What are the environmental and health effects of the use of depleted uranium, such as that used in weapons in the Iraq War?
—Ziad, Kuwait (via e-mail)
Developed in the 1970s by the U.S. military, weapons containing depleted uranium (DU) were originally used during the first Gulf War, and have played a key role more recently in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. DU—a radioactive and toxic waste product recycled from nuclear energy facilities—is utilized primarily in artillery shells. Its density and combustibility make it ideal for cutting through and blowing up armored vehicles. Meanwhile, DU sheeting makes many American tanks impenetrable to enemy fire.
But despite its utility in military applications, DU weaponry poses serious environmental and health threats. Tens of thousands of American veterans of the first Gulf War, not to mention even larger numbers of Iraqi soldiers and civilians, blame exposure to DU for a wide range of ailments collectively known as Gulf War Syndrome. Symptoms include chronic fatigue, nervous system disorders and depression.
Meanwhile, DU is an extremely toxic heavy metal in its own right beyond its radioactive properties, with exposure linked to numerous health problems including neurological abnormalities, kidney problems, rashes, vision impairment or loss, various forms of cancer, sexual dysfunction and birth defects.
According to a U.S. Army report, when a DU projectile explodes, tiny particles of uranium are inhaled by anybody in the surrounding area—be they survivors of the blast, rescue workers or bystanders who happen along days or weeks later. Four out of five allied soldiers in the first Gulf War climbed in or on top of destroyed Iraqi vehicles; many of which were exposed to DU dust. “They were blowing locations up and we were driving through bodies and blown -up tanks. You were breathing all the smoke and ! the dust off the sand,” reports Mike Kirkby, a British Gulf War veteran who today suffers from Gulf War Syndrome.
Meanwhile, DU weapons that miss their targets, as the majority of fired munitions do, corrode in the ground, slowly discharging toxic heavy metals into the surrounding environment. The resulting contamination of air, land and water causes thousands of additional cases of health problems for civilians already dealing with the destruction of their homelands.
A network of non-profit advocacy groups—including the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, the Military Toxics Project and the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium—is pushing for an international ban on military applications of DU, despite resistance from the U.S., which still manufacturers and supplies the weaponry to U.S. forces as well as to foreign militaries.