Wonder Weapon or Toxic Hazard?
1.Why did the US military develop shells
armed with depleted uranium (DU) and did they fully investigate
potential health hazards from these weapons?
The Army began arming tank, artillery and
machine gun shells with depleted uranium in the 1980s. DU is
a chemically toxic "heavy metal" that emits low levels
of alpha radiation. Its extreme density and pyrophoric nature
enables it to punch and burn its way through conventional armor.
Researchers also discovered that armored plating constructed
with depleted uranium provided increased protection from conventional
(non DU) shells. The term "depleted" is a misnomer
since DU contains about 60% of the radioactivity found in natural
When a DU shell strikes its target, up to
70% of the depleted uranium vaporizes into fine dust, which then
settles out in the surrounding soil and water. Over half of the
aerosolized particles are smaller than 5 microns and anything
smaller than 10 microns can be inhaled. Once lodged in the lungs,
these particles can emit a steady dose of alpha radiation.
An additional hazard is DU's chemical toxicity. An Armed Forces
Radiobiology Research Institute study of rats after the Gulf
War found that DU exposure damaged their immune and central nervous
systems and may have contributed to some of the cancers they
While the Army intensively studied DU's value as a weapon, less
effort was made to learn about its possible hazard to health.
In fact, the Army's Environmental Policy Institute criticized
the command in a 1995 report for its failure to "closely
coordinate the planning and performance of experiments for DU
health and environmental assessments."
2. When did the US military first use depleted
uranium weapons in combat?
The American and British militaries first
used DU weapons during Operation Desert Storm in the Persian
Gulf in 1991. Army and Marine M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks (shown
on cover) fired 120mm rounds that each contained 10.5 pounds
of depleted uranium. The M1 and M60 model tanks fired a 105 mm
round with 8.5 pounds of DU in each shell. The Pentagon later
estimated that 14,000 such rounds were expended during the war;
7,000 were fired in Saudi Arabia during target practice, 4,000
were used against Iraqi forces, and another 3,000 were consumed
by fires or other accidents.
Another 940,000 30mm DU rounds were fired
by A-10 "Warthog" jets in support of their "tank
killing" operations during the brief war. All told, the
Pentagon has estimated that 320 tons of depleted uranium was
fired by US and UK units. As of today, not an ounce of this toxic
residue has been removed by either the US or any other agency.
Months before the Gulf War, the Army's Armament,
Munitions, and Chemical Command published the following warning:
"Following combat, the condition of the battlefield and
the long term health risks to natives [sic] and combat veterans
may become issues in the acceptability of the continued use of
DU for military applications." The report added that DU
has been "linked to cancer when exposures are internal."
3.Why does the Pentagon seem reluctant
to support research into possible health hazards from DU weapons?
From a military point of view, these weapons
provided the US and its allies with a distinct advantage over
their opponents. Hundreds of Iraqi tanks were destroyed without
a single loss of an American armored vehicles, except to "friendly
fire." More recently, in Bosnia and then Serbia, DU shells
again proved to be devastating weapons both against enemy armor
and "hardened" bunkers and troop emplacements.
At the same time, the Army is clearly aware
that environmental concerns could eventually undermine support
for these dangerous weapons. Not long after the Gulf War ended,
an Army colonel stationed at the Los Alamos National Labs wrote
to a subordinate: "There continues to be concern regarding
the impact of DU on the environment. If no one makes the case
for the effectiveness of DU in battle, DU rounds may become politically
unacceptable and be deleted from the arsenal." His memo
ends with the following: "I believe that we should keep
this sensitive issue in mind when "after action" reports
In the first years after the Gulf War, thousands
of vets began to experience some chronic health problems and
many of them sought evaluation and treatment at either VA medical
centers or military hospitals. They reported some or all of the
following symptoms: neurological problems, chronic skin rashes,
respiratory problems, chronic flu-like symptoms including severe
body aches, immune system disorders, severe fatigue, joint pain,
gynecological infection, bleeding gums and lesions, and unexplained
rapid weight loss.
Eventually, about 186,000 Gulf vets were examined
medically at a VA or military medical facility. Virtually all
who reported health problems were eventually told that they suffered
from "undiagnosed illness." Very few have received
disability payments for service-connected illness. Despite the
large number of sick veterans, the Army Surgeon General continued
to tell Congress and other investigators that only a tiny number
of these cases (where vets had been struck with DU shrapnel)
could be attributed to depleted uranium exposure.
