The men guarding the ruins of the remote Kharanj oil pumping station near Iraq’s border with Saudi Arabia don’t wander around much. Parts of this facility, destroyed by American air raids during the 1991 Gulf war, remain “hot” — radioactive. The guards confine themselves to one small building, avoiding wreckage contaminated by US bullets made of depleted uranium (DU).

Driving into the former battlefield, one passes Iraq’s rich Rumeila oil fields and the demilitarized zone with Kuwait, which is littered with rusting tanks and vehicles. Many are hot.

The favored bullet of American tank gunners and pilots was the armor-piercing DU “penetrator,” first used in combat in the Gulf war because of its remarkable density — not its radioactivity. Pentagon figures indicate that at least 860,000 DU rounds were fired, leaving behind a trail of radioactive toxic jetsam that will remain contaminated for 4.5 billion years, a time span comparable to the age of our solar system. Unaware of the potential risks, falconers hunt along a side road and two men scour the ground for mushrooms.

Although the Pentagon has issued contradictory statements about the dangers posed by the 320 tons of DU fired in Iraq, it predicts that every future battlefield — including in the former Yugoslavia, where DU is now being used by US forces — will be contaminated with DU.

Radiation occurs almost everywhere, at low levels known as “background.” DU, however, is a highly concentrated form, consisting of the “tailings” left over from the enrichment process that produces nuclear fuel and bombs. When protectively encased, DU’s health risks are small. But when DU smashes at twice the speed of sound against metal, it burns and pulverizes, becomes toxic and releases radioactive dust that can soar in the heat column of a flaming tank and waft for miles in the desert wind.

As a heavy metal, DU’s short-term risk is chemical toxicity. Although DU is only 60 percent as radioactive as natural uranium, its particles can become trapped in the body for long periods, which can result in severe health problems.

A visitor witnessed a radiation detector register about 35 times normal background radiation in some battlefield areas in southern Iraq. Old tanks “killed” with DU bullets showed radiation levels 50 times above background. “It’s hot forever,” says Doug Rokke, a former Pentagon DU expert. “It doesn’t go away. It only disperses and blows around in the wind.” The military’s reluctance to acknowledge DU’s dangers reminds Rokke of another war, in Vietnam: “[DU] is the Agent Orange of the 1990s,” he says. “Absolutely.”

The Gulf War battlefield was awash in a radioactive and toxic stew, including DU ammunition, nerve and other chemical agents, and fumes from hundreds of oil fires in Kuwait. Exposure to any of these toxins is associated with long-term problems. With one in seven Gulf War veterans — more than 100,000 — complaining of a spectrum of ailments termed Gulf war syndrome, some attention is now turning to conditions in Iraq.

Interviews with Iraqi physicians and veterans yielded considerable anecdotal evidence that Iraq is experiencing a sharp rise in the types of severe health problems, such as cancer, which are associated with DU and chemical exposure.

“This [situation] is a tragedy that befell not only Iraqi soldiers and civilians,” says Sami al-Aragi, a senior Iraqi official. “It befell American and British troops as well.” Iraq formally complained to the UN in May about the “appalling damage” caused by DU. But experts in the US have yet to find a common cause — or even a common symptom — of Gulf war syndrome. “The battlefield was dynamic and fluid, and exposures [to everything] were multiple and varied — you can’t separate them,” says James Tuite, a former Senate investigator who has focused on Gulf war chemical exposures. “What caused the problem? The answer is yes,” says Tuite.

And in Iraq, such hazards are compounded by United Nations sanctions and Iraq’s status as a pariah state. Politicized Iraqi efforts to win international sympathy, which portray allied DU use as an “illegitimate tactic” of “genocide,” make an accurate assessment difficult. Iraqi officials firmly blame DU for Iraq’s post-war health crises, though Iraq does not have the laboratory capacity to confirm a direct link between DU and Iraq’s profound health problems.

Outside Iraq, the extent of DU’s hazards is still bitterly debated, with Western scientists at odds over the risks posed by this controversial nuclear bullet. Nonetheless, Iraq’s poor health situation has convinced the World Health Organization (WHO) of the necessity of conducting a detailed two- or three-year survey of DU’s impact. The WHO is awaiting Iraq’s approval for the study.

The Pentagon contends that not one American veteran is ill because of DU exposure. Any tie between radioactive rounds and cancer, birth defects and other anomalies in Iraq, they say, is “misinformation” spread by Saddam Hussein. Pentagon officials downplay DU’s risks, but critics charge that the reason may have less to do with science than with keeping a favorite weapon in the US arsenal and avoiding Gulf War compensation payments.

“Misinformation disseminated by both the Iraqi government and the US Department of Defense has made analysis of DU’s impact difficult,” explains Dan Fahey, a former Navy officer who wrote an extensive DU report for national veterans groups last year.

