU bullets to 1 - a mix that would have left about 75 tons of DU in Iraq.

The Monitor saw only one site where US troops had put up handwritten warnings in Arabic for Iraqis to stay away. There, a 3-foot-long DU dart from a 120 mm tank shell, was found producing radiation at more than 1,300 times background levels. It made the instrument's staccato bursts turn into a steady whine.

"If you have pieces or even whole [DU] penetrators around, this is not an acute health hazard, but it is for sure above radiation protection dose levels," says Werner Burkart, the German deputy director general for Nuclear Sciences and Applications at the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. "The important thing in any battlefield - especially in populated urban areas - is somebody has to clean up these sites."

Minimizing the risk

Fresh-from-the-factory DU tank shells are normally handled with gloves, to minimize the health risk, and shielded with a thin coating. The alpha particle radiation emitted by DU travels less than an inch and can be stopped by cloth or even tissue paper. But when the DUmaterial burns (usually on impact; or as a dust, it can spontaneously ignite) protective shields disappear, and dangerous radioactive oxides are created that can be inhaled or ingested.

"[The risk] depends so very much on how you handle it," says Jan Olof Snihs, of Sweden's Radiation Protection Authority in Stockholm. In most cases dangers are low, he says, unless children eat toxic and radioactive soil, or get DU oxides on their hands.

Radioactive particles are a "special risk associated with a war," Mr. Snihs says. "The authorities should be aware of this, and try to decontaminate places like this, just to avoid unnecessary risk."

Pentagon officials say that DU is relatively harmless and a necessary part of modern warfare. They say that pre-Gulf War studies that indicated a risk of cancer and of causing harm to local populations through permanent contamination have been superseded by newer reports.

"There is not really any danger, at least that we know about, for the people of Iraq," said Lt. Col. Michael Sigmon, deputy surgeon for the US Army's V Corps, told journalists in Baghdad last week. He asserted that children playing with expended tank shells would have to eat and then practically suffocate on DU residue to cause harm.

But there is a growing chorus of concern among United Nations and relief officials, along with some Western scientific experts, who are calling for sites contaminated with DU be marked off and made safe.

"The soil around the impact sites of [DU] penetrators may be heavily contaminated, and could be harmful if swallowed by children," says Brian Spratt, chair of the working group on DU at The Royal Society, Britain's premier scientific institution.

Heavy metal toys?

Fragments and penetrators should be removed, since "children find them fascinating objects, and can pocket them," says Professor Spratt. "The science says there is some danger - not perhaps a huge danger - of these objects. ... We certainly do not say that these things are safe; we say that cleanup is important."

The British Ministry of Defense says it will offer screening to soldiers suspected of DU exposure, and will publish details about locations and quantities of DU that British troops used in Iraq - a tiny fraction of that fired by US forces.

The Pentagon has traditionally been tight-lipped about DU: Official figures on the amount used were not released for years after the 1991 Gulf War and Bosnia conflicts, and nearly a year after the 1999 Kosovo campaign. No US official contacted could provide DU use estimates from the latest war in Iraq.

"The first thing we should ask [the US military] is to remove that immediately," says Carel de Rooy, head of the UN Children's Fund in Baghdad, adding that senior UN officials need urgent advice on avoiding exposure.

The UN Environment Program last month called for field tests. DU "is still an issue of great concern for the general public," said UNEP chief Klaus Töpfer. "An early study in Iraq could either lay these fears to rest or confirm that there are indeed potential risks."

US troops avoid wreckage

During the latest Iraq conflict Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and A-10 Warthog aircraft, among other military platforms, all fired the DU bullets from desert war zones to the heart of Baghdad. No other armor-piercing round is as effective against enemy tanks. While the Pentagon says there's no risk to Baghdad residents, US soldiers are taking their own precautions in Iraq, and in some cases have handed out warning leaflets and put up signs.

"After we shoot something with DU, we're not supposed to go around it, due to the fact that it could cause cancer," says a sergeant in Baghdad from New York, assigned to a Bradley, who asked not to be further identified.

"We don't know the effects of what it could do," says the sergeant. "If one of our vehicles burnt with a DU round inside, or an ammo truck, we wouldn't go near it, even if it had important documents inside. We play it safe."

