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Humanitarian Cancer and NATO's Murderous Legacy

01.07.2001 | POLITICS

The government of Belgium is demanding a U.N. inquest into the mysterious illness of a number it's soldiers who served in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The suspected culprit? U.S. anti-tank rounds which were used en masse in the NATO bombing of Kosovo; 31,000 of them, to be exact. The most pertinent piece of evidence? The widely recognized Gulf War syndrome responsible for the debilitation and sometimes death of thousands of U.S. troops, a fact that the US government continues to deny. As the fifth Italian Soldier who served on the peacekeeping mission was laid to rest over this holiday season, Europe has begun to call out for answers to what has now been dubbed the mysterious Balkan War Syndrome. Spain and Portugal have promised to begin their own independent investigations.

So how is it possible that every day munitions could in any way be connected to the numerous deaths of soldiers on two continents? It is elementary really, the anti-tank rounds in question contain depleted uranium. It is the depleted uranium which makes these rounds so capable of piercing the defenses of enemy tanks. The U.S. government still swears by the safety of these munitions, a claim the British quickly backed, but evidence to the contrary is beginning to stack up in the form of body bags. In fact, despite it's assertion that the rounds pose no safety hazard, it was only reluctantly and under pressure from Europe, that the U.S. government admitted depleted uranium rounds were fired, and done so in large quantities, in Kosovo . A horrible possibility appears to be more and more likely: that the U.S. government has irradiated large numbers of it's own troops, and the troops of U.N. allies stationed in the Balkans to aid the peace keeping efforts.

Depleted uranium is a waste product from the production of atomic bombs, as well as the process of fuel production by nuclear reactors. It is less radioactive than the pure uranium which these processes begin with. After the highly radioactive U-235 isotope is extracted for use in weapons and reactors through the uranium enrichment process, the resultant "depleted" uranium bi-product remains roughly sixty percent as radioactive as the original, naturally occurring, uranium ore. This amount of radiation is still recognized as substantial and hazardous. The half-life of depleted uranium is 4.5 billion years, which means that the DU which has already been released into the environment isn't going anywhere.

In the early seventies, the U.S. army began experimenting with "kinetic energy penetrators" and tank armor. Kinetic energy penetrators are, in essence, darts made of dense metal which, when fired at high velocity, are efficient penetrators of heavy armor found on vehicles such as tanks. The army's research concluded that depleted uranium was by far the most efficient Kinetic Energy Penetrator. They also recognized the substances usefulness in tank armor itself, as a defense against conventional anti-tank missiles. At the time penetrator research began, the Army was already aware that, "DU is a low-level radioactive waste, and, therefore, must be disposed in a licensed repository." A fact which they still recognize today. Over the next decades the army continued testing and honing the use of kinetic energy penetrators based on the ingredient of depleted uranium, but failed to concurrently study the effects of using the radioactive waste as a weapon, on the environment, or human health. Still, very damning findings concerning the negative side effects of depleted uranium usage had been noted in several military and governmental reports by the time of the Gulf War. Yet the projectiles were in wide use through out the course of that war.

According to Dan Fahey's, A Report on Exposures of Persian Gulf War Veterans and Others to Depleted Uranium Contamination:

U.S. Army reports which have been released or leaked to the public reveal that military commanders were aware of the serious health and environmental consequences of using depleted uranium bullets before Operation Desert Storm. A July 1990 Army report clearly warns that large numbers of soldiers could be exposed to depleted uranium contamination on the battlefield. Army reports further note that the short and long-term health effects of inhaled or ingested depleted uranium particles include cancers, kidney problems, and birth defects.
One of the reports Fahey backs this claim with is The Science Applications International Corporation report, entitled Kinetic Energy Penetrator Environmental and Health Consequences, which was completed for the U.S. Army in June of 1990. According to that report, "the use of DU penetrators in combat would create large amounts of depleted uranium dust, and that depleted uranium poses its greatest danger to human health when this dust in ingested or inhaled. When a DU round impacts a target, up to 70% of the penetrator rod will burn and oxidize into small particles. The SAIC report prophetically warned that 'aerosol DU exposures to soldiers on the battlefield could be significant with potential radiological and toxicological effects.' Depleted uranium can be internalized as a result of breathing smoke containing DU particles, hand-to-mouth transfer as a result of contact with contaminated vehicles, inhalation or ingestion of resuspended particles, ingestion of food or water contaminated by DU, contamination of wounds by DU dust, or from wounds caused by DU shrapnel."

Approximately 940,000 small-caliber DU rounds, and 4,000 large-caliber DU rounds were fired during the Gulf War, which was the first combat test of the Kinetic Penetrator. According to Fahey's well-documented report, "Because military commanders failed to inform their troops about depleted uranium, thousands of servicemen and women climbed on and/or entered DU-impacted vehicles without any knowledge of the presence of depleted uranium contamination and without any protective gear." Beyond the military's policy of acceptable exposure during live combat episodes, in and of itself questionable, much of the U.S. troop exposure in the Gulf occurred in post combat clean-up, when despite knowledge of the hazards of D.U., the government gave no warning concerning the possibility of contamination to it's personnel, allowing them to perform clean-up duties in D.U. hazard environments with no protective measures. Only in March of 1991, after the end of the Gulf War, did the U.S. military finally issue a warning to it's troops concerning D.U. hazard, despite knowledge of the hazard prior to the wars inception. The governments own General Accounting Office released a report, Army Not Adequately Prepared to Deal With Depleted Uranium Contamination condemning the atrocious callousness that the Army showed towards the life of it's own during the Gulf War.

