Originally published October 6, 2002 Baltimore Sun NEW YORK
As the Bush administration prepares to make war on the Iraqi people—for it is the civilian population of that country and not Saddam Hussein who will bear the brunt of the hostilities—it is important that we recall the medical consequences of the last Persian Gulf war.
It was, in effect, a nuclear war. By the end of that 1991 conflict, the United States left between 300 and 800 tons of depleted uranium 238 in anti-tank shells and other explosives on the battlefields of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The term "depleted" refers to the removal of the fissionable element uranium 235 through a process that ironically is called "enrichment."
What remains, uranium 238, is 1.7 times more dense than lead. When incorporated into an anti-tank shell and fired, it achieves great momentum, cutting through tank armor like a hot knife through butter. What other properties does uranium 238 possess?
First, it is pyrophoric. When it hits a tank at high speed, it bursts into flames, producing aerosolized particles less than 5 microns in diameter, making them easy to inhale into the terminal air passages of the lung. Second, it is a potent radioactive carcinogen, emitting a relatively heavy alpha particle composed of two protons and two neutrons. Once inside the body -- either in the lung if it has been inhaled, in a wound if it penetrates flesh, or ingested since it concentrates in the food chain and contaminates water -- it can produce cancer in the lungs, bones, blood or kidneys. Third, it has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, meaning the areas in which this ammunition was used in Iraq and Kuwait will remain effectively radioactive for the rest of time. Children are 10 to 20 times more sensitive to the effects of radiation than adults.
My fellow pediatricians in the Iraqi city of Basra, for example, report an increase of six to 12 times in the incidence of childhood leukemia and cancer. Yet because of the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Statesand the United Nations, they have no access to antibiotics, chemotherapeutic drugs or effective radiation machines to treat their patients. The incidence of congenital malformations has doubled in the exposed populations in Iraq where these weapons were used. Among them are babies being born with only one eye and with an encephaly -- the absence of a brain. However, the medical consequences of the use of uranium 238 almost certainly did not affect only Iraqis. Some American veterans exposed to it are reported, by at least one medical researcher, to be excreting uranium in their urine a decade later. Other reports indicate it is being excreted in their semen. That nearly one-third of the American tanks used in Desert Storm were made of uranium 238 is another story, for their crews were exposed to whole body gamma radiation. What might be the long-term consequences of such exposure has not, apparently, been studied. Would these effects have surprised U.S. authorities? No, for incredible as it may seem, the American military's own studies prior to Desert Storm warned that aerosol uranium exposure under battlefield conditions could lead to cancers of the lung and bone, kidney damage, non-malignant lung disease, neurocognitive disorders, chromosomal damage and birth defects. Do President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld understand the medical consequences of the 1991 war and the likely health effects of the next one they are planning? If they don't, their ignorance is breathtaking. Even more incredible, though, and much more likely, is that they do understand but don't care. Helen Caldicott, founder and president of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, has devoted 25 years to an international campaign to educate the public about the medical hazards of the nuclear age. Her most recent book is The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush's Military-Industrial Complex (The New Press, 2002).
Copyright c 2002, The Baltimore Sun