Still, some scientists are convinced that DU is a chief culprit. “Gulf war syndrome will be traced to a variety of factors,” says Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York. “Ultimately, when the final chapter is written, DU will have a large portion of the blame.”

In Iraq, the problem is undeniable: “People tell funny stories, they call it the ‘strange disease,’” says Thamir Hamdan, an American- and Scottish-trained orthopedic surgeon in Basra who says he has witnessed an “astonishing increase” in birth defects and cancer cases.

Hamdan’s clinic is crammed with cancer patients. He shows a visitor graphic X-rays of extreme congenital malformations and tumors, commenting that “it is well known that an orthopedic surgeon in England will see one case of bone tumor every three years. Here, I see one every two weeks.”

“We are not only seeing a change in incidence, but a change in the character [of these problems],” he adds, echoing similar complaints by many Iraqi physicians. “They are of a bad type that kill in a very short period of time and affect people at younger ages. It makes me feel that there must be something behind this — something we’ve never known before.”

“Like Shooting a Fly with a Cannon”

It may be impossible to single out one cause of Iraq’s health problems, and although scientists argue about DU’s precise effects, there are facts that no one doubts: A German scientist who found a spent DU bullet in the Iraqi desert in 1992 was fined by a Berlin court for “releasing ionizing radiation upon the public” when he brought it home. The round — similar to those that some Iraqi children have reportedly used as toys — was sealed in a lead-lined box and removed under heavy police escort.

There is nothing surprising about such precautions in the West, where handling of radioactive material is strictly controlled. The US Army has 14 separate Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses; the Navy and Air Force each have one NRC Master Materials license. US Army training videos produced in 1995 depict specialists wearing masks and full protective suits — the same protection used for chemical or biological attack — every time they come in contact with DU-contaminated vehicles. Yet Bernard Rostker, the Pentagon’s Gulf war illness czar, says NRC rules are “total overkill.” DU areas in Iraq, he says, are “free for any agricultural, industrial or personal use.”

But DU turns into microscopic particles when burned on the battlefield, so DU’s dangers are dual: In aerosol form it is chemically toxic and can damage the kidneys if inhaled or eaten. More alarming still, a small portion of airborne DU lodges in the bone or lung for many years, posing a steady radiation hazard.

DU emits alpha particles, which are 20 times more dangerous than other forms of radiation such as beta particles and gamma rays. Alpha radiation destroys normal cells inside the body. “It’s like shooting a fly with a cannon,” says one expert.

Although alpha radiation does not penetrate skin or clothing, particles of DU can “cause problems in the kidney or cause cells in the lungs to mutate and become cancerous,” says Douglas Collins, a health physicist and an NRC division director of Nuclear Material Safety in Atlanta.

How likely, then, is DU to cause health problems? The answer depends on whom you ask. Atomic scientists calculate that each alpha particle can break hundreds of thousands of molecular bonds. There is no shortage of this energy: Every gram of DU produces 12,000 alpha particles per second.

A 1990 study commissioned by the US Army linked DU with cancer and found that “no dose is so low that the probability of effect is zero.” Its overall conclusion was that the risk was “acceptable.” But some scientists find declarative statements problematic.

“We don’t know everything we’d like to know,” says Ron Kathren, a physics professor and director of the US Transuranium and Uranium Registries in Richland, Washington. Attached to Washington State University, the registry has studied uranium in human samples donated by industry workers for 30 years. Kathren says that the cancer risk is comparatively slim. “The reason people get panicky is because DU is radioactive, but [the dose] is so small that it never approaches chemical hazard,” says Kathren. Part of the problem with DU is public misperception, says John Russell, associate director of the registries: “You say ‘uranium,’ and people think of the bomb. That’s not the case here.”

A basic tenet is that “even low levels of radioactive material can cause an increase in cancer,” says Col. Eric Daxon, a senior Pentagon radiation expert. Damaged cells repair themselves, however, and “in order to exceed these standards…you’d have to have a lot of DU internalized,” says Daxon. “Exposure [to small amounts] does not equal a hazard.” The possibility of problems in Iraq, he says, is “exceptionally small.”

But other experts contest these views, noting that most battlefield exposures would involve millions of DU particles, and emphasizing that cell regeneration is hindered by repeated bombardment. “Even an infinitely low dose of alpha radiation in tissue is a high radioactive risk,” says Asaf Durakovic, former chief of nuclear medicine at the Wilmington, Delaware Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center.

Some suggest that the severity of Iraqi cases now being documented could be due to the “synergistic” effect of several contaminants interacting simultaneously. Chemicals could trigger a health problem such as cancer, while radiation could accelerate it. Chemical agents dissipate quickly — often within minutes — while DU remains hot for eons.

