|Depleted Uranium shell|
Depleted uranium is a waste byproduct of the nuclear reactors. It contains the highly toxic U-238 isotope with a radioactive half-life of about 4.5 billion years. The breakdown of U-238 creates protactinium-234, which radiates potent beta particles. It is now generally agreed that radiation emitted on the breakdown of uranium may result in cancers in humans, as well as mutations in their germ cells that cause birth defects.
In the 1980s, the US army researchers discovered that the dense material of depleted uranium (DU), gives it a tremendous armor-piercing potential. And, DU-coated shells hitting the hardened steel armor are ignited on impact, creating a fiery burst of radioactive particles inside the enemy armored vehicle.
However, the toxic residue of this firestorm also results in an extremely insoluble aerosol (or dust) that can be inhaled and absorbed by others in the vicinity causing a variety of long-term health problems. It can also be absorbed by plants and animals, and can thus become part of the food chain. Spread by wind, it can pollute the environment; and according to the UN estimates, when deposited in soil, it can create up to a 100-fold increase in radioactivity of the ground water.
Estimates of the Depleted Uranium Used
As estimated by the UN and acknowledged by the Pentagon, the US and British forces used 1,100 to 2,200 tons of armor-piercing DU shells during the two months of March and April in 2003 attacks on Iraq. This is far more than the estimated 375 tons used in the entire 1991 Persian Gulf War, and its ill effects are bound to be much larger.
The US tanks, Bradley fighting machines, A-10 attack jets and Apache helicopters routinely use depleted uranium rounds in the desert, and recently such ammunition was also used in and around heavily populated areas.
Used for the first time in the 1991 Gulf war, the Iraqi physicians and others observed that it led, a few years later, to a dramatic increase in cancers and birth defects. A report from the UK Atomic Energy Authority says that some 500,000 Iraqis would die due to the radioactive debris left in the desert before the end of this century.
Over 200,000 veterans of the last Gulf war developed debilitating illnesses collectively known as the Gulf War syndrome - typified by chronic muscle and joint pain, fatigue and memory loss. They believe their illnesses resulted from exposure to depleted uranium, and Washington and allied governments have compensated for the claims of most of these servicemen. Yet the UK and US officials say there is no scientific proof that their condition was linked to service in the Gulf.
The US Agencies Issued Cautionary Instructions
Despite the denials, the US military in its army-training manual acknowledges the hazards, and requires that anyone who comes within 25 meters of any DU-contaminated equipment or terrain wear respiratory and skin protection. It also warns, "Contamination will make food and water unsafe for consumption."
Moreover, according The Army Environmental Policy Institute holding a spent DU round would result in exposing a person to about 200 mrem per hour. That equals a level of radiation received in eight chest x-rays per hour, says Tom Carpenter, director of the Nuclear Oversight Campaign, Government Accountability Project.
However, the Environmental Protection Agency website states, "There is no firm basis for setting a 'safe' level of exposure (to radiation) above background." Yet it says, "Most regulatory and advisory bodies around the world (including EPA) assume that any exposure carries some risk and that the risk increases as the exposure increases."
A Horrendous Rise in Cancers and Birth Defects
A large increase in the incidence of cancers has alarmed doctors in Iraq. For example, before the war in 1988 only 34 persons died of cancer in southern Iraq. Ever since the war, there is a gradual rise in cancer deaths; from 450 in 1998 to 603 in 2001. The rate of birth defects has also risen sharply.
As an example, Dr. Alim Yacoub on his last day in 2003 as dean of the Al Mustansiriya Medical School in Baghdad and the foremost authority on the effects of DU in Iraq, said, "If there isn't a centralized health plan soon, the consequences could be devastating. For the past 12 years, we have only been able to watch what's going on in this country, now it is time for a comprehensive health plan for cleaning up DU and for treating cancer."
Dr. Yacoub has carefully preserved his studies, and is anxious to share them with other researchers and concerned authorities.
Similarly, there is a preponderance of birth defects among children born in the Basra region, which defies explanation. For example, Geneticist Selma Taher, who is part of an Iraqi research team studying this phenomenon, found that the same soldier, who served in a regiment on the Highway of Death between Basra and Baghdad, fathered the three babies born with a similar congenital anomaly in a village 700 kilometers from Basra.
DU use has also led to birth defects in the children of allied veterans, and is believed to be the cause of anophthalmos cases - babies born without eyes. There also have cases of Iraqi babies born without the crowns of their skulls. A study of Gulf war veterans showed that 67% of their children had severe illnesses, missing eyes, blood infections, respiratory problems and fused fingers.
Stand of International Human Rights and Other Agencies
A number of human rights organizations are asking for banning the use of DU. At the annual UN Human Rights Convention held on August 16, 2002 a motion was tabled to ban the use of depleted-uranium munitions until a full-scale medical survey could be conducted. The only two countries that voted against the motion were Britain and the United States.
Following the outcry against the use of DU weapons by NATO in Kosovo in 1999, the Council of European Parliamentarians called for a worldwide ban on the manufacture, testing, use, and sale of such weapons. Their statement asserted, "The NATO's use of DU weapons would have long term effects on the health and quality of life in South-East Europe, affecting future generations." But the call went unheeded.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D- Washington, has introduced legislation in the Congress requiring the US government to conduct studies on the effects of DU on health and environment, and cleanup of its contamination in the United States. Twenty-three other democrats have signed the bill. But the bill remains without action in the House committee.
Use of DU shells is Illegal and a "War Crime"
Others are saying that the use of DU shells by the British and American coalition forces in the war against Iraq is a deliberate violation of a UN resolution, which classifies the munitions as illegal weapons of mass destruction.
Professor Doug Rokke, ex-director of the Pentagon's depleted uranium project - a former professor of environmental science at Jacksonville University and onetime US army colonel who was tasked by the US department of defense with the post-Gulf war DU desert clean-up - said use of DU was a 'war crime.'
Professor Rokke added, "There is moral point to be made here. This war was about Iraq possessing illegal weapons of mass destruction - yet we are using weapons of mass destruction ourselves." He added, "Such double-standards are repellent."
In an interview in April 2005, he told Neil Mackay of the Sunday Herald, London, "A nation's military personnel cannot willfully contaminate any other nation, cause harm to persons and the environment and then ignore the consequences of their actions."
"To do so is a crime against humanity."
He called on the US and UK to "recognize the immoral consequences of their actions and assume responsibility for medical care and thorough environmental remediation."
An August 2002 report by the UN sub-commission states that the laws which are breached by the use of DU shells include the following: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Charter of the United Nations; the Geneva Convention; the Convention Against Torture; the four Geneva Conventions of 1949; the Conventional Weapons Convention of 1980; and the Hague Convention s of 1899 and 1907, which expressly forbid employing 'poison or poisoned weapons' and 'arms, projectiles or materials calculated to cause unnecessary suffering.'
All of these laws are meant to spare civilians from unwarranted suffering in armed conflicts.
Isn't it time that the administration's rhetoric of bringing in liberty and freedom in Iraq is, at a minimum, brought in line with care for those suffering? The fact is that thus not only the liberty and freedom of the people of Iraq is violated, but also their very existence. It is time to realize that it is this hypocrisy and callous behavior that adds to rising Anti-Americanism worldwide. It is no way to "win the hearts and minds" of the Muslim world, which the US administration proclaims as its intention.
Siraj Islam Mufti, Ph.D., a researcher and freelance journalist, is also a staff writer for the American Muslim.
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