by Ben Geman
Boston Phoenix, April 8 - 15, 1999
Despite nonstop coverage of the war, one troubling issue has gone all but unreported. It's very possible, according to some Pentagon critics, that American planes in Kosovo are set to deploy a controversial -- and perhaps toxic -- weapons material that could sicken not only any ground troops who may be involved in the conflict but the refugees we're trying to protect.
The material is «depleted uranium,» or DU, a very dense and slightly radioactive metal used to make armor-piercing rounds shot from planes and tanks. A handful of military watchdog groups say the dust created when DU rounds hit their targets can cause kidney problems, immune disorders, and other illnesses. For years, critics have suspected links between the tons of DU rounds fired in the Gulf War -- where the weapon was first deployed -- and the mysterious collection of ailments known as Gulf War Syndrome.
The Pentagon, for its part, calls it unlikely that DU made Gulf War soldiers sick. And it won't reveal whether DU is being used in Kosovo. But experts believe DU bullets will almost certainly be fired in Kosovo, and as studies continue, one thing is clear: the questions about its safety remain unanswered.
The story of depleted uranium begins when raw uranium ore is mined to fuel nuclear reactors. The uranium then must be «enriched» to create useful reactor fuel, which leaves the less-radioactive «depleted» uranium behind.
And plenty of it -- according to the New York Times, the Department of Energy has more than a billion pounds of DU in storage. The metal is considered safe for several industrial uses, including as a shield for more highly radioactive material.
Beginning in the 1970s, defense contractors, including the Concord-based StarMet Corporation (see «Concord: The Heavy-Metal Suburb,» right), began shaping DU into «penetrators,» or the core of armor-piercing munitions.
Depleted uranium is considerably denser than lead, and DU rounds proved remarkably effective at slicing through the armor of Iraqi tanks in the Gulf War.
The trouble is, say critics, that the weapons may have harmed more than their intended victims. When DU rounds strike their targets, anywhere from 20 to 70 percent of the penetrator burns up, creating a uranium dust that can be inhaled and can migrate from the lungs to other organs. Critics say the heavy-metal toxicity can cause kidney damage, skin and respiratory ailments, and other problems. In the long run, they say, the radioactivity could cause cancer. Anti-DU activists believe the dust may have caused some of the ailments widely reported by Gulf War vets. To be fair, few believe there is a single cause of Gulf War Syndrome -- soldiers were exposed to pesticides, smoke from oil fires, and more. But uranium dust may have been a component, according to a 1998 report released by the Military Toxics Project, the National Gulf War Resource Center, and Swords to Plowshares, a service agency for vets.
The Pentagon's position on DU can be summarized in two words: don't worry.
Pentagon officials say they're almost certain that particulates released from burned DU rounds did not contribute to widespread ailments reported by Gulf War veterans. They offer several studies to bolster the claim, including a 1998 report by the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, which all but ruled out DU as a possible cause of Gulf War Syndrome. «We've seen no evidence that any of our service members were exposed to harmful amounts of DU,» says Austin Camacho, spokesperson for the Pentagon's Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses.
A forthcoming review of the issue by the RAND Corporation is expected to back up the Pentagon's claim, according to the presidential commission overseeing investigations into Gulf War Syndrome. About 30 veterans injured by DU rounds -- some of whom still have fragments embedded in their bodies -- are under study by the Veterans Administration and show no health effects traceable to the DU, Pentagon officials say.
Then again, DU is an astonishingly effective weapon, so the Pentagon has a strong interest in its continued use. «The Pentagon has a bias,» says Paul Sullivan, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a Washington, DC-based veterans' organization that's among DU weaponry's most vocal critics. «The bias is that they really want to use DU.»
But for all the Pentagon's assurances, the question of DU's safety is apparently still open. Last year -- citing the Military Toxics Project report -- Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin asked the General Accounting Office to study DU's use in the Gulf. And legislation passed last year included funds for the National Academy of Sciences to study several toxins in the Gulf War; depleted uranium is on the list.
In other words, our government doesn't know for sure whether its weaponry could endanger soldiers and civilians.
Yet Du's deployment may continue. In the Kosovo theater, an Air Force plane called the A-10 -- variously nicknamed the «Tankbuster» and the «Warthog» -- stands armed with missiles and a fearsome Gatling gun capable of firing 3900 bullets per minute at Serb tanks. That gun fires 30-millimeter rounds made with DU; its deployment in the Gulf War accounted for the majority of what the Pentagon says was about 320 tons of DU rounds fired in Operation Desert Storm.
Whether A-10s active in the Kosovo conflict are equipped with DU is hard to pin down from official sources. Pentagon spokesman Steve Campbell wouldn't comment on how A-10s are to be deployed, whether they're carrying depleted uranium, or even whether the Gatling gun has been fired. «We are not going to talk about specific weapons we are using,» he said last week. «Whether we are using that specific round or not, I don't want to get into a discussion of that.»
