Remains of toxic bullets litter Iraq
The Monitor finds high levels of radiation left by US armor-piercing shells.
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"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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.