First Published: 2003-05-08

 
US use of DU in Iraq war causes cancer
 

New fear in Iraq over US use of depleted uranium in war grows after more children catch aggressive form of cancer.

 

Middle East Online

By Dan Beaulieu - BAGHDAD

UN classes DU munitions as an illegal weapon of mass destruction

Several years after the 1991 Gulf War, Dr Salma Haddad started noticing more and more children at Baghdad's Al-Mansur hospital with an aggressive form of cancer.

Haddad, a leading Iraqi specialist, was especially alarmed since the disease, acute myeloblastic leukemia, is closely associated with exposure to radiation - and suspicion fell on the use of depleted uranium (DU) munitions.

With the fighting now all but over in the war to topple Saddam Hussein, worries are growing that another surge in long-term health problems, for Iraqi civilians and soldiers on both sides alike, is on the way.

"Many studies show a relationship between the use of depleted uranium weapons and an increase in cancer," said Haddad, displaying a chart that shows her department admits five times as many children with cancer than in 1991.

Other causes from pollution to malnutrition could be a reason, she said, but added that many of the cases were reported in southern areas around Basra, where US tanks engaged in fierce combat.

During the 1991 Gulf conflict, Abrams tanks, Apache attack helicopters and A-10 tank-buster planes fired an estimated 300 tonnes of DU munitions.

It is unknown how many were used in this war, but both the Pentagon and Britain said their troops would keep using them - even though they are classed by the United Nations as an illegal weapon of mass destruction.

Six days before the war started on March 20, Colonel James Naughton of the US Army Materiel Command dismissed Iraqi complaints that DU was causing health problems.

"They want it to go away because we kicked the crap out of them," he said.

Dr Michael Kilpatrick, director of the Pentagon's Deployment Health Support Directorate, said at the same time that DU could not be playing a role in causing cancer and birth defects. "The medical answer is no," he said.

Depleted uranium, or uranium-238, is a waste product of power-generating nuclear reactors and is 1.7 times denser than lead.

DU bullets and shells cut through conventional armor plating on tanks like paper. They emit almost no radiation before firing but burn in mid-air and vaporize after contact, spreading fine radioactive dust across a large area.

"If the Americans have used it again, they have a duty to notify the people in the areas and take immediate action to remove it," said Ghulam Popal, the World Health Organization's representative in Baghdad.

"We believe you have to be exposed to depleted uranium for many years to be affected by it. But it is certain that its use will harm people particularly if it is used in populated areas," he said.

US forces used DU munitions in the Balkans and Afghanistan, and some health specialists believe they are behind the mysterious Gulf War syndrome which has affected tens of thousands of US and British soldiers.

Physicist Doug Rokke, a member of the US military team charged with cleaning up depleted uranium following the 1991 war and now one of the most outspoken opponents of the weapons, said the task is much easier said than done.

"For each and every vehicle that is struck by a single uranium munition you have to take that entire vehicle, and physically remove it," Rokke recently said in an interview with the Arabic satellite news channel Al-Jazeera.

"Then you have to clean up all the uranium penetration that is left around that vehicle. Then you have to take a bulldozer, and go out to at least 100 metres (yards) and scrape down at least 10 centimetres (four inches) and remove all of that dirt in order to make that area safe again," he said.

If that is not done, he said, the contamination will last 4.5 billion years.

 

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