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U.S. needs to cooperate on DU probe

Throughout Europe, soldiers who have returned from duty in the Balkans are complaining of a new malady that has been tagged “Balkans Syndrome.”

The soldiers are dying of leukemia and other disorders that they are blaming on their exposure to depleted uranium weapons used during the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia. Depleted uranium -- DU -- is the radioactive byproduct of the uranium enrichment process used to produce nuclear fuel for power plants.

Angry at the United States for introducing the weapons into that arena without any warning of danger, the soldiers and some of their governments are pressing for a ban on the use of such weaponry until further investigations are done on the possible connection between use of DU on the battlefield and the occurrence of cancer in soldiers exposed to it. So far the United States has refused to comply with these requests.

Keying in on the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Gulf War on Jan. 16, U.S. veterans of that conflict, many now suffering from cancer, chronic fatigue and severe stress, charge they have been “abandoned and left to die” by the government. Terming the government attitude as “monstrous,” U.S. veterans say depleted uranium weapons are partly to blame for an array of health problems that have been characterized as Gulf War syndrome.

The first country to use depleted uranium weapons was the United States, which employed them in 1991 during the Gulf War. (For an extended report on depleted uranium and its use during the Gulf War, see NCR, Aug. 25, 1995. See also NCR, July 16, 1999, on its use during the bombing of Kosovo.)

Depleted uranium is cheap, readily available and so dense it can pierce steel. It is used as a solid encased in a munitions shell and it also is sandwiched between pieces of armor plate in tanks. On the battlefield, DU is released as a very fine particulate after exploding. It is widely believed that the fine particulate easily becomes airborne and is ingested or eventually makes its way onto the ground and into the water supply.

In 1993, the U.S. General Accounting Office released a report titled “Operation Desert Storm: Army Not Adequately Prepared to Deal With Depleted Uranium Contamination.”

The report contained accounts of soldiers who handled depleted uranium weapons or were involved in cleanup or maintenance of vehicles carrying or contaminated with DU who were not informed of the toxic properties of DU. Nor were they given any instruction on how to safely handle the substance.

Tons of depleted uranium ammunition were fired in Iraq by U.S. troops during Operation Desert Storm. While no figures were available for the amount used in Yugoslavia, the principal delivery system there was the U.S. military’s A-10 Warthog attack aircraft, which fires 300 rounds per minute. One out of every four rounds contains 275 grams (nearly two-thirds of a pound) of DU.

The scientific and medical community is hardly in agreement regarding the toxicity of DU in its different forms and its connection to what Iraqi doctors have claimed is an extreme jump in the number of cancers among Iraqi children in the area of the heaviest fighting in that country. At the same time, a consensus appears to be growing around the globe that DU, when it explodes into a fine particulate, can be extremely hazardous.

Simple reason dictates that the United States, which has balked at any suggestion of further investigation, cooperate in a full and exhaustive study of DU and its effects on humans and the environment.

Refusal to cooperate will be viewed as intolerable arrogance by close allies, who already are outraged at the realization that soldiers may have been exposed, uninformed, to an agent as dangerous and sinister as any human enemy.

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001