Depleted Uranium Exposures to Civilians and Military Personnel
prepared for the 14th Low Level Radiation and Health
Conference – Reading, UK, 14 July 2000
Depleted Uranium Exposures to Civilians and Military Personnel
[I am not a scientist; although I have done research in the social sciences, my doctorate is in history. I am a grassroots anti-nuclear campaigner, not a radiation expert.]
With few exceptions, of the millions of tons of uranium mined since the 1940s, only 0.7% of it, the fissionable U235, can be used in power and weapons production. The enrichment process has thus left about 1 billion tons of U238 as nuclear waste in the US alone, some of which the DoE has given to the arms manufacturers, and other industrial interests, for free.
U238 is primarily an alpha emitter, with beta and gamma decay products. It has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. An equal mass and density of natural uranium, compared to DU, is about 45% more radioactive than DU. However, natural uranium ore does not naturally appear with the levels of purity that DU does, because it has not been processed. This material is made into munitions of various calibres. Some 320 tons of it was fired on Iraq during the Gulf War, and about 10 tons was fired during 1999’s bombing of Yugoslavia, according to official estimates. The US has been testing DU munitions since 1954 (Hanson, 1976; LAKA Foundation, 1999).
However, DU has also been produced by re-enriching spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors, and this DU is contaminated with varying amounts of transuranics. The US DoE has been aware of this problem since the 1960s.
Some depleted uranium was sampled in 1963 and 1985, and found to have minimal amounts of plutonium, while other samples had levels of plutonium several hundred times above “established limits.” (Fahey, 2000, p. 36).
Some DU munitions are contaminated with plutonium, but no one knows the extent of the problem, as insufficient tests have been carried out, or at least the information has not been published. The US DoE is currently investigating plutonium levels in DU munitions in its stock. Some US DU was also imported to the UK for weapons manufacture here, but there has been no public announcement of intentions to profile the radioisotopes present in these weapons.
If the level of 12,400 Bq. per gram of U238 is extrapolated to munitions, the Low Level Radiation Campaign estimates, from mathematical calculations, that, (assuming the use of non-Pu-contaminated DU), one 1-micron sized particle, lodged in the lung, will give a dose to the surrounding tissue of 0.9 mSv/day or 332mSv a year for as long as it is present (Busby, 1999).
Urine tests on veterans indicate that the biological half-life of inhaled insoluble uranium oxides may be as long as twenty years. Before these urine tests were done, the ICRP estimated that the biological half-life of insoluble oxides might be one year. However, their estimates were mistaken. On the other hand, soluble uranium particles are eliminated from the body much more quickly – in some cases within 24 hours (Bertell, 1999).
Inhalation is the main problem, although some 120mm DU shells also give off an external reading of 2.5mGy an hour, the dose equivalent of 50 chest x-rays per hour (Busby, 1999). The Pentagon considers this a harmless external exposure. Once a shell of this type penetrates an armoured tank, the resulting fire can change up to 70% of the round into inhalable-sized particles, most of which are insoluble. Soldiers entering such a tank might find some seven pounds of a fine black dust, one lungful of which could severely increase their risk of cancer and the other major health effects associated with low-level radiation. “Direct comparison of the concentration in air at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston and that in the 100m radius of a DU tank shell impact show that the levels near the tank shell impact exceed the NRPB’s General Derived Limit by a factor of 6.75 times. This level would be illegal in the UK. The radius of effect can be used together with the amount of DU fired in the Gulf War to show that this level of contamination could have been produced over the whole of Southern Iraq. ECRR risk factors based on dose calculated using NRPBs GDLs predict an increase in cancer rate in adults of 50% following this exposure” (Busby, 1999). Civilians living in an area which had been contaminated by several such weapons impacts could be exposed to DU particles for eternity, particularly through resuspension in dusty, dry climates. Even the notorious NRPB has issued a warning to those visiting or working in Kosovo to avoid disturbing potentially contaminated areas, but this information has not been passed on to the returning refugees and existing civilian populations (NRPB, 1999). The UN Environmental Protection office maintains that while the contamination is not a sufficient reason for people not to return to Kosovo, “at places where contamination has been confirmed, measures should be taken to prevent access. The local authorities and people concerned should be informed of the possible risks and appropriate precautionary measures” (UNEP, 1999). There is no indication that any of this is actually happening in practice.
