From the Catholic Worker,
August-September, 2002

[Excerpted from] Book Review:  “The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush's Military-Industrial Complex”

by Dr. Helen Caldicott
The New Press, New York, NY 2002
Reviewed by Bill Griffin.

    DU (Depleted Uranium) was used for the first time in history by the US military in the Persian Gulf War against Iraq in 1991.  It constitutes the first introduction of a nuclear weapon into the “conventional battlefield,” and is a technical breach of all the non-proliferation treaties that the US has signed.  The Pentagon, of course, would dispute this characterization of these facts.  In order to help us understand the enormous and long-lasting destructiveness to human health of DU and how this destructiveness is directly related to its low-level radioactivity (which qualifies it as nuclear weapon), Dr. Caldicott reviews its long, but hidden, history and development.

    What is DU?  It is a by-product of the manufacture of atom bombs.  Naturally occurring uranium in the earth contains two radioactive isotopes mixed together, U-235 and U-238.  U-235 is the more highly radioactive and was used, in its purified or “enriched” form, to make the first atom bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of human beings in an instant and many thousands afterward through radiation sickness.  Nuclear bombs were later made from plutonium and, again, U-238 was a by-product.  When it is removed in bomb production or nuclear reactor fuel rod production, U-238 is described as “depleted” uranium or DU.  Two chemical properties of low-level, radioactive DU have always fascinated weapon makers: it is nearly twice as dense as lead and it is pyrophoric, that is, it ignites and burns upon high speed impact.  Enormous quantities of DU were created during the Cold War when the US made over 70,000 nuclear weapons.  Weapon researchers and developers have now succeeded in putting this toxic “nuclear waste” to “use” through the creation of depleted uranium bullets and shells.

    30-milimeter DU machine gun bullets and 120-milimeter DU tank shells and other ordinance have given the US crushing military superiority over all other armored tank forces in the world.  At the same time, the US military has conducted numerous studies that establish that DU causes many deleterious health effects both on the human beings against whom it is used and those who use and are exposed to it.  When ignited, seventy percent of DU shells are vaporized and aerosolized into tiny particles of oxidized U-238.  Sixty percent of these particles are tiny–less than 5 microns in diameter–they are light and they can be transported by winds and breezes many miles.  They are small enough to be inhaled and lodge in the tiniest passages of the lungs and can reside there for many years, irradiating a small area of surrounding tissue with cumulative high dose radiation, eventually causing lung cancers.

Iraqi and US Victims

    DU is also soluble in water after it has been aerosolized, and the water supplies around battlefields, as in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, are at risk of radioactive pollution.  DU has a radioactive half-life of 4.5 billion years, and it can concentrate in the food chain thousands of times at each step.  Children and babies are ten to twenty times more sensitive to the carcinogenic effects of ingested radiation than adults.  Today, medical reports from Iraq indicate that childhood malignancies are seven times more than what they were before the war.  Also, DU has been shown to concentrate itself in the testes, disrupting sperm production and causing chromosomal damage, leading to very serious birth defects.

    Dr. Caldicott documents that the US military's own medical studies have shown that DU can cause serious kidney damage, cancers of the lung and bone, skin disorders, neuro-cognitive disorders, chromosomal damage and birth defects.  But today, the Pentagon does not publicize these studies, only anti-war activists like Dr. Caldicott can ferret them out for us.  The Pentagon appears to be interested only in its narrow, short-term, tactical military “advantage.”  And it takes this position at the expense of its loyal American soldiers.

    The President of the American Gulf War Veterans Association estimates that 50,000 to 80,000 veterans are afflicted with Gulf War Syndrome.  39,000 have been dismissed from active duty.  2,500 to 5,000 have died.  Dr. Caldicott writes:  “The symptoms of Gulf War syndrome are difficult to collate within a specific disease entity.  Nevertheless, the complaints of the veterans are surprisingly similar in pattern to the various pathologies induced by uranium exposure as described by the US military.  Without definitive medical and epidemiological studies, it is, at this stage, impossible to know exactly what the future holds for the people exposed to uranium from the weapons used in the Gulf and the Balkans.”

    The International Atomic Energy Agency has blocked the World Health Organization from conducting studies on the health effects of exposure to U-238 following Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo and new possibly Afghanistan.  Why does the Pentagon continue to refuse to support studies that might benefit its own veterans?

    Could it be that depleted uranium munitions are the latest in the line of the Pentagon's “magic” weapons that “guarantee” victory, the way Agent Orange, the defoliant, used during the war in Vietnam, promised technological triumph?  In the case of Agent Orange, it was found that the dioxin it contained was lethal to all who came into unprotected contact with it.  Thousands of Americans and Vietnamese were sickened, poisoned and died early deaths.  For years after the end of the war in 1975, the Department of Defense repeatedly denied that Agent Orange was carcinogenic.  Today, now that testing has been done by the Veterans Administration, it is a medically established fact the dioxin causes disease and death.  For the sake of all the young, generous people serving in the military today, we pray that the same duplicitous and dishonorable cover-up game is not being played again...

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