By Denise Magditch
Edited By Megan Maloy
There is a dangerous element among the people of Iraq and America. If ingested or inhaled, it can cause massive deformities in newborn babies and kidney disease, cancer or other sickness in adults. This element was used in the Gulf War of 1991 and the Bush Administration allowed an estimated 300,000 bombs coated with it to be used in the most recent war. Now, it is slowly killing innocent Iraqi civilians and the United States' own veterans of war.
The element is depleted uranium (DU), a type of uranium that is 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium. While this may make it appear to be less harmless and therefore no cause for worry, do not be fooled. Depleted uranium is both radioactive and toxic, and researchers believe that the combination of these two effects can cause significant damage among people, animals and the environment. It is a by-product of the uranium enrichment process for nuclear weapons or nuclear reactors and is 1.7 times heavier than lead. Used as a weapon, it tends to "self-sharpen" when it hits a target and if used as armor, will make ordinary munitions bounce off.1 It has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, which is the age of our solar system.2 This means that it will take 4.5 billion years for only half of the estimated 75 tons of DU in Iraq to disappear. Uranium is also "genotoxic", which means that if it finds its way into the body, it can chemically alter DNA. The altered DNA switches on genes that would not normally be expressed, and the resulting higher activity may lead to tumor growth. 3
There is such a great amount of depleted uranium in Iraq that there really seems to be no hope for the health of its inhabitants. There is even less hope since the US government is not taking any action to clean up the mess, much less warn Iraqi citizens of the potential risks. "We were told it was going to be paradise [when Saddam Hussein was toppled], and now they are killing our children...The Americans did not bother to warn us that this is a contaminated area."4 This stated by Latifa Khalaf Hamid, an Iraqi woman who owns a busy produce stand just four paces away from a burnt-out Iraqi tank riddled with DU bullets. Citizens eat contaminated produce and children play near and on tanks covered in DU shrapnel and dust. "After we shoot something with DU, we're not supposed to go around it, due to the fact that it could cause cancer," says one sergeant from New York.5 The Pentagon has apparently warned the US soldiers, but not the innocent civilians forced to live in the aftermath. Some US soldiers, however, are reputedly taking matters into their own hands, and passing out flyers and posting signs warning of the dangers of DU.
Unfortunately, it is not only the citizens of Iraq who are suffering. Since the DU was also used in the Gulf War, some veterans are finding effects of the dust in themselves. In 1991, more than 100 US troops were exposed to DU after being accidentally fired on by their own troops.6 During a research experiment performed at the Bremen Institute for Prevention Research, Social Medicine and Epidemiology in Germany, it was found that soldiers exposed to the DU dust were five times more likely to have chromosomes with incorrectly repaired strands of DNA than those who had not been exposed.7
With all the evidence piling up, it would seem that the United States has some cleaning up to do. However, both the US and British governments maintain that there is no medical basis for the Iraqi complaints. "The Iraqis tell us ‘terrible things happened to our people because you used it [in the Gulf War]'.....They want it to go away because we kicked the crap out of them, OK?" Colonel James Naughton of US Army Material Command told a Pentagon briefing.8 Aside from the sheer ignorance of the Colonel's statement, the blatant denying of facts seems to carry throughout the government, as the US has repeatedly refuted any claims that problems with DU dust or shrapnel exist. "What we worry about is like lead in paint in housing areas - children picking it up and eating it or licking it - getting it on their hands and ingesting it," states Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, a top Pentagon health official. What will the future hold?9
1 US to use depleted uranium, BBC News, 18 March 2003.
2 Scott Peterson, Remains of toxic bullets litter Iraq, The Christian Science Monitor, 15 May 2003.
3 Duncan Graham-Rowe and Rob Edwards, Depleted Uranium Casts Shadow Over Peace in Iraq, NewScientist.com, 15 April 2003.
4 Scott Peterson, Remains of toxic bullets litter Iraq, The Christian Science Monitor, 15 May 2003.
5 Scott Peterson, Remains of toxic bullets litter Iraq, The Christian Science Monitor, 15 May 2003.
6 Duncan Graham-Rowe and Rob Edwards, Depleted Uranium Casts Shadow Over Peace in Iraq, NewScientist.com, 15 April 2003.
7 Duncan Graham-Rowe and Rob Edwards, Depleted Uranium Casts Shadow Over Peace in Iraq, NewScientist.com, 15 April 2003.
8 US to use depleted uranium, BBC News, 18 March 2003.
9 Scott Peterson, Remains of toxic bullets litter Iraq, The Christian Science Monitor, 15 May 2003.
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