Weapons of War Hazardous to Health
Rachel's Environment & Health News
is a naturally-occurring element that is both weakly radioactive and a toxic heavy
metal. Naturally-occurring uranium contains two main radioactive isotopes: U-238
(99.3%), and U-235 (0.7%). When uranium is "enriched" to make an A-bomb
(which requires lots of U-235), the leftover "depleted uranium" (DU)
is 99.8% U-238 and retains about 60% of the radioactivity that was present in
the original natural uranium.[1, pg. 3]
Depleted uranium is created by "uranium
enrichment" plants that process natural uranium to extract the U-235, but
those same plants also may process spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power reactors.
For this reason, some DU is known to be contaminated with very low levels of some
of the most dangerous radioactive substances known to science: Plutonium-238,
Plutonium-239, Plutonium-240, Americium-241, Neptunium-237 and Technicium-99.[1,
Radioactive decay is a natural process.
Radioactive elements spontaneously emit energetic particles or rays, and in the
process they change from one element into another. When U-238 spontaneously undergoes
radioactive decay, it emits alpha particles (and turns into Thorium-234). You
can think of an alpha particle as something like a tiny cannon ball -- it does
not travel very far (a few centimeters in air), but if it hits a living cell,
the damage can be enormous. Sometimes cells damaged by alpha particles die immediately,
but sometimes they start to multiply uncontrollably, causing cancer. (The International
Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has identified "internally deposited
radionuclides that emit alpha particles" as Group I carcinogens, meaning
substances known to cause cancer in humans.[1, pg. 85])
So, DU's alpha particles won't penetrate
the outermost (dead) layer of your skin, but if you get DU inside you -- say,
in your lungs -- it can have deadly consequences. Several studies of workers in
uranium enrichment plants show that they get lung cancer at higher-than-normal
rates.[1, pg. 86]
The half-life of U-238 is 4.5 billion
years, which tells us that it does not decay rapidly and therefore that it does
not emit many alpha particles per second. However, "many" is a relative
term. In absolute numbers, a microgram of DU (a millionth of a gram, and there
are 28 grams in an ounce) will emit slightly more than 12 alpha particles per
second or 390 million alpha particles each year.[1, pg. 6] So one microgram of
DU lodged in your lungs will have more than a million opportunities EACH DAY to
start a cancer growing in your cells. Obviously, the hazard is greater for children
because they have a longer lifetime ahead of them during which alpha particles
will have an opportunity to start a cancer, plus they are very likely more sensitive
to harm than adults (because they are growing, so more of their cells are dividing).
In recent decades, as we have manufactured
more atomic bombs and therefore more depleted uranium, there has been growing
pressure to find new uses for our huge stockpile of depleted uranium.[1, pg. 26]
In my opinion, the psychology behind this is pretty simple: as it becomes crystal
clear that subsidizing nuclear technologies was one of the dumbest mistakes humans
have ever made, there is enormous pressure to show that something good can come
from it. It is the psychology of the optimist, whom Ronald Reagan defined as the
man who enters a room full of horse manure and says, "There must be a pony
in here somewhere."
Because it is almost twice as dense as
lead and not very radioactive, DU has been used as shielding for medical devices
and in casks for transporting spent fuel from nuclear power plants. Because it
is so dense (and therefore heavy), DU has also been used as ballast -- weights
or counterwights -- on ships, satellites and aircraft. For example, each Boeing
747 jumbo-jet requires about 1500 pounds of ballast (or counterweights), and as
many as 15,000 DU weights were manufactured for this purpose. In recent years,
DU has been replaced by tungsten in aircraft ballast, perhaps to avoid questions
about the wisdom of flying radioactive materials around in planes. A plane that
crashed into a row of apartments in Amsterdam in 1992 was carrying 282 kg (620
pounds) of DU as ballast, and a Boeing-747 that crashed in England in 2000 was
carrying 1500 kg (3,300 pounds) of DU. [1, pg. 26]
In the Amsterdam crash, some 152 kilograms (334 pounds)
of DU were never found, and the Dutch commission of inquiry concluded that the
fiery crash may have released some of the DU in the form of a radioactive fume
or dust, just as you would expect it might. DU is pyrophoric, meaning that it
catches fire under some circumstances and turns into a very fine radioactive fume
or dust, which can blow around.[1, pg. 44]
In the past 20 years, DU has found its
way into weapons of war -- both for heavy tank armor and for armor-piercing projectiles
-- again, because it is plentiful and cheap (thanks to government subsidies) and
almost twice as dense as lead. As noted above, it is also pyrophoric, meaning
that under some circumstances it catches on fire.