But A-10s have been seen taking off, and they're expected to be used against Serb tanks and armored vehicles as the weather in Kosovo clears. By the time you read this, they may have already.
And military analysts say there's no question that NATO intends to use DU.
«It's standard issue,» says Chris Hellman, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information, a Washington, DC-based group that monitors Pentagon policy and planning. «If the A-10s are used, DU will be used.» Adds Sullivan: «To say that we would not use it is like saying, `My goodness, you would not put bullets in your pistol.' «
Piers Wood, a retired lieutenant colonel who is a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information, says that while DU's health risks are slim, its effectiveness is proven. «It's like shooting a rifle bullet through pine board,» he says, adding: «If I were a refugee in Kosovo or if I were a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army in Kosovo on the ground, I would prefer to see allied forces using DU because I would consider the danger from the Serb tanks to be infinitely higher than the danger from inhaling powdered warheads from the impact with tanks.»
Even its critics acknowledge its effectiveness. Says Sullivan: «I was a cavalry scout in the Gulf, and I am most likely alive today as a result of our overwhelming superiority on the battlefield using the DU bullets.»
To Colonel Eric Daxon of the preventive health services division of the US Army Medical Command, the debate over DU's safety is being driven by activists who fail to understand that uranium's presence is not dangerous per se. «There is a core group of folks who do not understand the principles of health physics,» he says. Uranium, he notes, is found in all of our food and water, even in our bodies. Only in certain concentrations -- well above whatGulf veterans were exposed to -- does uranium become dangerous, he says. «The exposures, the amount that could have possibly been internalized, were exceptionally low, to the point where it would have been difficult to distinguish the DU exposure from natural uranium,» says Daxon.
Daxon concedes that in Desert Storm the military did not abide by regulations requiring special training for soldiers who risked being exposed to DU when climbing aboard vehicles struck by DU bullets. Still, he insists that troops were not placed in jeopardy by the use of DU and that the press is wrong to fuel their fears. «One of the things that frustrates me is how some reporters are more than willing to report things that are not based on science,» he says. «This raises the anxiety of some of our soldiers and some of our soldiers' families.»
Daxon is well-credentialed -- he has a master's in nuclear engineering and a PhD in radiation hygiene. Yet other scientists and doctors remain unconvinced that DU did not sicken perhaps thousands of Gulf War veterans -- or that we're not making the same mistake in Kosovo.
Dr. Asaf Durakovic, the former head of nuclear medicine for the Veterans Administration hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, says he began treating Gulf War veterans soon after the conflict for kidney problems and other disorders that he says are consistent with uranium poisoning. In 1997, he says, he was fired after he refused to stop research into what he believes was uranium poisoning among his patients. (Hospital officials say he chose to retire after his position was reduced to part-time.) He calls the Pentagon's dismissal of the effects of DU a political decision. «No government,» says Durakovic, «wants to admit they are responsible for poisoning their own soldiers.»
It might not be just soldiers at risk. According to Dan Fahey, a Navy veteran and author of the 1998 report released by the Military Toxics Project and other groups, DU rounds also threaten food and water supplies when the dust settles over the land, and when DU bullets embedded in the ground break down and the heavy metal enters the earth and ground water. If that's true, it could be especially problematic in Kosovo, since NATO hopes refugees will resettle the lands now turned into battlefields.
«It raises questions,» says Fahey. «Are we going to clean it up? Are we warning local populations? . . . If we contaminate their food and water, who's responsible for that?»
Although DU has received far less attention than the threat of land mines to civilians, Cathy Lemar, director of the Military Toxics Project, argues that there's a similarity: both, she says, can devastate a population long after the battlefield is abandoned. In 1996, the United Nations came to a similar conclusion. A subcommission of the UN Human Rights Commission passed a resolution naming DU as a weapon of mass destruction and calling for its discontinuance, along with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, cluster bombs, and other weapons.
Fifteen countries voted for the resolution. Eight abstained. Only the United States voted against it.
Ben Geman can be reached at email@example.com.
About The Phoenix - http://www.bostonphoenix.com/standard/info.html
To their credit, European news agencies BBC and Reuters have each published an article. US media remain silent, except for one brave voice, the Boston Phoenix (an alternative weekly since 1966), and a few NGO's (non-governmental organizations) blowing the whistle.
There are scientists and doctors who believe that at least some of the «Gulf War Syndrome» symptoms suffered by veterans and their offspring were caused by radioactive debris and dust from «tank-busting» depleted uranium artillery used during the 1991 Iraq war.
There are people now trying to put a stop to radioactive poisoning of the Balkans.