“This is especially the case in Iraq,” says Ernest Sternglass, a professor of radiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. “Very often these effects are multiplied. Chemicals are the silent helpers of radiation.” William Davros, a radiation specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, emphasizes the significance of the latency period: “I would have been surprised [to see cancer] two years after the war. I would expect to see it now.”

That timeline applies in Iraq. The problem “has really grown in the last year or two,” says ‘Abd al-Karim Sabbar, a gynecologist at the Basra Maternity Hospital, who confirmed government findings that malformations citywide have tripled since the war. Both cancer and birth defects can result from chemical exposures, too.

Chemical Complications

How extensive was chemical contamination during the Gulf war? In 1994 Theodore Prociv, former deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for chemical and biological weapons, testified that the 14,000 chemical alarms deployed throughout the theater sounded two to three times each day on average during the 42-day air campaign. Some veterans testified that they came under direct chemical attack; others blame Iraqi chemicals released by allied bombs. The Pentagon says the units were “prone to false alarms.”

A breakthrough occurred in June 1996, when the Pentagon acknowledged that several hundred troops were exposed to sarin nerve gas when they blew up Iraqi munition sites. A year later the number was revised up to 100,000. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last September reversed all those findings, however, stating that there is “insufficient evidence at this time to prove or disprove” any chemical exposures.

It is well known that Baghdad used chemical weapons in 1988, killing 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in the northern town of Halabja. A recent independent survey found that survivors of that attack experience high rates of cancers, birth defects and malformations — just as those in south Iraq do today.

Increasing Health Problems

Jawad al-‘Ali, the head of cancer wards at Basra’s Saddam Teaching Hospital, remembers when doctors used to crowd around cancer cases because of their rarity. Since the war, though, three of his colleagues alone have lost sons to cancer.

Al-‘Ali reported that overall cancer cases in his wards have multiplied, and that most are types associated with radiation. Cases of leukemia, for example, have jumped by a factor of 15. One study found that the overall cancer rate for children in Basra has more than doubled since the war.

Iraqi war veterans have a 60 percent greater incidence of cancer than civilians, says Nafi al-Ani, former head of preventative medicine for the Iraqi army. One 1996 Iraqi government study of 1,625 pregnant women reportedly shows that the chance of a miscarriage is 3.2 times greater if the father fought in the war.

“Although there has been a very significant increase [in leukemia] it’s too early now to make a direct link with DU,” cautions Muna al-Hasani, the British-trained specialist who runs the cancer registry in Baghdad. “It takes time.”

Compounding the problem is widespread weakness due to poor health and malnutrition. Strict UN sanctions, now entering their tenth year, have also compromised the public’s health.

Tough Cleanup

Despite the ongoing debate, past experience with DU cleanup presents grim prospects. Permanent DU contamination affects many communities where DU has been made or used. The long list of still-poisoned facilities reveals much about the long-term problems facing Iraq and Kuwait. In the US, high levels of DU contamination have been found in drinking water, air and soil samples.

Coping with such hazards is virtually impossible in the endless deserts of the Gulf. One Department of Defense report lists eight decontamination techniques, yet concedes that “in no case did the achieved separations suffice to allow unrestricted disposal.” Only a chemical leaching process (including three nitric acid washes) brought contaminated sand “to below background” levels.

The cost of such a project in the Gulf would be prohibitive. The price tag for cleaning 152,000 pounds of DU from 500 acres of the closed Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana, for example — just one fourth the amount of low-level radioactive waste fired in the Gulf war — is estimated to be four to five billion dollars. Another example is the National Lead factory near Albany, New York, which was closed in 1980 for releasing less than one pound of DU dust into the air each month — a fraction of the 320 tons of DU fired in Iraq and Kuwait.

During the Gulf war, such contamination helped confirm which vehicles had been hit by US forces in “friendly fire.” Recently declassified Army documents reveal that six of the Bradleys buried in Saudi Arabia were rejected because they “could not be placed on public display without substantial risk.” Sixteen other vehicles were shipped to a new $4 million decontamination facility built at Snelling, South Carolina, where they were scraped and etched with acid to remove DU traces. Despite such rigorous efforts, six vehicles treated at Snelling were still too hot. They had to be buried in a low-level radioactive waste dump.

“This is not a fiction,” says Durakovic, the former VA nuclear medicine chief. “We know what uranium does to the body, and we know what we should expect from the Gulf war experience.” Durakovic testified before Congress in June 1997 that DU proliferation — at least 17 countries now have DU in their arsenals — means that “the battlefields of the future will be unlike any [others] in history. Due to the delayed health effects from internal contamination from uranium, injury and death will remain lingering threats to ‘survivors’ of battle for decades into the future. The battlefield will remain a killing zone long after the cessation of hostilities.”

How to cite this article:

Scott Peterson "The Gulf War Battlefield: Still “Hot” with Depleted Uranium," Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).

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