Despite all of the warnings issued by independent researchers, as well as bodies of the U.S. Government itself, DU rounds were again employed in the NATO air strike on Bosnia. In a letter to UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, NATO Secretary-General, Lord Robertson, states that: "DU rounds were used whenever the A-10 engaged armour during Operation Allied Force. Therefore, it was used throughout Kosovo during approximately 100 missions... A total of approximately 31.000 rounds of DU ammunition was used in operation Allied Force."

Since their deployment in Kosovo troops from Italy, Belgium, and other European countries have come down with "mysterious" illnesses paralleling the Gulf War Syndrome found in many U.S. Veterans of the Gulf War. These include high incidences of cancer, and death from cancer in what are by all means young populations, as well as Chronic Fatigue, Diarrhea, and a host of other "unclassified" ailments many of which are strikingly similar to varying levels of radiation poisoning, and related immunodeficiencies. It is important to note that most radio-toxicology experts agree, the majority of cancer growths related to D.U. exposure are likely to appear among the exposed further down the road. The problems we have seen thus far are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

In September, the Italian weekly paper, Libero, released a map purportedly originating from NATO which showed the dispersion levels of DU through out Kosovo. The areas where Italian, Belgian, and other U.N. troops are suffering the most incidences of Balkan Syndrome lie in the areas of highest D.U. concentration.

The United States Veterans Administration's handling of D.U. inquiries has been almost as shameful as that of the military during the war itself. According to Fayhe:

Though thousands of veterans may have been exposed to depleted uranium on the battlefield, the VA is monitoring the health of only thirty-three veterans who were wounded in friendly fire incidents involving DU rounds. These thirty-three veterans--twenty-two of whom still retain DU shrapnel--have unwittingly become the subjects for the first human medical studies to thoroughly assess DU-related health risks...

The VA has recently offered urinalysis testing to a few persistent veterans despite the fact that the VA knows urinalysis tests will not provide accurate assessments of the presence or levels of internalized DU this long after a veteran's exposure in the Gulf War... the VA's current use of urinalysis tests to screen veterans for DU exposure will most likely provide the veteran and his/her physician with an inaccurate assessment of the presence and dangers of internalized depleted uranium.

Even these largely useless attempts on behalf of the VA are substantial compared to the Army, whose own Army Surgeon General has declared that "medical follow-up is not warranted for soldiers who experience incidental exposure [to DU] from dust or smoke." A statement which flies in the face of the armies own conclusive research, conducted before the Kinetic Projectiles were ever introduced to live combat.

Despite growing coverage of the Balkan Syndrome and it's victims by the European press, little or no coverage can be found in America's main stream media concerning the potential hazard of D.U. Only sparse presentations in a handful of smaller news outlets such as liberal mainstay The Nation, and the military journal, Stars and Stripes, can be found. Concerning the issue of D.U. exposure in the Gulf the nation offers the following:

The V.A. has done little to inform veterans of possible exposure to D.U. or to warn of potential problems. A Gulf War Syndrome questionnaire sent to thousands of vets simply asks if they were exposed to 'depleted uranium,' without mentioning that D.U. was used in U.S. antitank rounds. Some G.I. advocates think veterans who respond negatively are signing away any chance of receiving compensation for future medical problems. Veterans who do express concern over exposure to D.U. are given urinalysis by the V.A., although every expert contacted by The Nation said that a urinalysis would be useless unless administered within a year of the exposure. A spokesman for V.A. Secretary Jesse Brown did not respond to several faxed questions on the subject.

Durakovic accused the V.A. of engaging in a 'conspiracy of silence' to avoid being held liable for veterans who develop cancer in the future. He thinks the Pentagon has put pressure on the V.A. to keep the lid on D.U. because the Army is afraid of eventually being held responsible for the cost of cleaning up the D.U. left behind in the Persian Gulf.

While Stars and Stripes, the US military's in-house magazine, had this to say:
For its part, the Pentagon already has decided that depleted uranium poses little threat to troops or the environment....

U.S. forces continue to use [depleted-uranium] munitions and may employ them in the future, [Depleted-uranium] penetrators are now available in international arms markets, and may become widely available to armies around the globe.

Unfortunately the U.S. military machine seems more than willing to continue with it's business as usual attitude concerning Depleted Uranium rounds regardless of the possible future consequences to it's own personnel. As the incidences of kidney disease and cancer continue to pile up in the sidelines, the question sadly remains, how many of our own men are we willing to jeopardize for fear of admitting our own mistakes? Militarily every objective has a value in body bags, sustainable losses. What is the figure that has been decided on in the case of kinetic projectile weapons, as we continue to poison the people we offer to protect, as well as those we use to offer that protection?

* * *

Information in this article was drawn from numerous sources including:

  1. "Depleted Uranium The Stone Unturned: A Report on Exposures of Persian Gulf War Veterans and Others to Depleted Uranium Contamination;" Dan Fahey, March 28, 1997.

  2. "Environmental Exposure Report: Depleted Uranium in the Gulf;" Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, U.S. Department of Defense; July 31, 1998; Tab F - DU use in the Gulf War.

  3. Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium use in the U.S. Army; U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute; June, 1995; p. 154.

  4. Development of Depleted Uranium Training Support Packages: Tier I -General Audience; U.S. Army Chemical School; October, 1995; p. 21. See also Kinetic Energy Penetrator Long Term Strategy Study (Abridged); U.S. Army Armament, Munitions, and Chemical Command Task Force; July 24, 1990; Chapter III.

  5. Kinetic Energy Penetrator Environmental and Health Considerations (Abridged); Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC); July, 1990; Vol. 2, 2.

  6. "Summation of ARDEC Test Data Pertaining to the Oxidation of Depleted Uranium During Battlefield Conditions;" U.S. Army Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center (ARDEC); 8 March 1991; p. 2.

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