Six American vehicles struck with DU "friendly fire" in 1991 were deemed to be too contaminated to take home, and were buried in Saudi Arabia. Of 16 more brought back to a purpose-built facility in South Carolina, six had to be buried in a low-level radioactive waste dump.

Television footage of the war last month showed Iraqi armored vehicles burning as US columns drove by, a common sign of a strike by DU, which burns through armor on impact, and often ignites the ammunition carried by the targeted vehicle.

"We were buttoned up when we drove by that - all our hatches were closed," the US sergeant says. "If we saw anything on fire, we wouldn't stop anywhere near it. We would just keep on driving."

That's an option that produce seller Hamid doesn't have.

She says the US broke its promise not to bomb civilians. She has found US cluster bomblets in her garden; the DU is just another dangerous burden, in a war about which she remains skeptical.

"We were told it was going to be paradise [when Saddam Hussein was toppled], and now they are killing our children," she says voicing a common Iraqi perception about the risk of DU. "The Americans did not bother to warn us that this is a contaminated area."

There is a warning now at the Doura intersection on the southern outskirts of Baghdad. In the days before the capital fell, four US supply trucks clustered near an array of highway off-ramps caught fire, cooking off a number of DU tank rounds.

American troops wearing facemasks for protection arrived a few days later and bulldozed the topsoil around the site to limit the contamination.

The troops taped handwritten warning signs in Arabic to the burned vehicles, which read: "Danger - Get away from this area." These were the only warnings seen by this reporter among dozens of destroyed Iraqi armored vehicles littering the city.

"All of them were wearing masks," says Abbas Mohsin, a teenage cousin of a drink seller 50 yards away, said referring to the US military cleanup crew. "They told the people there were toxic materials ... and advised my cousin not to sell Pepsi and soft drinks in this area. They said they were concerned for our safety."

Despite the troops' bulldozing of contaminated earth away from the burnt vehicles, black piles of pure DU ash and particles are still present at the site. The toxic residue, if inhaled or ingested, is considered by scientists to be the most dangerous form of DU.

One pile of jet-black dust yielded a digital readout of 9,839 radioactive emissions in one minute, more than 300 times average background levels registered by the Geiger counter. Another pile of dust reached 11,585 emissions in a minute.

Western journalists who spent a night nearby on April 10, the day after Baghdad fell, were warned by US soldiers not to cross the road to this site, because bodies and unexploded ordnance remained, along with DU contamination. It was here that the Monitor found the "hot" DU tank round.

This burned dart pushed the radiation meter to the far edge of the "red zone" limit.

A similar DU tank round recovered in Saudi Arabia in 1991, that was found by a US Army radiological team to be emitting 260 to 270 millirads of radiation per hour. Their safety memo noted that the "current [US Nuclear Regulatory Commission] limit for non-radiation workers is 100 millirads per year."

The normal public dose limit in the US, and recognized around much of the world, is 100 millirems per year. Nuclear workers have guidelines 20 to 30 times as high as that.

The depleted-uranium bullets are made of low-level radioactive nuclear-waste material, left over from the making of nuclear fuel and weapons. It is 1.7 times as dense as lead, and burns its way easily through armor. But it is controversial because it leaves a trail of contamination that has half-life of 4.5 billion years - the age of our solar system.

Less DU in this war?

In the first Gulf War, US forces used 320 tons of DU, 80 percent of it fired by A-10 aircraft. Some estimates suggest 1,000 tons or more of DU was used in the current war. But the Pentagon disclosure Wednesday that about 75 tons of A-10 DU bullets were used points to a smaller overall DU tonnage in Iraq this time.

US military guidelines developed after the first Gulf War - which have since been considerably eased - required any soldier coming within 50 yards of a tank struck with DU to wear a gas mask and full protective suit. Today, soldiers say they have been told to steer clear of any DU.

"If a [tank] was taken out by depleted uranium, there may be oxide that you don't want to inhale. We want to minimize any exposure, at least to the lowest level possible," Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, a top Pentagon health official told journalists on March 14, just days before the war began. "If somebody needs to go into a tank that's been hit with depleted uranium, a dust mask, a handkerchief is adequate to protect them - washing their hands afterwards."

