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DEPLETED URANIUM AND THE SMH

by Helen Caldicott

Posted: 01/01/01

Depleted uranium weapons used in Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo caused a furor in Europe this week, when Italy realized that seven of her soldiers deployed in the Balkans had died of leukemia, and a total of thirty were ill. France, Portugal, Holland, Belgium and Spain reported that some of their soldiers were also developing malignancies.

America used over one million pounds of uranium weapons in the Gulf war – 7000 tanks rounds and 940,000 bullets fired from planes. 10,800 shells were fired in Bosnia and 31,000 in Kosovo. While the Pentagon steadfastly maintains that that there is no evidence that DU weapons are harmful. in 1943, scientists in the Manhattan Project were postulating that uranium could be used on the battlefield as an air and terrain contaminant, that inhalation would cause “bronchial irritation” and that acute radiation effects could induce ulcers and perforations of the gut followed by death.

In July 1990 shortly before the Gulf War, a US Army contractor warned “Aerosol DU exposures to soldiers on the battlefield could be significant with potential radiological and toxicological effects.” So-called depleted uranium DU is the element uranium 238 remaining after the fissionable element uranium 235 is extractedfrom the uranium ore as fuel for weapons and nuclear reactors. 700,000 tons of this useless but hazardous radioactive material accumulated throughout in the States until the American military discovered that it was useful. 1.7 times more dense that lead, it sliced through the armor of tanks like a hot knife through butter. It was free so DU bullets and shells were cheap to make. But uranium 238 has other properties. It is pyrophoric, bursting into flames when it hits a tank at great speed. The fire oxidizes the uranium converting it to tiny aerosolized particles that can be inhaled into the small air passages of the lung where it often remains for many years.

Because it is radioactive it can damage cells in the lung, bone, kidney, and lymph glands causing cancer of the bone, lung, kidney, and the white blood cells – leukemia. It is also a heavy metal and causes a kidney disease called nephritis. Gulf war veterans are excreting uranium 238 in their urine and semen. Children in Iraq are reported to have a higher than normal incidence of malignancies and congenital malformations. Similar reports are emerging from Bosnian and Kosovo hospitals, while studies of children of American veterans seem to show a higher than normal incidence of congenital disease. The Department of Energy in America admitted yesterday that contaminated uranium reprocessed from military reactors had been mixed in with the pure DU. This contains traces of plutonium and uranium 236, and probably neptunium and americium elements which are thousands of times more carcinogenic than DU. These DU munitions almost certainly contain Australian uranium because our ore is enriched at Paducah Kentucky, where the DU is sourced.

Because uranium 238 has a half life of 4.5 billion years, and plutonium, which is by orders of magnitude more carcinogenic than uranium has a shorter half life of only 240,400 years. Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo are now contaminated with carcinogenic radioactive elements for ever. Because the latent period of carcinogenesis, the incubation time for cancer, is 5 to 10 years for leukemia and 15 to 60 years for solid cancer, the reported malignancies in the NATO troops and peacekeepers and in the American soldiers and the civilians in these countries are just the tip of the iceberg.

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