A 'silver bullet's' toxic legacy

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

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

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 any...in 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.

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."

"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."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.