Mother Jones

Outfront

July/August 1999

Hot Shot Uranium

It's easy to see why NATO is using depleted uranium (DU) antitank shells against Serbian ground forces: DU is extremely dense, which allows it to rip "through tanks like a hot knife through butter," as one Pentagon spokesman puts it. But veterans' groups, public health experts, and even the United Nations Commission on Human Rights condemn the use of DU as a weapon. The DU shell may be among the armed forces' most effective munitions, they say, but it is also one of the most toxic.

According to Pentagon reports, DU shells release a fine uranium dust on impact. This dust, says epidemiologist and radiation expert Rosalie Bertell, can be inhaled at the time of battle--and long afterward. DU particles (60 percent as radioactive as bomb-grade uranium) "can be stored in liver, kidney, bone or other tissues for years, irradiating delicate tissues," says Bertell. "It can initiate or promote cancers."

U.S. forces fired 320 tons of DU shells at Iraqi targets during the Gulf War. But the Pentagon insists that DU didn't--and doesn't--harm anyone other than its intended targets. "The radiation anyone could get from a DU shell is so small that there is no effect," says Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Dian Lawhon. The Defense Department concedes, however, that it failed to teach its personnel how to avoid radiation exposure when entering a DU-exposed area. "In handling even mildly radioactive material, there are simple things you can do to protect yourself," says spokesman Austin Camacho. "We didn't do a good job of telling people about these precautions." Nonetheless, the Pentagon insists that DU is not a cause of Gulf War illnesses, a variety of mysterious afflictions reported by nearly 20,000 U.S. vets.

The Pentagon's colleagues in Veterans' Affairs, however, "definitively disagree" with the Pentagon's dismissal of DU's role in Gulf War illnesses. "Depleted uranium has not been ruled out," says VA spokesman Terry Jemison. Indeed, a recent study by a VA doctor found traces of DU in urine and semen samples from exposed Gulf War vets. And a report by watchdog groups the Military Toxics Project, the National Gulf War Resource Center (NGWRC), and Swords to Plowshares alleges that the Pentagon knew exposure to DU could cause severe health problems, yet did not warn soldiers of the risks. "The Pentagon is either grossly misinformed or intentionally misleading veterans," says Paul Sullivan of NGWRC. "DU is definitely one of several causes of Gulf War illnesses."

Adding to the controversy are Iraqi claims that DU contamination has led to dramatic increases in cancer rates and birth defects throughout Iraq. While the Pentagon shrugs off these claims as Iraqi propaganda, groups including the World Health Organization and Physicians for Social Responsibility insist that it is premature--and irresponsible--to unilaterally reject Iraqi claims.

"The medical community takes the line that DU may be a cause, and it may not be," says Richard Garfield, an epidemiologist at Columbia University and a specialist in the public-health effects of war. "At this point, nobody really knows." Given the ongoing use of DU shells in Kosovo, new data may soon be available to help resolve this dispute.
Elizabeth Hollander