Depleted Uranium’s Use Causes Great Harm

By Abigail Kuhn


"Shells tipped with DU are an armourer’s dream but an environmental nightmare" (1). The conflict over the use of depleted uranium (DU) is not a new topic, but because of continued use in the current Iraq conflict it is becoming a much bigger problem. The health effects caused by the use of DU, much more so than the its associated environmental impact, have made it an extremely controversial material. The U.S. military has many reasons for using the metal, and greatly supports continuing its use despite concerns about it. Doctors in Iraq and the United States, environmental authorities, as well as many veterans have gone on record to point out that the use of DU is very dangerous and even unlawful. Because of lack of information, testing and cooperation, not much is currently being done to change the military’s policies concerning its use of DU. In fact, given the secrecy surrounding it, very little discussion is taking place at all. As a result soldiers and the public are largely uninformed or misinformed about DU and its deadly influences. Yet given the costs in human lives and environmental damage, the effects of DU need a broader hearing.

Depleted uranium (DU) is a "highly toxic by-product of the uranium-enrichment process used to make nuclear weapons and nuclear-reactor fuel" (2). The U.S. military suggests reasons and justifications to support the continued use of this by-product. DU has had great success on the battlefield. The way the metal enhances the power of the weapons when it is added is nothing short of incredible. "While conventional munitions tend to blunt on impact, bullets and shells made from DU, which is 1.7 times denser than lead, actually become sharper as they bore through armor plating" (2). The DU is used to demolish tanks, even those once thought to be impermeable and unstoppable. The Pentagon believes the use of DU is "indispensable in giving U.S. soldiers an edge on the battlefield" (3). But DU is also being used on a smaller scale as well. The military has "these things down to machine gun rounds … when it comes out of the barrel it is already on fire," according to Ed Ericson (4).

Some people believe that the military has other less genuine reasons for wanting to continue its use of DU. Because of the way DU is made, the United States has more of it than any other nation; "a stockpile of 700,000 tonnes and growing" (3). The supply of DU, because it is made and controlled by the Department of Energy, is in easy access to the U.S. military and comes largely free of charge. Additionally, using this "waste" material to strengthen weaponry actually saves on the cost of disposal. "Transforming DU into weaponry has the added advantage of easing the DOE’s burden to safely store the spent nuclear fuel" (3). If the military were not using the waste product to enhance their weapons the Department of Energy would have to be paying to store the waste in a safe manner. These revelations suggest reasons why the United States government and military might be so interested in continuing the use of DU.

While many military leaders strongly believe in the positives aspects of DU, other people fear the health problems that it is causing the soldiers as well as the Iraqi citizens. Depleted uranium is a serious health threat because when munitions tipped with DU explode they create a cloud of dust filled with particles of the metal. "Depleted uranium projectiles create fragments and dust which release uranium oxide in to the air" (5). Worse yet, the substance can travel by both air and water and "remains toxic and radioactive for 4.5 billion years" (3). "Inhalation of DU dust particles can lead to unacceptable body burdens [putting] the public at risk. DU can also be a danger if taken into the body by ingestion or through a cut" (6). The damage to the body associated with DU intake is extensive—from lung, kidney and other soft tissue damage to severe birth defects. The exposure to DU that Iraqi civilians have experienced ranges from nose bleeds immediately following an attack to evidence of birth defects later on. Dr. Janan Ghalib Hassan, a neonatalogist at the Women and Children’s Hospital in Basra, suggests that "in 2001, 611 babies were born with no limbs, no eyes, or other birth defects, compared with 37 such cases in 1990" (3). DU munitions were found to have been used in large amounts in the area where Dr. Janan Ghalib Hassan was working during the first Gulf War. The problems for the population of Iraq are even worse when one considers that DU ends up in the environment. Evidence of what has happened in other countries where DU has been used helps to predict what will happen in Iraq. The United Nations Environment Programme "recently discovered leaching of depleted uranium into the water supply in Bosnia, seven years after the conflict there" (7).

