Efforts over recent years by human rights activists to expose the disastrous health consequences of using depleted uranium (DU) weapons were for the most part unsuccessful. Weapons containing DU made their debut in combat during the 1991 Gulf war, when more than 300 tons were used - substantially more than the 12 tons subsequently dropped on Kosovo and Bosnia. Large areas of southern Iraq, and parts of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, have as a consequence been contaminated. Thousands of Iraqi civilians and soldiers were exposed to DU. An unprecedented number of deadly cancers and unusual deformities has since been documented amongst them. Babies born to these victims are more likely to be severely deformed than is statistically normal. Thousands of Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian civilians were also likely to have been exposed to DU dust, as were thousands of US, UK and Arab soldiers who participated in the war. Egyptians were undoubtedly exposed as well. DU weapons were used in Bosnia in 1994 and then Yugoslavia in 1999. Reports of widespread outbreaks of cancer related to radioactive DU among Iraqi civilians and soldiers were met with repeated denials. Ailments among thousands of US and UK soldiers who participated in the Gulf war, known as Gulf War Syndrome, received a persistent "lack of evidence" argument, as did initial reports of "the Balkan Syndrome" among NATO soldiers and civilians. However, when 15 European peace keepers who served in the Balkans suddenly died from leukaemia, the catastrophic effects of DU weapons became front-page news. Several European leaders expressed their alarm and called for the identification and clean-up of areas targeted by DU weapons and for medical screening of those who were exposed to it. So the wall of silence and denials has slowly begun to crumble. Previously concealed official reports that clearly warned in advance of potential health hazards are now being openly written about in the media. One example is a confidential paper issued by the UK Atomic Energy Commission that warned of radioactive contamination as a result of the use of DU. Another is a letter issued by the US Army Surgeon General's Office requiring more details about DU, "because the effects on soldiers from exposure to DU dust include a possible increased risk of cancer (lung and bone) and kidney damage." Shells tipped with DU are highly effective in piercing armor due to uranium's high density (1.7 times that of lead) and inflammable properties that make it ignite instantly and, therefore, roast alive anyone inside the armoured vehicle it penetrates. DU is the byproduct of the enrichment process to produce weapons-grade nuclear material and nuclear fuel. As a result of 50 years of nuclear weapon and nuclear fuel production in the US, there are now in excess of one million tons of DU in existence. Storing large amounts of radioactive and poisonous material presents a problem for the US government, which, therefore, provides it free to arms manufacturers - who reap huge profits as a result. Despite its name, the percentage of fissionable (and more radioactive) uranium isotopes in DU is roughly fifty per cent of that present in natural uranium. The name "depleted" is deceiving, since DU remains radioactive. Moreover, as a heavy metal, DU is highly toxic. Upon impact, it burns and produces tiny aerosolised particles of oxidised uranium that become airborne and can spread for 40 kilometres or more. This radioactive toxic dust enters humans by inhalation and by the ingestion of contaminated animals, water and plants. There is, for obvious reasons, tremendous resistance at the Pentagon to the release of any information that may eventually lead to a ban on those effective "wonder" weapons. The Pentagon wants to protect DU weapons for future wars. A main concern is the possibility that compensation amounting to billions of dollars would be paid to hundreds of thousands of victims, along with billions more to finance clean-up operations. Admission that there is a link between DU weapons and cancer would also have damaging political fallout, since several scholars have already determined that DU weapons are illegal according to international law. All these considerations help explain the official denial campaign aided by a general blackout by the Western media on the subject. One can compare this to the years of effort undertaken by many activists to expose the use of the highly toxic Agent Orange in Vietnam. Last week it was reported that traces of Uranium-236 have been found in spent DU shells retrieved from the battlefields of Kosovo. This has resulted in alarm and anxiety in Europe, since U-236 is 10 times more radioactive than DU and "acts very quickly." These new revelations may explain the quick deaths of exposed soldiers. U-236 does not occur in natural uranium, but rather is created by nuclear reactors. Its presence must, therefore, mean that DU has been contaminated with recycled nuclear fuel. Moreover, it could mean that other highly dangerous isotopes such as plutonium are also present. On 20 January, the German defence minister strongly criticised the US for failing to inform its NATO partners of these facts which were previously known to Pentagon officials. A newly published book in France, Depleted Uranium, Invisible War, refers to a US military report in 1995 stating that DU provided by the US government "may contain trace amounts of U-236." Scientific studies in Iraq have shown a four-fold increase in the incidence of cancer in battleground and neighboring areas. The relationship of this sudden increase to the Gulf war has been confirmed. Other studies examined the relative frequencies of various types of cancer and found them to be similar to those in Chernobyl after the infamous nuclear accident there. A recent international conference organised by the Spanish Solidarity Committee also dealt with DU's health effects. One of the papers revealed that there is a clear correlation between the incidence of cancer and the locations where DU was used in Iraq. Isotopes found in plants near battlefields confirm conclusively that uranium is its source. As a scientist who had the opportunity to attend two international meetings on DU and reviewed the available data, I personally find that the methodology is sound, and the evidence convincing. Recently, Ramsey Clark (former US attorney general) and Damacio Lopez (a health activist researcher) reported in the Italian parliament that the samples they had collected a day earlier from the Iraqi desert have "extremely high radioactivity." Undoubtedly, more comprehensive studies, surveys and medical screenings are urgently needed. Only then will the extent of the damage be adequately assessed and individuals requiring medical attention be identified. An independent international scientific study would be particularly welcome. This will counter claims that there is a lack of evidence and "no epidemiological data". Moreover, it would provide all the necessary legal evidence. Particularly important to consider is that the amount of DU weapons used in the Balkans was only a fraction of what was used in the killing fields of Iraq. Moreover, DU shells are suspected of having been fired at Palestinians during the Intifada. Why is it that the Western media has not given proportional coverage to the disastrous effects of use of DU in Iraq? Why have the Arab governments, including the Egyptian government, not initiated independent studies to investigate the matter? Why did the authorities not carry out medical surveys amongst the thousands of soldiers - Egyptian, Kuwaiti, Iraqi, and Saudi - to determine the extent of exposure to DU during the Gulf war? Why have questions not been raised in the People's Assembly in Egypt? Why has the Egyptian and other Arab media not thoroughly examined the issues related to DU? Why do we not hear protests and condemnation from the Arab world against the Pentagon and the British military for their use of DU in Iraq and for concealing information regarding the hazards of DU dust during the Gulf war?
By Ashraf El-Bayoumi, Al-Ahram Weekly On-line The writer is a professor of physical chemistry & biophysics in Michigan State University and Alexandria University, and Vice- President of Alexandria Human Rights Association.