Although the majority of DU particles present after a fire are insoluble, the Pentagon, NATO and the MoD have all released practically identical statements which largely discuss soluble forms of uranium, and which emphasise its chemical, rather than radiological, toxicity. In the US, five federally mandated health investigations have repeatedly published inaccurate information about the numbers of veterans potentially exposed to DU. Originally the investigators said only 35 veterans were exposed, counting as “exposure” only those with embedded shrapnel. Now the Pentagon admits some 107-113 veterans were hit with DU shrapnel from “friendly fire incidents.” Estimated numbers of those exposed to inhaled DU range up to around 300,000. Some 100,000 US vets are registered with the Veterans Administration as having Gulf War related illnesses (Fahey, 2000). In the UK, the situation is worse, as some veterans here, despite failing health and the inability to work, are not recognised as having Gulf War Syndrome illnesses of any sort, and receive no assistance.
All of the US federally-funded research has focused on embedded fragments, finding, for instance, that the urine of DU-implanted rats is mutagenic, that such exposure induces genetic instability, and forms tumors in these mice (Armed Forces Radiobiology Institute, 1998). Populations in several areas of the planet where DU munitions have been tested or used report a myriad of health effects they associate with exposure, including cancers, neurological damage, increased miscarriages and birth abnormalities, exhaustion, breathing difficulties, and intermittent mental unclarity. Some 17 countries now have these weapons in their arsenals. They are considered a superior weapon because they easily penetrate armoured steel, but other, more costly, non-radioactive alternative metals (such as tungsten) are available.
With such an enormous cohort, including Danish, Belgium, French, Italian, UK, Canadian and US soldiers, as well as civilians in Iraq and Kosovo, a large-scale epidemiological study is both possible and imperative. However, NRPB and Euratom representatives say they are in no position to recommend such a study to governments (informal conversation). The current UK Royal Society study is widely expected to be another desk study, based on previous, not always relevant secondary sources, rather than on field work or experiment (Radioactive Times, 2000). Studies on the children of Danish Gulf War vets apparently show that some 50% are suffering from immune system-related problems, like skin rashes and asthma (Danish TV report). Doctors in Serbia are beginning to register what they say is a previously unseen lung disease, which may be related either to DU exposure or chemical exposures (Email message). Cancer rates among Bosnia refugees, where DU munitions were used in 1994-1995, are twice the rates in other refugee groups, according to Serbian physicians. Lack of resources due to sanctions has also resulted in a reduction of early cancer screening, which results in an increase independently of any environmental pollutant (Bezanijska kosa, 1999). Scientists in Iraq have found a 4-6 fold increase in cancers since before the Gulf War, and the infertility rate in Basra, is 2.7 per 1000, as compared to 1.7 in Iraq as a whole.
Congenital abnormalities in Basra are reported to be 3.1 per thousand, as compared to 1.8 in Iraq as a whole (Iraq Committee for Pollution Impact, 1999). These may also be related to DU, other radiological exposures, or chemical exposures or, more likely, a mixture of all three. Sanctions against both Iraq and Yugoslavia make adequate health care monitoring and responses difficult, if not impossible, due to the lack of resources. Successful treatment of childhood leukaemia in Iraq is now almost unknown.
NATO is aware that challenges to the legality of DU weapons can be made under existing international humanitarian law, but insists there is “insufficient information to conclude that DU munitions have a long-lasting nefarious effect which could affect civilian populations. Nevertheless, in light of media coverage of its use in both the Gulf War and in Kosovo, of the imposition of safety guidelines issued to KFOR soldiers, and indications that DU promotes the growth of cancerous cells in lab cell cultures, the lawfulness of its use could be challenged under IHL” (NATO Parliamentary Assembly Committee Reports, 1999). Of course, there won’t be any data as long as no one collects it, and, while the WHO would be the natural organisation to conduct a large-scale epidemiological study of the kind needed to provide scientific evidence, it unlikely this will happen, partly because of the 1959 agreement between the WHO and the IAEA, which places limits on what the WHO can study, if it involves radiation (WHA12-40, 28.5.59).
There have already been challenges to DU munitions under international humanitarian law, put forth largely by Karen Parker, JD, an international lawyer who says that DU fails the four main tests of legality, even without a specific treaty banning it. In fact, she maintains that a specific treaty would merely give the US another escape clause when it failed to sign it.
The UN Subcommission on Human Rights has condemned DU munitions as weapons of indiscriminate effects. DU munitions fail the temporal test (their effects continue after the war ends), the environmental test (they pollute food and water and soil), the humanness test (they have effects beyond those necessary to achieve military objectives), and the geographical test (the particles can potentially travel to noncombatant countries) (Parker, 2000). Weapons manufacture and testing can also affect civilians even if the weapons aren’t used, as those near the Wolverhampton Royal Ordnance Speciality Metals factory found last year after a fire potentially exposed both workers and nearby prison personnel, and as those in the Kirkcudbright area have found, as they look for ways to explain increases in leukemias and miscarriages. In neither case has the NRPB or the Environment Agency responded appropriately.