The fact that DU stays radioactive and in the environment for so long is a major concern for Iraq and the other nations where DU has been used in the past. This is also a reason why some officials believe its use is a legal matter, one which breaks international war regulations. "Some experts, including the United Nations subcommision on human rights, argue that DU weapons violate the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war, because they have an ongoing killing effect, they are not contained to the legal field of battle, they cause undue suffering, and they harm the natural environment" (8). Many doctors in Iraq are extremely concerned because of the health problems they know will affect their country long after the war is over (9). Even without considering the health hazards to military soldiers, the long-term effects of DU on the general population and evident health problems incurred from past uses of DU in other military conflicts provide strong reasons to ban the use of DU altogether.

The health problems of the local population are just the beginning of the total impact that DU has on human health. The soldiers from previous conflicts provide evidence that exposure to DU can cause serious consequences. "Ignoring the danger, the US and UK used DU in Bosnia. The US alone used it extensively in Kosovo. Veterans and peacekeepers exposed to DU during these wars have reported severe illnesses including leukemia and cancers" (10). These veterans from past conflicts that have used DU themselves are some of the most outspoken people against its continued use in the current conflict in Iraq. The soldiers there are beginning to see the toll that DU is having on their bodies. Common health problems include dizziness, diarrhea and blurred vision, but can be much more serious expanding to severe headaches, blood-laced urine and unexplained rashes (8). Given the lack of help and information about what is going on only exacerbates the problems associated with DU. Strangely, even when soldiers have returned home and asked to be tested for DU exposure, the Army have often unnecessarily postponed the tests (3).

Limiting a soldier’s ability to be tested is just one way that the U.S. military appears to be covering up or hiding the health problems involved with using DU. And, unfortunately, these allegations are nothing new. Reaching back to the 1991 Gulf War, for instance, Doug Rokke, who worked for the U.S. military during Desert Storm, was asked to handle the "clean-up of the nine U.S. tanks and 15 Bradley Fighting Vehicles that had been destroyed by ‘friendly fire’ from DU shells" (4). During the course of his work, Rokke received a memo asking him to "downplay any environmental dangers or health hazards he might find" (4). Apparently, the worry was that if the "truth" was reported, "DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus, be deleted from the arsenal" (4). After the clean up was finished, Doug Rokke "developed a rigorous 12-hour training program in DU safety and handling for U.S. soldiers. Yet the military never implemented the program" (4). This is one of many questionable actions taken by the United States government and military surrounding the use of DU. "In 1996 a United Nations subcommittee passed a resolution urging that its use be banned, along with other weapons of mass destruction. The Measure was adopted by a vote of 15 to one, with the U.S. the sole dissenter" (4). Throughout the controversy the U.S. has "cashiered or attempted to discredit its own experts, ignored their advice, impeded scientific research into DU’s health effects and assembled a disinformation campaign to confuse the issue" (4). The United States’ record on dealing with this issue in the past has not been very good or very honest. The increased amount of DU that is being used in the current Iraqi and Afghani conflicts has only required the US to become more secretive and evasive about the problem.

The cover up continues to grow and some people believe there are some very unethical actions taking place. For example, Katherine Stapp, describes one such action stating that a "State Department report titled ‘Apparatus of Lies’ has a section called ‘The Depleted Uranium Scare,’ which accuses the Iraqi government of exaggerating the toxicity of DU in order to generate international sympathy" (3). Placing this kind of spin on the issue seems like a very questionable thing for the U.S. to do, and further suggests that it is attempting to misinform the public.

Another situation worthy of mention involves an area where a possible conflict of interest may be occurring. "The US Agency for International Development has hired the World Health Organization—at a cost of $10 million to identify the Iraqi populations immediate health needs" (11). At first glance this seems like a wonderful gesture the United States is making but on closer inspection something fishy appears. However, "any data-gathering of immediate health impacts of DU is being paid for by the US, which is the major entity potentially liable for costs relating to those impacts" (11). This is just another example of how the US can and does have the power to hide the evidence that is being obtained. If the United States is the one paying for the problem to be research then it has the say over what happens to the information that is found. The information from this unilaterally-obtained data could be downplayed or twisted in some way. It wouldn’t be the first time that the negative effects of military armaments would have been greatly understated. Clearly it is not in the interests of the United States military to reveal any major problems the people of Iraq may be having because of DU exposure. Unless an impartial examination is done, we may never know the true effects of DU in Iraq.

