Canaries in the Mineshaft:
Toxic weaponry causes suffering for US veterans and Iraqi civilians alike

by Tim Judson

In January, many sperm banks in the US began offering men being deployed to the Persian Gulf discounts and one-year of free storage for their semen. According to California Cryobank, Fairfax (Virginia) Cryobank, and statements by soldiers who have taken advantage of the offers, the primary concern was not about dying in combat: it was about the ability of veterans to conceive healthy children after returning from Iraq.

Veterans who took advantage of the offer did so mostly out of concern over alleged chemical and biological weapons. Even though no such Iraqi weapons were encountered, many troops may still need the service.

Thousands of Gulf War veterans and US military who have served in the Persian Gulf since 1991 have returned experiencing a combination of severe health problems, commonly known as Gulf War Syndrome. The symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome are wide-ranging: chronic fatigue; loss of short-term memory and ability to focus; respiratory problems; immune deficiencies; terrible skin rashes; cancers; and loss of bladder and bowel control, to name a few. Veterans have also had an abnormally high rate of children with severe birth defects since returning to the US – hence the sperm banks. Yet the Pentagon denies any culpability in the matter.

Deadly Trade-Offs

The accuracy and power of US weapons have increased dramatically over the last 20 years. When US bombs and missiles hit innocent civilians now, it is less likely that it is accidental. There has been a trade-off, however: many of the US’s new super-weapons contain large amounts of uranium, a radioactive and extremely toxic metal.

When exploded, uranium bullets, shells, and bombs contaminate the environment, indiscriminately harming soldiers and civilians. The US has pioneered a new generation of toxic warfare, in which weapons continue to harm people long after the fighting is over. Ultimately, Iraqi civilians will suffer the most, but medical disabilities among US personnel returning from Iraq will be a major indicator of contamination directly resulting from “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

The New Atomic Veterans

In September 2002, the Veterans Administration (VA) released a report indicating that nearly 30% of Gulf War veterans – over 168,000 – have medical disabilities related to their service during the war. However, there were only 760 deaths and injuries directly related to combat or accidents during the war. When US troops who have served in the Persian Gulf since 1991 are included, over 220,000 people have suffered disabilities. More than 10,000 have died, and approximately 140 more are estimated to die each month. Virtually all of the deaths and disabilities certified by the VA are presumably from Gulf War Syndrome.

Officially, the causes of Gulf War Syndrome are unexplained, although there is general agreement that veterans were exposed to a wide array of toxins. The Pentagon cites thousands of oil field fires, experimental vaccines and antibiotics (250,000 soldiers exposed), and chemical and biological weapons caches destroyed during and after fighting (140,000 exposures) as possible causes. However, the Gulf War unveiled a new type of weaponry in the US arsenal: bullets and armor made out of depleted uranium, known as DU. The Pentagon estimates 400,000 US soldiers had contact with DU during the war. (Democracy Now!, 1/30/03)

What is DU?

DU is a waste product from the process of m+aking enriched uranium fuel for nuclear reactors. It is still 100% radioactive, but has a lower concentration of the isotope of uranium that can produce a nuclear chain reaction. The US has built up an immense stockpile of DU waste over the past 60 years, but has no way of disposing of it safely.

Uranium is 1.7 times as dense as lead, making it the hardest, densest metal in the world. In the 1970s, the US government offered to give DU away to companies that could figure out ways to use it for commercial or military purposes. By developing bullets and shells out of DU – and tanks that use DU as armor – the US has created a virtually indestructible military, which it unleashed for the first time in 1991. US tanks and A-10 jets were able to shred Iraqi tanks and armor, but Iraqi tanks only left scratches on the DU armor of M1A1 Abrams tanks.

When a DU bullet or shell strikes a target, the uranium catches fire. Typically, 50-70% of the uranium is vaporized, releasing a mist of fine uranium dioxide dust particles. The immediate area becomes heavily contaminated. Depending on the size and duration of the fire, uranium dust could spread significant distances downwind. Unless contaminated vehicles and soil are quickly collected and isolated, the uranium will spread throughout the environment.

Persecution by Poison

The US fired about 944,000 DU rounds in the Gulf War, contaminating the Gulf region with 300-400 tons of DU in 1991. As a result, Iraq has experienced a parallel epidemic to Gulf War Syndrome since 1991. All health problems in the country have been exacerbated by the destruction of sewage, water, and agriculture systems and economic sanctions that have hindered reconstruction and crippled the Iraqi medical system. Yet there have been epidemics of entirely new diseases, particularly in southern areas of Iraq. Iraqi doctors report an eleven-fold increase in cancer since the Gulf War. In the southern city of Basra, there have been particularly dramatic increases in cancers, childhood leukemia, and severe birth defects, many of them previously rare or even unheard of. One expert, Dr. Harry Shalimer, estimates that there have been 100,000 cancers in Basra alone in the last 12 years (english.aljazeera.net, 04/13/03).