Finally, in January 1998, the Pentagon's Office
of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses published the
following statement: "Combat troops or those working in
support generally did not know that DU contaminated equipment,
such as enemy vehicles struck by DU rounds, required special
handling. The failure to properly disseminate such information
to troops at all levels may have resulted in thousands of unnecessary
Despite this belated recognition of a serious health risk, the
military has still not agreed to fund an epidemiological study
that would compare the health of vets exposed to DU with those
who weren't exposed.
4. After the Gulf War experience, did the
Pentagon revise its handling of DU weapons in Bosnia or Kosovo/Serbia
to reduce the risk of contamination?
Apparently not. US and British warplanes dropped
about 31,000 DU shells of various caliber on Kosovo and Serbia
during the 1999 bombing campaign. (They had earlier used about
10,000 DU rounds against Serb forces in Bosnia in 1994-95.) After
the war ended, researchers working with the United Nations asked
the Pentagon or NATO to identify areas contaminated with DU residue
so that civilian and relief workers living in those areas could
be warned. Eight months later, NATO finally confirmed the quantity
of DU used, but another seven months passed before it disclosed
112 likely sites of DU contamination. A year and a half after
the bombing, NATO officials finally posted warning signs at some
of these sites.
Peacekeeping troops, civilians and relief
workers in Kosovo and Serbia were surprised to learn about depleted
uranium contamination. As in Iraq, Serbian and Kosovan children
had been allowed to play on and around destroyed armored vehicles.
Adults had been allowed to scavenge this equipment for usable
parts and scrap metal.
Plutonium Hazard Concealed
In January 2001, a Swiss lab detected traces
of deadly plutonium 239 and radioactive uranium 236 in some of
the DU shell residue sent from the Balkans. DU is supposed to
be almost entirely composed of uranium 238. The very next day,
a Pentagon spokesperson admitted that the US military had made
the same discovery a year earlier, although nothing had been
disclosed publicly. This spokesperson claimed that "very,
very, very small amounts" of plutonium had somehow been
added to the depleted uranium that was processed at a nuclear
production facility in Paducah, KY. This plant was shut down
for 90 days to allow inspectors to insure that plutonium would
no longer "contaminate" its DU.
5. Does the US military now provide training
for its armored, artillery, and air units in the proper handling
of DU weapons to minimize the risk of contamination?
Training practices seem to vary from unit
to unit and from service to service. Following a critical GAO
report entitled Army Not Adequately Prepared to Deal with Depleted
Uranium Contamination in 1993, the Army produced a series of
training videos and manuals in 1995. Throughout 1996 however,
these training materials sat on the shelf while GIs continued
to use DU munitions without any safety training.
Finally in June 1997, the Pentagon's chief spokesperson on Gulf
War Illness announced that a limited number of servicemen and
women would receive DU safety training beginning that summer.
Since then, GIs assigned to armored units, tanks, Bradley fighting
vehicles, etc., are shown a video that outlines the basic facts
about DU hazards. However, the vast majority of US military personnel
and those serving with our NATO military allies are still not
given this training.
Major Doug Rottke (Ret.) led the Pentagon's
depleted uranium assessment team, which spent seven months in
the Persian Gulf in 1990-91 advising on DU cleanup and on follow-up
medical care for US personnel who'd been exposed to DU. He detailed
his recommendations in an 1995 Army pamphlet entitled, "Handling
Procedures for Equipment Contaminated with Depleted Uranium."
Based on his research, Rottke concluded that
anyone who comes in contact with DU must get medical attention,
not just those who have been fired at, but also those who fired
the weapons, as well as anyone who has been near equipment or
structures struck with DU shells.
In January 2001, Rottke held a press conference
in London during which he condemned both the US and British military
for continuing to ignore the health hazards of depleted uranium.
He charged that information contained in the Army pamphlet he'd
written in 1995 had never been distributed to NATO troops operating
in the Balkans or to civilians living in areas bombarded with
DU shells during the Kosovo/Serbian intervention in 1999.
6. Is there another "heavy metal"
with fewer health risks that could be used in place of depleted
Yes. The German military currently arms its
anti-armor shells with tungsten alloy. Tungsten has the same
density as DU but doesn't burn like DU when it strikes a target.
This eliminates the microscopic dust that can be harmful if inhaled.
In 1990, a scientific contractor for the Pentagon who was comparing
tungsten with DU described the latter as a "low level alpha
emitter, which is linked to cancer when exposures are internal
and (to) chemical toxicity causing kidney damage." One argument
used by proponents of depleted uranium is that it's provided
free of charge-coming as it does from America's vast storehouse
of nuclear waste. Tungsten by comparison must be mined at considerable
expense. Certainly Americans have the right to expect that such
an important decision, with health consequences for so many,
would not be made on the basis of financial cost.