Is the use of weapons reinforced with depleted uranium a health hazard in Iraq? The U.S. government and others say depleted uranium is safe, but questions persist.
Washington, 4 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- High levels of radiation have reportedly been found in areas of Baghdad where U.S. forces used armor-piercing ammunition fortified with depleted uranium.
Scott Peterson is a reporter for "The Christian Science Monitor," a respected American newspaper. He recently wrote that a Geiger counter confirmed radiation levels ranging from 1,000 to 1,900 times greater than normal in four areas of the Iraqi capital. And yet, Peterson reports, no one has warned local civilians to stay clear of debris that may be contaminated with dust from the spent munitions.
Ammunition fortified with depleted uranium (DU), is harder than normal ordnance and is valuable as an antiarmor weapon. DU ammunition can pierce the shell of even the sturdiest tank. But its effects on the health of those who use it -- or who come in contact with it after a battle -- has been the subject of controversy since the 1991 Gulf War.
DU dust has been cited as a possible cause of elevated incidences of leukemia and lung cancer in the Balkans after it was used by NATO forces there in 1999.
But the governments of the United States and Britain, along with NATO, the European Commission, and even the World Health Organization have defended the safety of DU ammunition, or at least have failed to draw firm conclusions between exposure and ill health.
For example, a study requested by the European Commission in 2001 said "exposure to depleted uranium could not result in a detectable effect on human health." The U.S. Defense Department says there is no more radioactive material in depleted uranium than in ordinary soil.
Yet concerns persist, given that the ammunition is made from an ore that was once highly radioactive and is not completely rid of its original radioactive material.
John Wolfstahl is a weapons expert who formerly worked for the U.S. Energy Department. He says he understands the concerns, but stresses that DU ammunition has been studied extensively and that no link between its use and health disorders has been confirmed.
Wolfstahl is now the deputy director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private policy research center in Washington.
He tells RFE/RL: "I have not seen any conclusive evidence that depleted uranium presents an immediate health hazard. And I would say that compared with the other problems that often are uncovered in war -- whether it's from unexploded munitions or chemical effluents from tanks and other materials -- that depleted uranium would probably be very, very low on my list [of harmful substances]."
Wolfstahl says the problem with DU ammunition may be one more of perception than of substance, giving its origin: "My sense is that depleted uranium gets more attention because it is uranium, and people then associate that with highly radioactive materials or things that can be used for 'dirty bombs.' But depleted uranium doesn't fit into that category."
As a former nuclear nonproliferation official with the Energy Department, Wolfstahl is familiar with the government's requirements for depleted uranium. He says recycled uranium must meet strict standards of depletion before it can be passed to weapons manufacturers.
Joyce Riley is far less confident in the safety of depleted uranium. Riley was a captain in the U.S. Air Force and served in the 1991 Gulf War. She tells RFE/RL that she became ill after the war and eventually had to leave military service.
Riley says her health has recently improved, but that she believes she has been suffering from a mysterious condition known as Gulf War Syndrome. This is characterized by symptoms including fatigue, headaches, joint pain, skin rashes, nausea, dizziness, and respiratory disorders.
Riley is the chief spokeswoman for the American Gulf War Veterans Association, an advocacy group for U.S. veterans of the 1991 war. But she says Gulf War Syndrome is not limited to Americans who served in that conflict. She says she believes it is affecting military personnel who served in the 1999 NATO-led Balkans war, in which DU ammunition also was used.
Now, Riley says, a new crop of combatants may be victims of Gulf War Syndrome -- those serving in the current war in Iraq, in which, again, allied forces used ammunition fortified with depleted uranium in battles with tanks and in attacks on some Iraqi government buildings.
Riley dismisses the many studies that have failed to confirm a link between DU ammunition and health problems. She says some scientists may cultivate an aura of independence, but believes the results of their research can be bought for the right price.
"There is an agenda out there," Riley said. "There are people who are paid to produce reports that say there is no problem with this. Now, the [U.S.] Department of Defense says, 'Gee, we've spent $300 million and [conducted] 300 studies on this, and we just can't figure this out.' Well, then, we either have the most inept medical community in the [world's] military, or it is by design that they don't find the cause of this."
What is worse, Riley says, the U.S. Defense Department has treated early victims of Gulf War Syndrome as if they were feigning illness in an effort to evade duty. As for American soldiers who are now falling ill during their service in Iraq, she says the Pentagon is engaging in a cover-up characterized by intimidation.
"I can assure you these guys [serving in the current Gulf war] are coming back sick right now," she said. "[We] don't know why. [We] don't know what the problem is as of yet. I'm just collecting the information. But they're sick. They're being told not to complain about it. And if they do [complain], they're going to be moved out of the military and they'll have no medical benefits."
According to Riley, U.S. military physicians have even resorted to the discredited tactics of the Soviet era -- attributing psychological causes for physical symptoms. She says these doctors have routinely given psychological tests to American service personnel suffering from suspected Gulf War Syndrome.
Riley says these physicians often attribute the physical symptoms to what is known as posttraumatic stress disorder -- the malady that soldiers and others often suffer after experiencing battle or similarly disturbing events.
Dr. Michael Kilpatrick is deputy director of a Pentagon department that provides health support for U.S. soldiers being deployed abroad. He flatly rejects Riley's accusations, saying the U.S. military has been careful to help military personnel who become ill while serving overseas.
Kilpatrick tells RFE/RL that every serviceman who is repatriated for health reasons is asked a variety of questions that are designed to help physicians isolate symptoms and make accurate diagnoses: "Those questions run the whole gamut of all exposures they may have had in the environment -- with munitions, with seeing death, with killing people. We're very focused on making sure that those men and women's medical concerns are taken care of as they come home."
Kilpatrick says Riley is grossly misrepresenting the Pentagon's approach to soldiers whose illnesses cannot be diagnosed. He says the American military's approach is not only to give its soldiers good treatment, but also to help prevent disease by preparing troops before they are deployed abroad.
"Undiagnosed illnesses are something we've seen after every major conflict going back as far as the Boer War [in South Africa from 1899 to 1902] in military medicine literature," Kilpatrick said. "And that's why we are working very hard at informing our troops before they go [to war about] what are the medical threats they may be coming into in the area they go to."
Despite such assurances, however, concern about DU ammunition -- and its suspected links to illness -- is not likely to fade, especially if allied soldiers involved in the current war in Iraq begin showing symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome in increasing numbers.