The toll will probably be even worse this time around. DU has been used in Baghdad, contaminating the most heavily populated area of the country. Because of their battlefield efficacy, A-10 fighter jets and Abrams tanks exclusively use DU rounds. In the siege of Baghdad, A-10’s strafed the banks of the Tigris River where Iraqi soldiers were entrenched (zmag.org, 4/7/03), probably contaminating the river, a major source of drinking and irrigation water. It is objectionable to classify spreading toxic waste throughout Iraq this way as “collateral damage”: the effects are inevitable and predictable at this point, even if they are officially unacknowledged.

A New Threat

There is likely a new source of uranium contamination in Iraq this time, resulting from large bombs encased in uranium. In the war on Afghanistan, the US introduced bunker-buster and earth-penetrator bombs. Based on information available from US weapons development programs and numerous other sources, these bombs are believed to use a large uranium metal shell to break through rock and hardened structures and detonate below ground.

The Pentagon will not address the issue. However, medical studies and inspections of blast sites in Afghanistan by the Uranium Medical Research Centre (UMRC) strongly suggest that such bombs were used. Researchers have found, that people near blast sites where such bombs seem to have been used began experiencing health problems similar to Gulf War Syndrome and “matching the profile of uranium internal contamination” immediately after the attacks. Urine samples taken last summer show that 100% of the people tested have 4-20 times more uranium in their bodies than normal, with no likely natural cause.

Uranium bombs would also have been used in Operation Iraqi Freedom. UMRC notes that the Pentagon accelerated the development of these weapons prior to September 11, 2001 to prepare for a possible invasion of Iraq. Curiously, and perhaps insidiously, the UMRC’s studies found that contamination in Afghanistan is from non-depleted uranium – that is, uranium consisting of the naturally occurring combination of isotopes. Some suggest that the Pentagon may use non-DU to mask the causes of contamination: if it is not DU, the US can argue that it is from uranium occurring naturally in the area.

Of Lambs and Canaries

However, it may be difficult to link civilian suffering in Iraq directly to US munitions. Along with Baghdad’s museums and stores, seven nuclear labs, including the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center just south of Baghdad, have been looted since early April. People have reportedly taken and dumped tons of radioactive materials from Tuwaitha to use the containers for storing food and water, unaware of the dangers. Dr. Hamid Al-Bah’ly, a founder of the center, reports containers missing, many with their contents dumped on the ground. He has found contamination in people’s homes, on their clothes, and in their beds at levels 500-600 times higher than acceptable (Pacific News Service, 5/6/03). One child had pinned a chunk of uranium dioxide to her dress because she liked its bright yellow color.
It is hard to imagine how US forces would have failed to secure such a site, especially with concerns over proliferation of radioactive materials and nuclear weapons. It is even harder to imagine that the failure was unintentional, given Associated Press reports that US Marines broke “UN seals designed to ensure that the materials did not end up in wrong hands” (Pacific News Service). Nevertheless, the failure will likely make it more difficult for epidemiologists to pin the ensuing environmental health crisis on US weapons.

That is, unless US soldiers are independently tested promptly on returning from Iraq. Because their illnesses will almost certainly have been caused by the weapons they used, they will be the canaries in the mineshaft. This time, there were hardly any oil well fires and no weapons of mass destruction have been found or destroyed – except those the US used.

The Pentagon is stressing that it will conduct such tests (unlike after the first Gulf War). However, the US military has a tremendous conflict of interest in conducting or supervising any medical evaluations or scientific studies on the matter. In March, seven members of Congress introduced a bill to require an independent study to definitively determine the effects of DU, “The Depleted Uranium Munitions Study Act of 2003” (H.R. 1483).

While such a study is necessary, it will be too late for the people already exposed and who live in the areas where uranium weapons have been used. It is a terrible tragedy, for US and Iraqi soldiers and Iraqis alike, that, for all the US’s superior technology, its weapons still cannot be stopped from killing and continuing to kill, and they still don’t discriminate between friend, foe, and bystander. They merely draw out the death and suffering for everyone, for generations.

Tim works with Citizens Awareness Network <www.nukebusters.org> to stop nuclear power and environmental racism. He lives in Syracuse with his dog Eva, who wonders when she’s going to get all the attention she deserves.