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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Depleted Uranium
by Kit Smith

The recent film Jarhead exposes many elements unique to the first war in the Persian Gulf: The dysfunctional dichotomy of a soldier being aggressively primed for a “war” in which he never gets to fight, the frustration of spending months waiting in the desert, the psychosis-inducing dilemma of an indoctrinated sniper never able to shoot his rifle, and— resultant from being drunk at Xmas in the desert heat—the wearing of only an AK47 and a strategically placed Santa hat. Some consequences of the Kuwaiti oil fields being lit aflame by retreating Iraqi soldiers are portrayed in the film. One thing not addressed in the film and only alluded to in the book is the use of depleted uranium and the seemingly resultant “Gulf War Syndrome.”

Depleted Uranium (DU) is a waste product of the processes by which enriched uranium is separated from natural uranium, as used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons and to produce fuel for nuclear reactors. It is provided free of charge to defense contractors by nuclear power plants, eager to eschew the high costs of storing it in nuclear waste sites, a win-win situation for both industries. DU is a pyrophoric metal, meaning it combusts spontaneously when exposed to air, and it has a density nearly 1.7 times that of lead. This combination of density and flammability grants this material enormous value as armor-piercing ammunition. Heavy, flaming bullets and kinetic energy penetrators (rods of solid metal shot from guns)burn through the tanks somewhat like a blowtorch causing injury, damage and secondary fires. DU makes for great weapons. The often-overlooked downside of using such a metal is that it’s RADIOACTIVE.

It might seem obvious to the average citizen that radioactive =bad . That leaving behind fields full of these shells and shrapnel or the resultant dust might effectively destroy an ecosystem for generations to come. That, as stated by former U. S. nuclear weapons laboratory employee and international DU expert Leuren Moret, “Living in a radioactive environment with chronic exposure to low levels of in contaminated areas will slowly be destroyed. Genetic defects will be passed to future generations who will also be exposed to new sources of radiation from contaminated air, water and food. The depleted uranium dust will cycle through the environment and travel throughout larger regions, carried on the atmospheric dusts which travel around the earth.”

The Gulf War (1991) saw the first widespread use of DU munitions and armor. Since then, the United States has used such armaments in conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), and currently in Iraq. More than 300 tons of DU were deposited in Iraq during the Gulf War. An estimated 25-30 tons remain in Kosovo. And our veterans seem to have brought quite a bit of it home with them. The souvenir gift that keeps on giving!

Official Pentagon numbers show a total of 697, 000 U. S. citizens as taking part in Gulf War I, a number which increases to over one million when non-military members are included. Slightly less than one percent of this million reported ailments which could not be diagnosed. Typified by headache and memory loss, chronic joint and muscle pain, fatigue, sleep disorders, and intestinal and respiratory ailments, these have come to be known as the symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome.

There are more sinister conditions: Veterans from the US, UK, and Australia report blood in their urine, constant rashes, lesions, gynecological infections, sudden urges to vote Democrat, and in some cases the expression of uranium through semen . Sexual partners of these most unlucky vets often complained of a burning sensation during inter course, followed by their own debilitating illnesses. Though most US citizens who have awareness of DU expo sure symptoms garnered it through the plight of Gulf war veterans, it is the residents of the conflicted areas who are the biggest losers. The Christian Science Monitor reported. radiation at the sites of burned-out tanks and other locations wherein US troops used DU shells in Iraq as registering 1, 000 times the background levels.

All this radiation hasn’t even gone to produce anything useful or fun like glowing fish or six-legged chickens or giant frogs. Just horrific things like babies being born without eyes, or with enlarged heads. Also, a massive rise in incidences of childhood cancer, leukemia and birth deformities has been observed in southern Iraq since 1991.

DU is considered by the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veteran’s Illnesses to pose little threat to the body so long as it remains outside the organism, as its radiation cannot penetrate the skin. Though admitting to shared symptoms among soldiers stationed in the Persian Gulf in 1991 and veterans from the former Yugoslavia (the Brits call their mystery illness “Balkan flu”), the claim is that other causes are to blame. The singular listed shared exposure is, um. . .”stress.” That’s seriously the best they could come up with. Even if one believes that stress can cause lesions and eyeless babies, reports from as far back as 1943 show clearly that DU-contaminated dust is a lethal weapon and can travel miles.

Upon impact, a DU penetrator becomes partly aerosolized. Over half of the aerosolized particles are smaller than 5 microns and can be inhaled deep enough into the lungs that the body cannot easily remove them. Here, they emit a steady dose of alpha radiation. “Depleted” is something of a misnomer: Though DU radioactivity is often cited as being only 57%that of natural uranium, this value reflects only the alpha radiation. When beta and gamma radiation are taken into account, the number increases to 75%.

Besides the dust, specific radiation hazards exist from body embedded DU shrapnel, and military surgery manuals now include specific removal guidelines (though Air Force Major and former director of the Pentagon’s Depleted Uranium Program Dr. Doug Rokke said on a radio program that “In 1993. . . the US Army medical department sent an order out. . . they deliberately said to leave the uranium shrapnel embedded in the arms and the bodies of the US friendly-fire casual ties to determine what the health effects would be.”). Finally, when these shells explode, they permanently contaminate their target with low-level ration.

DU has a dual mechanism, as it is both radioactive and toxic. Toxins are biological in their destructive nature. They react with specific molecules in the body, altering their function. Radiation is physical in its destructive nature. Studies have shown a synergist effect between the chemical and radiological properties, leading to a combined toxicity as much as eight times greater than would be predicted by dose. Several European studies have linked DU to chromosome damage and birth defects in mice. Many scientists say we still don’t know enough about the long-range effects of low-level radiation on the body to say any amount is safe.

Yet another point of interest: The use of DU weapons is illegal. By using such weaponry, the Pentagon deliberately defies a 1996 United Nations resolution that classifies depleted uranium ammunition as an illegal weapon of mass destruction (seriously). Nor are we the only country partaking in such hypocrisy. Other countries known to have DU munitions or armor include the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, and Greece (Israel denies use of DU, contradicting Palestinian claims).

It might not impossible that other conditions in the Persian Gulf, especially circumstances related to the burning oil fields, could produce a similar combination of symptoms in so many soldiers. But we have enough medical data to know whether their symptoms are or are not the result of radiation expo sure. DU isotopes have reportedly been detected in US, British and Canadian Gulf War veterans’ lung, liver, kidney and bone samples. Urinalysis of samples from veterans and residents consistently detect uranium.

Additionally, as former US army adviser and current professor of medicine at the Uranium Medical Research Center in Canada, Dr. Asaf Durakovic, expressed to BBC News Online: “In Afghanistan there were no oil fires, no pesticides, nobody had been vaccinated—all explanations suggested for the Gulf veterans’ condition. But people had exactly the same symptoms. I’m certainly not saying Afghanistan was a vast experiment with new uranium weapons. But use your common sense.”

With the government denying the dangers of deleted uranium and the public awareness at nearly zero (oddly, given reports in such prestigious media outlets as the Christian Science Monitor, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone), perhaps the best Gulf War veterans and other victims can hope for is that somebody will make a cool, creepy movie about them some day, a la Jacob’s Ladder. Instead of being bayoneted in the beginning, our hero could be sprayed with DU dust, come home to hallucinations of eyeless, two fingered babies and eventually find his way to heaven with the help of his oncologist. Tim Robbins will be too old by then, but Jake Gyllenhaal will be just the right age, and what better way to round out his career?

 
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