When a DU projectile strikes an armored
target, such as a tank, it does not flatten on contact but instead penetrates
and "self sharpens" as it passes through the armor. This occurs because
as the DU projectile is penetrating its target, its outer layer catches fire,
creating a very fine radioactive dust, essentially lubricating the remaining projectile,
helping it penetrate further. The result is a very clean hole in the target --
which looks as if it had been drilled -- and a great deal of radioactive dust.
Somewhere between 10% and 70% of a DU projectile is transformed into radioactive
dust when it strikes a sufficiently hard target.[1, pg. 46]
This dust creates special problems. As
noted above, if DU dust gets into your lungs, it can cause lung cancer.
DU dust is heavy and so it settles to
earth within a few hundred yards of where it was created -- unless it is picked
up again and moved by the wind.
To help get the health threat into perspective,
in discussing DU, I prefer to express the amount of DU in micrograms, on the assumption
that a few hundred micrograms (perhaps less) is a dangerous amount of DU dust.
It is important to remember that not all (or even most) DU munitions strike hard
targets that would cause them to catch fire and emit radioactive fumes (dust).
Ground-attack airplanes like the A-10
Warthog fire 30 mm projectiles at the rate of 70 projectiles per second, and each
30-mm projectile contains 0.27 kg (9.5 ounces, or 270 million micrograms) of DU.
Heavy tanks fire 120 mm rounds, each containing 4.85 kg (10.6 pounds, or 4.8 billion
micrograms) of DU.
It was reported in 1995 that U.S. arms manufacturers had produced more
than 55 million 30-mm DU penetrators and 1.6 million DU penetrators for tank ammunition.[1,
pg. 27] No doubt more have been manufactured since then.
The U.S. has acknowledged using DU weapons during
the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, and NATO has acknowledged using
DU weapons during the Kosovo conflict of 1999. DU munitions have extensively contaminated
U.S. military proving grounds and firing ranges
such as the ones at Yuma, Arizona, Aberdeen, Maryland, Jefferson, Indiana, and Viecques, Puerto Rico.[1, pg. 50]
Scientists at the Los Alamos National
Laboratory in New Mexico have been fooling around with DU for
60 years, during which time they have dumped an estimated 38.5 tons of DU into
a mountain canyon out back, behind the lab.[1, pg. 49]
During wartime, the greatest civilian
threat from DU is assumed to involve children, who have been photographed in Kosovo
and Iraq playing on burned-out military vehicles including tanks disabled by DU
projectiles.[1, pg. 49] Much of this equipment is heavily contaminated, inside
and out, with radioactive dust.
Many children also eat dirt (9 to 96 mg/day)
as a normal part of growing up, and soil contaminated with DU dust presents a
special hazard in such cases, according to the World Health Organization.[1, pg.
However, U.S. military officials deny that children
-- or any other civilians -- are at risk from DU. The Pentagon says only soldiers
are at risk. It is clear that the Pentagon considers DU plenty hazardous to soldiers
-- an Army training manual says that anyone who comes within 25 meters of any
DU-contaminated equipment or terrain must wear respiratory and skin protection
(because DU might enter the body through a scratch or other open wound).