Because the United States is not the only country currently using depleted uranium a good comparison can be made by looking at how DU is being handled by other countries. Britain, who also has used DU in battle, takes a different slant on DU. According to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Progress Report, "The UK Ministry of Defense has provided UNEP with details of British DU target locations and has offered to provide advice on carrying out risk assessments on DU within urban areas, and on long-term monitoring of DU in the environment, including water resources" (12). Given that UNEP has not been given any information from the U.S. "on any environmental assessment or remediation of DU contamination in Iraq" (12), nor are the exact quantities or DU used by the U.S. during "air operations, tank battles and ground operations" known (12), we are once again left to wonder why the U.S. is being so quiet on the issue. Since the United States military has been far from open with information about the amount and location of depleted uranium use, we are justified to consider its role questionable, at the very least.

The United States military believes strongly that the use of depleted uranium is necessary to help the coalition forces be successful. The U.S. government plans to continue its use despite the serious ethical concerns raised by numerous military, political and environmental officials. The crux of the matter revolves around whether the U.S. troops should be utilizing powerful weapons (to provide them an edge) that have chemical fallout which appears to cause terrible short- and long-term health effects for troops and (present and future) civilians alike. Because so little testing of depleted uranium’s effects is being done and there appears to be so much secrecy about it, it is difficult to say something definitively about DU. However, there is strong enough evidence right now to beg the following questions. Should the U.S. and British militaries be able to use weapons about which so little is publicly known? Do the benefits of this particular weapon truly outweigh the costs? Could more be done to protect both the soldiers and civilians from exposure? It is time that we talked seriously about this matter before any more unnecessary suffering and death occurs.

Works Cited

  1. Walker, Matt. (2004). "Truth and Technology at War." New Scientist, (Jan 3).
  2. Hawley, Steve. (2003). "The Remains of War." On Earth. New York.
  3. Stapp, Katherine. (2003). "IRAQ: Experts Warn of Radioactive Battlefields."
  4. Global Information Network. New York.

  5. Ericson, Ed. (2003). "Heavy Weapons." E: the Environmental Magazine, (May-
  6. June).

  7. McLaren, Duncan and Ian Willmore. (2003). "The Environmental Damage of
  8. War in Iraq." Green Dove Web Magazine.

  9. Arbuthnot, Felicity. (2004). "Is Britain Killing Thousands?" Morning Star.
  10. People’s Press Printing Society Ltd.

  11. Moszynski, Peter. (2003). "Royal Society Warns of Risks from Depleted
  12. Uranium." British Medical Journal, (May 3).

  13. Stapp, Katherine. (2004). "Rights: GIs Back from Iraq Ailing – Depleted Uranium
  14. Blamed." Global Information Network. New York.

  15. Arbuthnot, Felicity. (2003). "Pack of Lies." The Ecologist, (July/August)
  16. Bertell, Rosalie. (2002). "Uranium in War: The US in Kosovo." Earth Island Journal, (Winter).
  17. Anonymous (2003). "Is US Covering up DU Impacts in Iraq?" The Ecologist,
  18. (July/August).

  19. United Nations Environment Programme (2003). "Environment in Iraq: UNEP Progress Report". Geneva.

Abigail Kuhn, a resident of Kirkwood, MO, is a 2004 graduate from Knox College with honors in Environmental Studies and a minor in Anthropology and Sociology. During her four years, Abbie did extensive research in environmental education at the elementary level (which she conducted at Nielson Elementary School in Galesburg). She is pursuing a career as an outdoor environmental educator.

Caption: "Waiting for dust to settle after attack on base"