Please help spread this disturbing information far and wide.
Write Depleted Uranium List with inquiries about depleted uranium.
U.S. Apaches could arrive in Albania this week By Charles Aldinger, WASHINGTON, April 12 (Reuters) http://biz.yahoo.com/rf/990412/7v.html The first of 24 U.S. `Apache' helicopters could arrive in Albania later this week to join a NATO strike force attacking Yugoslavia, increasing substantially the alliance's ability to smash Serb tanks and troops sweeping Kosovo, defense officials said on Monday....
Critics have accused the U.S. military of moving too slowly in shifting Apaches, which could prove vulnerable to Serb anti-aircraft fire, from Germany although they are one of the world's most effective weapons against armor such as that being used to drive ethnic Albanians from Kosovo Province.
The Pentagon insists the delay has been partly due to strains on Tirana air traffic by a massive humanitarian airlift and the fact that the airport did not have a runway lighting or round-the-clock flight control system until this weekend....
Using the Apaches, armed with a 30mm cannon, 70mm rockets and 16 Hellfire missiles designed to knock out tanks and other armor, would also bring a new dimension to the NATO strike force.
The cannon fires extremely hard bullets made of depleted uranium, capable of cutting through the thick steel skin of tanks. The helicopters attack both in daylight and darkness with a two-man crew equipped with special night-vision devices on their helmets.
But because they fly low and much slower than jet fighters, the Apaches would be vulnerable to Serb missiles and hundreds of anti-aircraft guns in southern Serbia.
U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the commander of all NATO forces in Europe, asked for the helicopters nearly two weeks ago in a move to attack Serb troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers which have been attacking and herding hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo.
Shea told reporters in Brussels on Monday that there will be 192 flights by U.S. C-5 military cargo planes into Tirana in the next few days to bring together the whole Apache operation.
The Apaches themselves are expected to fly to Tirana from Germany although they can be packed aboard C-5s with folded rotors.
Pentagon officials told reporters at a briefing on Saturday that it could be 10 days to two weeks before all of the Apaches were in place, but would not predict when they would launch initial strikes.
Shea cautioned against expectations that the Apaches would `suddenly turn the situation around' against Serb armor, which is reported to be dispersed and in many cases well hidden.
[If Serb armor is dispersed, that mean tank-busing depleted uranium artillery will be dispersed throughout Yugoslavian countryside, getting into the food chain. I'm ashamed to be human, today. Please call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111, and your Congressperson (202-225-3121) or UN Ambassador
(see next item), to oppose the use of depleted uranium in Yugoslavia or anywhere else!]
United Nations Press / Public Inquiries http://www.un.org/ga/media.htm/ e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
[The Boston Phoenix is the only U.S. paper, it seems, that has raised the issue of depleted uranium online. If you run across any articles, please send
them our way (along with date, publisher, and URL, please!), email@example.com,
«NucNews Archives» in the subject line.]
«They even use radioactive weapons...which are forbidden by the Geneva Convention.»
Astonishing, perhaps -- but is it true? The fact is, the United States is using radioactive weapons against Yugoslavia -- and this threatens to have health consequences in Kosovo for decades to come.
The weapons in question are anti-tank shells and bullets made of depleted uranium (DU), a toxic, radioactive byproduct of nuclear fission. Favored for their ability to destroy tanks, this ammunition is carried by such U.S. forces as A-10 Warthogs and Apache helicopters, both of which received substantial media attention when introduced into the war.
Ironically, only the day before Nightline's broadcast (3/30/99), ABC World News Tonight had reported the same «astonishing» news that Serbian TV had: Describing the A-10, ABC's John Martin noted that «it could pierce any armor by firing depleted uranium bullets at 3,900 rounds a minute.»
But depleted uranium has received almost no sustained media attention.
One of the few reporters to discuss the substance, Kathleen Sullivan of the San Francisco Examiner (4/1/99), reported that Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon refused to answer questions about its use by A-10s, saying operational details were «verboten from this podium.»
Nonetheless, the health risks posed by inhaling the dust from depleted uranium, as well as the contamination of the physical environment, have raised the concerns of numerous public health and veterans rights groups.
The World Health Organization is still studying the high cancer rates that plague southern Iraq, where much of the fighting during the Gulf War took place. Likewise, DU's possible role in causing or exacerbating Gulf War Syndrome is still a topic of fierce debate.
CBS's Mark Phillips recently presented in-depth reporting on the possible health effects of DU in Iraq (12/1/98, 12/10/98). Since the U.S. began using DU in Yugoslavia, however, no network has returned to the subject.
During the Gulf War, activists raised questions about the potential consequences of DU, but these issues were not explored until inexplicable illnesses began showing up in U.S. veterans and Iraqi children. This pattern should not be repeated in Kosovo.
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