Not everyone on the battlefield may be as well versed in handling DU, Dr. Kilpatrick said, noting that his greater concern is DU's chemical toxicity, not its radioactivity: "What we worry about like lead in paint in housing areas - children picking it up and eating it or licking it - getting it on their hands and ingesting it."

In the US, stringent NRC rules govern any handling of DU, which can legally only be disposed of in low-level radioactive waste dumps. The US military holds more than a dozen NRC licenses to work with it.

In Iraq, DU was not just fired at armored targets.

Video footage from the last days of the war shows an A-10 aircraft - a plane purpose-built around a 30-mm Gatling gun - strafing the Iraqi Ministry of Planning in downtown Baghdad.

A visit to site yields dozens of spent radioactive DU rounds, and distinctive aluminum casings with two white bands, that drilled into the tile and concrete rear of the building. DU residue at impact clicked on the Geiger counter at a relatively low level, just 12 times background radiation levels.

Hot bullets

But the finger-sized bullets themselves - littering the ground where looters and former staff are often walking - were the "hottest" items the Monitor measured in Iraq, at nearly 1,900 times background levels.

The site is just 300 yards from where American troops guard the main entrance of the Republican Palace, home to the US and British officials tasked with rebuilding Iraq.

"Radioactive? Oh, really?" asks a former director general of the ministry, when he returned in a jacket and tie for a visit last week, and heard the contamination levels register in bursts on the Geiger counter.

"Yesterday more than 1,000 employees came here, and they didn't know anything about it," the former official says. "We have started to not believe what the American government says. What I know is that the occupiers should clean up and take care of the country they invaded."

US military officials often say that most people are exposed to natural or "background" radiation n daily life. For example, a round-trip flight across the US can yield a 5 millirem dose from increased cosmic radiation; a chest X-ray can yield a 10 millirem dose in a few seconds.

The Pentagon says that, since DU is "depleted" and 40 percent less radioactive than normal uranium, it presents even less of a hazard.

But DU experts say they are most concerned at how DU is transformed on the battlefield, after burning, into a toxic oxide dust that emits alpha particles. While those can be easily stopped by the skin, once inside the body, studies have shown that they can destroy cells in soft tissue. While one study on rats linked DU fragments in muscle tissue to increased cancer risk, health effects on humans remain inconclusive.

As late as five days before the Iraq war began, Pentagon officials said that 90 of those troops most heavily exposed to DU during the 1991 Gulf War have shown no health problems whatsoever, and remain under close medical scrutiny.

Released documents and past admissions from military officials, however, estimate that around 900 Americans were exposed to DU. Only a fraction have been watched, and among those has been one diagnosed case of lymphatic cancer, and one arm tumor. As reported in previous articles, the Monitor has spoken to American veterans who blame their DU exposure for serious health problems.

The politics of DU

But DU health concerns are very often wrapped up in politics. Saddam Hussein's regime blamed DU used in 1991 for causing a spike in the cancer rate and birth defects in southern Iraq.

And the Pentagon often overstates its case - in terms of DU effectiveness on the battlefield, or declaring the absence of health problems, according to Dan Fahey, an American veterans advocate who has monitored the shrill arguments from both sides since the mid-1990s.

"DU munitions are neither the benign wonder weapons promoted by Pentagon propagandists nor the instruments of genocide decried by hyperbolic anti-DU activists," Mr. Fahey writes in a March report, called "Science or Science Fiction: Facts, Myth and Propaganda in the Debate Over DU Weapons."

Nonetheless, Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington, a doctor who visited Baghdad before the war, introduced legislation in Congress last month requiring studies on health and environment studies, and clean up of DU contamination in the US. He says DU may well be associated with increased birth defects.

"While the political effects of using DU munitions are perhaps more apparent than their health and environmental effects," Fahey writes, "science and common sense dictate it is unwise to use a weapon that distributes large quantities of a toxic waste in areas where people live, work, grow food, or draw water."

Because of the publicity the Iraqi government has given to the issue, Iraqis worry about DU.

"It is an important concern.... We know nothing about it. How can I protect my family?" asks Faiz Askar, an Iraqi doctor. "We say the war is finished, but what will the future bring?"

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