Once you get DU in your lungs, much of
it will stay there for a long time, irradiating lung cells, and the World Health
Organization says, "The risk of lung cancer appears to be proportional to
the radiation dose received."[1, pg. 85] (In other words, the only way to
have zero risk is to have zero exposure.) The British Royal Society studied DU
and concluded that its use was not risk-free for anyone involved. The truth
is, DU has been studied remarkably little, given that we blast tons of it into
areas inhabited by civilian populations for the avowed purpose of helping them.
No one has studied the effects of DU on the immune system, the metabolic system,
the nervous system, the reproductive system, the endocrine system (and other biological
signaling mechanisms), and growth, development, and behavior. It's amazing what
we don't know about DU and that -- in the face of such ignorance -- anyone could
claim to know that it is safe for use near civilians.
Unfortunately, even many crucial details
about the lung cancer hazard remain missing. Although they have been making and
studying DU since 1940, military scientists still don't know exactly how long
inhaled DU is retained in the lung. They say that somewhere between 57% and 76%
of inhaled DU stays in the lung with a half-life of "longer than 100 days"
but how much longer they seem not to know.[1, pg. 64] The half-life is the amount
of time it takes for half of a substance to go away. It is also not clear where
inhaled DU goes after it leaves the lungs. Is it coughed up and excreted, or does
it dissolve, enter the blood stream and then the urine? Or does it lodge elsewhere
in the body? In male rats intentionally contaminated, uranium collects in the
brain and the testicles.[1, pg. 65]
Military specialists like to point out
that DU munitions that miss their target simply bury themselves in the ground.
But the World Health Organization is not so sure the story ends there:
"However, in some instances the levels
of contamination in food and ground water could rise after some years and should
be monitored and appropriate measures taken where there is reasonable possibility
of significant quantities of depleted uranium entering the food chain... Areas
with very high concentrations of depleted uranium may need to be cordoned off
until they are cleaned up."[1, pg. vi] Cleanup of DU-contaminated areas has
not occurred in Kosovo or Iraq.
Who ever thought that DU in the ground
would always stay put? Between 1970 and 1997, the Starmet Corporation, a military
contractor making DU weapons, dumped DU into an unlined pit in the ground in downtown
Concord, Mass. Now soil in Concord is contaminated with DU as far as a mile
from the dump, and local wells are contaminated because DU has moved into groundwater.
Who would have expected any other outcome? Nevertheless, we should acknowledge
that the directors of Starmet are not as dumb as they might appear. Shortly before
their radioactive dump was added to the national Superfund list, Starmet officials
took precautionary action and declared bankruptcy. U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) accepted Starmet's bankruptcy without a peep, so U.S. taxpayers are now paying for the difficult
The U.S. Navy stores DU in San Diego,
Calif.; Seal Beach, Calif.; Crane, Indiana; Indian Head, Md.; Colts Neck, N.J.;
Hawthorne, Nev.; McAlister, Ok.; Charlestown, S.C.; Tooele, Utah; Dahlgren, Va.;
Norfolk, Va.; Sewells Point, Va.; and Yorktown, Va., and large quantities are
reportedly stored at ten other locations. When the military ships DU around the
country, the containers are not marked "radioactive" even though the
cargo is definitely radioactive as well as explosive. (See ACTION ALERT, below.)
In addition to being radioactive, DU is
toxic; specifically it is known to be toxic to the genes of humans.[1, pg. 75]
Studies of Gulf War vets living with DU shrapnel in their bodies (from "friendly
fire" during the Gulf War) show evidence of genetic damage. At least one
military scientist -- Alexandra Miller a radiobiolgist with the Armed Forces Radiobiology
Research Institute in Bethesda, Md. says DU may be more dangerous than previously
believed because its chemical toxicity and its radioactivity may combine in unexpected
ways to cause harm.
Miller also points out that genetic damage
(from chemical toxicity or radioactivity, or both) can be inherited and passed
along to successive generations, so harm may not become apparent until many generations
after the event that caused it. This puts DU munitions squarely into the class
of weapons known as "weapons of mass destruction or indiscriminate effect."