Pentagon and the MOD are fighting hard against the idea that exposure to
inhaled DU may be harmful to health, partly because arguments about DU
are central to arguments about low-level radiation overall, and are thus
tremendously threatening to the multi-billion pound, multi-national nuclear
industry. An international movement against these weapons is
growing daily, with DU activist groups now in the UK, the Netherlands,
Italy, the US, and Yugoslavia. Overall, demands include full health
care provision for all those affected, including veterans and civilians
of all sides; US and UK responsibility for clean-up and decontamination
of those areas where DU has been used; and an immediate cessation of the
manufacture, use and sale of these weapons. We must continue to say
‘no’ to these weapons, and if the ways that we find of saying ‘no’ aren’t
working, then we must find new ways of saying ‘no.’ In the US and
UK, non-violent direct action against DU has already taken place.
In the US, four members of a plowshares group are currently spending time
in prison after damaging the A-10 planes that fire the 30mm rounds, and
pouring vials of their own blood into the petrol tanks(Jonah House, 2000).
Conferences, email lists, lobbying, demonstrating, and ongoing campaigning
are also essential to remove the threat of these radioactive weapons. Funding
for more primary research would help, too. The Campaign Against Depleted
Uranium will be holding an international conference on these weapons from
4-5 November, 2000, in Manchester, where scientists and activists from
around the world will be speaking.
Armed Forces Radiobiology Institute (1998) DU research abstracts available on the internet at: http://homepage.jefnet.com/gwvrl/]
Bezanijska kosa Medical Center Expert Group (1999) A Report on Current Cancer Epidemiology in Serbia Based on Available Data. Belgrade, Bezanijska kosa Medical Center of the Belgrade University School of Medicine.
Bertell, Rosalie (1999) Gulf War Veterans and Depleted Uranium. Paper prepared for the Hague Peace Conference, May. [Internet:http://www.pgs.ca/pages/nl/rb990504.htm]
Busby, Chris (1999) Expert witness statement given in the trial of Helen John, Middlesex Crown Court, 15 December. Unpublished. Available from the Low Level Radiation Campaign Research and Publications Department, The Knoll, Montpelier Park, Llandrindod Wells, Powys, LD1 5LW. See also: [Internet: http://www.llrc.org]
Fahey, Dan (2000) Don’t Look, Don’t Find – Report from Gulf War Veterans,the US Government and Depleted Uranium. Military Toxics Project, Lewiston, ME, USA. Internet: http://www.miltoxproj.org].
Hanson, Wayne C., and Miera, Felix R., Jr (1976) Long-Term Ecological Effects of Exposure to Uranium. Los Alamos National Laboratory, LA-6269.[Internet: http://www.lanl.gov/]
Iraq Committee for Pollution Impact (1999) Unpublished paper given by Prof. Mona Kammas, University of Bagdad. Mariam Appeal Conference on the Effect of Sanctions in Iraq, London, England, December. 1 Northumberland Ave, London, WC2N 5BW.
Jonah House (2000) Press release, Plowhares action of 19 December 1999, relating to the prison sentences of Philip Berrigan, 77, Susan Crane, 56, Stephen Kelly, 50 and Elizabeth Walz, 33. Jonah House, 1301 Moreland Ave., Baltimore, MD, 21216, USA.
LAKA Foundation, ed. (1999) Depleted Uranium: A Post-war Disaster for Environment and Health. Laka Foundation, documentation and research center on nuclear energy, Ketelhuisplein 43, 1054 RD, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. email@example.com.
NATO Parliamentary Committee Assembly Reports (1999) Kosovo and International Humanitarian Law. Mr Volker Kroning, Civilian Affairs Committee, October. Internet: http://www.naa.be/publications/comrep/1999/as245cc-e.html]
NRPB (1999) Background Information on Depleted Uranium. NRPB Website. [Internet: http://www.nrpb.org.uk/D-uran.htm].
Parker, Karen (2000) Depleted Uranium at the United Nations: A Compilation of Documents and an Explanation and Strategy Analysis. Campaign against Depleted Uranium and International Educational Development, February. Copies of the report and UN documents are available for £10 from the CADU office, One World Centre, 6 Mount St., Manchester M2 5NS, UK. [Internet: http://www.cadu.org]
Radioactive Times (2000) Royal Society: The Final Frontier. Royal Society to Braoden DU panel. June, p. 6. [Internet: http://www.llrc.org]
UNEP (1999) The Kosovo Conflict: Consequences for the Environment and Human Settlements. Internet: http://www.unep.org]
WHA12-40, 28.5.59. Agreement Between the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organisation. United Nations, Geneva.