Depleted Uranium Toxicity in Afghanistan
by Richard S. Ehrlich
American warplanes are attacking Afghanistan with depleted uranium weapons which could poison combatants and civilians, especially children, according to U.S. officials.
The possibility of radioactive dust storms sweeping across Afghanistan and polluting rivers has meanwhile sparked fears in Pakistan.
"The radioactive dust released by the impact of these weapons can easily get into the food chain and the water supply through the Kabul River in Afghanistan and thus into Pakistan's Indus [River]," reported Dawn newspaper.
"There are simply no contingency measures to brace people against such a disastrous humanitarian fallout," Dawn added.
The narrow Kabul River cuts through the center of the heavily bombed, mile-high Afghan capital and provides drinking water for the people who dwell there.
After meandering east along the highway past Jalalabad and other U.S. bomb targets, the Kabul River crosses into Pakistan and feeds the Indus River, the country's biggest waterway. The Indus provides much of the liquid nourishment to Pakistan's farms and people along its route south to the Arabian Sea.
Pakistani Dr. Ali Rind warned Dawn's readers: "All flying bombs - Tomahawk, JDAM etc. - are made of depleted uranium metal."
Many experts insist the dangers of depleted uranium are often exaggerated.
Dr. Michael H. Repacholi of the World Health Organization, however, said in a January report: "DU [deleted uranium] is released from fired weapons in the form of small particles that may be inhaled, ingested or remain in the environment."
Dr. Repacholi said, "For smaller particles, a larger fraction will deposit in the lungs, where they may remain for months or years, unless they dissolve. Very small amounts may be retained in the lymphatic system for longer."
He added, "Breathing ultra-fine particles could lead to a theoretical risk of cancer.
"In arid regions, most DU remains on the surface as dust. It is dispersed in [non-arid] soil more easily, particularly in the areas of higher rainfall."
Dr. Repacholi stressed, "Children rather than adults may be considered to be more at risk of DU exposure when returning to normal activities within a war zone through contaminated food and water, since typical hand-to-mouth activity of inquisitive play could lead to high DU ingestion from contaminated soil."
Depleted uranium is "used in several types of munitions, but primarily in two types: it's used in 120-millimeter tank rounds and it's used in 30-millimeter rounds fired by the A-10," Defense Department spokesperson Kenneth H. Bacon told a newsconference in January.
The dreaded A-10 "Wart Hog" is a so-called a "tank killing" aircraft.
Every 30-millimeter round it fires has a 0.3-kilogram, depleted uranium "penetrator" to bust through armor, according to military reports.
Depleted uranium is "primarily for anti-armor, and those are its main uses," Mr. Bacon said.
"We obviously put out instructions about avoiding depleted uranium dust," he added.
"Troops are instructed to wear masks if they're around what they consider to be atomized or particle-ized depleted uranium - that is if rounds have struck tanks, there could be depleted uranium dust around.
"So if they were working around an [enemy] tank that had been disabled by a depleted uranium round, they would be instructed to wear some sort of mask to prevent breathing in particles," Mr. Bacon said.
"All our studies show that in cases where there is dust, it [depleted uranium] is washed away and nullified by the first heavy rain.
"But there aren't a lot of heavy rains in the desert, so obviously, when we were advising our soldiers how to deal with depleted uranium damage, or damaged vehicles in the desert, we were careful to point out that they should wear masks."
Depleted uranium is described as uranium that is 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium, though it retains identical chemical properties.
Natural uranium is found in everyday air, water and soil and, as a result, is also in each person's body.
Depleted uranium, however, has a half-life of 4.5 billion years.
In 1998, the Pentagon noted: "Depleted uranium is the most effective material for [military] uses because of its high density and the metallic properties that allow it to 'self-sharpen' as it penetrates armor.
"Armor containing depleted uranium is very effective at blunting anti-tank weapons," the Pentagon added.
"The major health concerns about DU relate to its chemical properties as a heavy metal rather than to its radioactivity, which is very low."
Shrapnel from a depleted uranium weapon's explosion can pepper a victim's body much like a shotgun blast.
If the shrapnel remains embedded in a person, then the radiation "isn't eliminated," an expert said at a Defense Department briefing.
"By accumulation, is the [radioactive] dose increasing with time? Yes, it is," the expert added.
Dr. Ross Anthony, from the Rand Corporation, told the Defense Department briefing, "The kidney is the part that is the most susceptible."
In experiments with animals, however, "there seem to be no real highly negative effects until you get a very, very high dose," Dr. Anthony said.
In 1999, Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: "Radiation doses for soldiers with embedded fragments of depleted uranium may be troublesome.
"Apart from radiation, however, the risks related to the heavy-metal toxicity of uranium inhaled and ingested by soldiers in direct and unprotected contact with vehicles struck with DU munitions could be significant.
"Primarily at risk are those who were in vehicles when they were struck, or their rescuers, as well as those who worked for extended periods in cleanup efforts inside the vehicles without adequate respiratory protection," they added.
"Very prolonged exposure to high concentrations of depleted uranium is required to give radiation doses significantly above [normal] background" levels.
"Pieces and particles of depleted uranium lying about would be sources of most of the external radiation dose, which would come primarily from penetrating gamma rays.
"Inhalation of DU-contaminated dust - either directly or after resuspension [in the air] - would be the source of most of the internal dose, which would be primarily from very short-range alpha particles."
Referring to desert dust storms, the bulletin said, "The ground the DU-contaminated plumes passed over would be coated with a thin layer of DU dust, some of which would be later kicked up by wind and human activity.
"The munitions could deposit a layer of [depleted uranium] dust on crops that could be eaten directly by humans or by animals later consumed by humans.
"However, rough estimates suggest that the cancer risk from consumption of contaminated produce would be less than from inhalation."
As a result of the U.S.-Gulf War, "the number of Iraqi soldiers with embedded DU fragments could be in the thousands," the bulletin said.
"Natural curiosity may also lead children and other passersby to investigate the interiors of destroyed tanks and other vehicles...which would subject them to danger from DU dust," it warned.
"Such vehicles should be made inaccessible, perhaps by being buried and then pumped full of concrete."
Critics have expressed concern over depleted uranium contamination on battlefields which do not receive environmental clean-ups.
Some critics claimed birth defects among babies born in Iraq after the Gulf War - including headless victims and others with deformed limbs - may be linked to the U.S. use of depleted uranium.
Richard S. Ehrlich lives in Bangkok, Thailand. His web page is located at http://members.tripod.com/ehrlich, and he may be reached by email at .
The Laissez Faire City Times, Vol 5, No 44, October 29, 2001