U.S. planes, under NATO command, fired 10
tons (9 trillion micrograms) of DU projectiles at targets in Kosovo in 1999. During
the Gulf War of 1991 against Iraq, the U.S. fired projectiles containing somewhere
between 300 and 338 tons of DU (or 272 trillion to 302 trillion micrograms).[1,
The total quantity of DU munitions expended
during the Iraq War of 2003 has been estimated to be 100 to 200 tons (90 trillion
to 180 trillion micrograms). Much of it was expended in or near urban areas
where civilian populations live, work, play, draw water, and sell food.
It seems clear, then, that DU weapons
produce special, continuing hazards to civilians, especially children, and that
the harm from these weapons may be passed to future generations. No doubt this
is why a United Nations subcommission in 1996 named DU munitions as "weapons
of mass destruction or indiscrimate effect" and recommended that their use
alloy weapons can kill tanks and other hardened targets as effectively as DU,
so continued use of DU weapons by the U.S. seems unnecessary and a slap in the
face to the principles of public health, international law, world opinion, and
By June 30, 2004, the U.S. Department
of Transportation must renew (or deny) the military's exemption that allows them
to ship DU weapons without marking them as radioactive or explosive. In case of
accident or fire, first responders need to know this information. Here's what
we can all do about it:
Contact the Department of Transportation
Exemptions division and ask that the DOT immediately terminate and not renew DOT-E
9649. Depleted uranium munitions should have a "Radioactive" placard
and an "Explosives" placard on shipments.
Send correspondence regarding DOT-E 9649
Mr. Delmer Billings DHM-31 Director,
Office of Hazardous Materials Exemptions and Approvals
Department of Transportation
400 7th St. SW
Washington, D.C. 20590
Fax: (202) 366-3308 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Information from: http://www.gzcenter.org/DU.htm
NOTES and REFERENCES
 Department of Protection of the Human
Environment, World Health Organization, Depleted Uranium; Sources, Exposure and
Health Effects (Geneva, Switzerland, April 2001). Available at http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/pub_meet/ir_pub/en/
 Matthew D. Sztajnkrycer and Edward
J. Otten, "Chemical and Radiological Toxicity of Depleted Uranium,"
Military Medicine Vol. 169, No. 3 (2004), pgs. 212-216.
 Army manual quoted in Larry Johnson,
"Activists want depleted-uranium munitions labeled; military's exemption
is challenged," Seattle (Wa.) Post-Intelligencer Dec. 4, 2003.
 Susan Mayor, "Report suggests
small link between depleted uranium and cancer," British Medical Journal
Vol. 322 (June 23, 2001), pg. 1508.
 Ed Ericson, "Dumping on History:
A Radioactive Nightmare in Concord, Massachusetts," E/The Environmental Magazine
Mar. 5, 2004.
 Melissa A. McDiarmid and others, "Health
Effects of Depleted Uranium on Exposed Gulf War Veterans: A 10-Year Follow-up,"
Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A, Vol. 67 (2004), pgs. 277-296.
 Duncan Graham-Rowe, "Depleted
uranium casts a shadow over peace in Iraq," New Scientist Vol. 178, No. 2391
(April 19, 2003), pg. 4.
 Dan Fahey, "The Use of Depleted
Uranium in the 2003 Iraq War: An Initial Assessment of Information and Policies."
Berkeley, Calif., June 24. 2003. Available at http://www.antenna.nl/wise/uranium/pdf/duiq03.pdf
 The United Nations Subcommission on
Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities passed a resolution
condemning the use of depleted uranium weapons during its 48th session in August,
1996, as described in U.N. Press Release HR/CN/755, "Subcommission on Prevention
of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities Concludes Forty-Eighth Session."
Relevant section available at http://southmovement.alphalink.com.au/antiwar/UNres.htm
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