Issue 249 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Depleted Uranium


Lies and denials cannot hide the deadly effects of depleted uranium, as Dragan Plavsic explains

Sickness in the system

The health minister of the Bosnian-Croat federation, Dr Bozo Ljubie, reported:
  • There were 230 cases of cancer per 100,000 of the population last year compared to 152 in 1999
  • The incidence of leukemia had risen from 6.2 to 10.4 per 100,000 of the population, an increase of almost 70 percent
  • The ministry also revealed that Nato had refused to share information with it on DU in 1995.
  • Another Iraqi child suffering because of depleted uranium

    The scandalous tragedy of depleted uranium (DU) sent Labour ministers and civil servants into a veritable frenzy of implausible denials. For many of us it was a frenzy only too reminiscent of Tory denials during the BSE crisis. Yes, seven Italian soldiers, five Belgians, four French, two Dutch, two Spaniards, a Portuguese and a Czech had died from a host of cancers since serving in the Balkans. But the deaths had nothing to do with DU, according to defence secretary Geoff Hoon, because 'the best scientific evidence I have available is that that is not true'. Nato spokesman Mark Laity, once of the BBC, reassuringly observed of DU that 'it's got less radiation than the normal uranium that can be found in your own backyard'.

    And no, we were told, the government would not be prepared to screen personnel who had served in the Balkans. But as the public outcry grew, and as one government after another announced they would screen their soldiers, John Spellar, the armed forces minister, abruptly announced a U-turn. Yes, the government would screen Balkans veterans after all. Four days later, and after yet another outcry, Hoon promised that Gulf War veterans would also be included in the screening programme.

    It is not difficult to see why the government has been so determined to issue denials. DU was imperialism's weapon of choice in the 1990s, from its baptism of fire in the Gulf War in 1991, and the Bosnian conflict in 1994 and 1995, to the bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999. Almost twice as heavy as lead, DU's kinetic energy is sufficient to penetrate tank armour before the missile detonates. Although Hoon reluctantly conceded that there was some 'limited risk' with DU, he stressed that this was more than outweighed by the fact that DU missiles were 'astonishingly effective'.

    But what Hoon described as 'limited risk' Professor Doug Rokke, ex-director of the Pentagon's Depleted Uranium Project, describes as 'the stuff of nightmares'. Rokke should know. He organised the DU clean-up of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after the Gulf War, and now suffers from breathing difficulties, nerve damage and kidney problems. Analysis of his urine in 1994 revealed uranium 2,000 percent above normal levels. But he is lucky. Ten of his 50-strong clean-up team have since died. DU, he says, 'is toxic, radioactive and pollutes for 4,500 million years. It causes lymphoma, neuro-psychotic disorders and short term memory damage. In semen it causes birth defects and trashes the immune system.'

    During the Gulf War about 1 million rounds of DU ammunition (or some 300 metric tonnes of DU) were fired by the US. Some 100 rounds were also fired by British forces. In Bosnia the US fired 10,000 rounds and in Yugoslavia a further 31,000 rounds. DU largely oxidises on impact into tiny dust-like particles that can become windborne and inhaled. Once embedded in the lungs the particles cannot be removed. Just one such 'hot particle' of DU in the lungs could be fatal, as it is said to be equivalent to having a chest X-ray every hour for life. According to Professor Malcolm Hooper of Sunderland University, scientific advisor to the Gulf Veterans' Association, 'there will be a cumulative radiological dose building up through time and it's this that's the danger.'

    The US and British governments have been aware of the evidence for years but have simply chosen to ignore it. As long ago as 1960 a US report on the industrial uses of DU listed the now familiar dangers and concluded that DU was safe, but only if standard industrial precautions were taken. Just before the Gulf War a 1990 US report stated baldly, 'Short term effects of high doses can result in death, while long term effects of low doses have been implicated in cancer.' And in 1991 the UK Atomic Energy Authority produced a report in which it warned the government that the dispersal of DU dust in uncontrolled combat conditions could have devastating effects on the health of service personnel and civilians alike. Only last month, in the midst of the furore over DU, a 1997 army report leaked out which concluded that 'exposure to uranium dust has been shown to increase risks of developing lung, lymph and brain cancers'.

    The deadly effects of depleted uranium are assesses in the Balkans
    The deadly effects of depleted uranium are assesses in the Balkans

    Dangerous myopia

    After the Gulf War thousands of veterans in the US (some 80,000), Britain (3,000) and Australia (several hundred) complained of Gulf War syndrome. Last month Nato secretary general Lord Robertson claimed, 'People must understand that when we act, we act with the interests of our troops and civilians very much in mind.' Quite the opposite seems to be true. Despite mounting evidence over the last decade, no comprehensive research resulting in a published, publicly available study has ever been conducted on Gulf War veterans. As Professor Hooper told the select committee on Defence in 1999, 'More than nine years after the Gulf conflict no clinical study or research programme has reported.' He also described the government's refusal to consider the independent work of highly respected US scientists as 'an excuse for inaction' which 'betrays a disappointing and dangerous myopia'.

    In fact only one British Gulf War veteran has ever been tested by the Ministry of Defence, while 521 have so far died. Instead, Gulf War veterans have had to rely on independent scientists willing to stick their necks out for the truth. According to the BBC, about 100 Gulf veterans sent urine and tissue samples to Canada to test for the presence of uranium. The results showed that half had unusually high levels of DU. According to Shaun Rusling of the British Gulf War Veterans' Association, 'We felt we wanted the tests to be independent of this country because many of the laboratories in this country that have got the ability to do it are influenced by grants which come from the state.'

    Secondary attention

    The tragedy of the Gulf War veterans, together with the more recent tragedy of the returning soldiers and civilians from the Balkans, is surpassed by the tragedy that has befallen the populations of Iraq, Bosnia and Yugoslavia. This tragedy has received only secondary attention in the west. As one Yugoslav enviromentalist, Radoje Lausevic, put it, 'Studies into the effects of depleted uranium started only after a sufficient number of European soldiers died.' He added, 'No one in the west cares how many Serbs or Albanians died of radiation in Kosovo.' The same is true for Bosnians and Iraqis.

    In August 1995 Iraq presented a study to the United Nations demonstrating sharp increases in cancers including leukemia, birth defects and immune deficiency diseases in the country's southern region. Other studies have corroborated a significant correlation between the location of these increases and the use of DU missiles during the Gulf War. As many as 250,000 Iraqis may be affected. Journalists like Robert Fisk of the Independent have reported on their visits to heavily bombed cities such as Basra. Recently Fisk wrote, 'Each time I came across terrifying new cancers among those who lived there. Babies were being born with no arms or no noses or no eyes. Children were bleeding internally or suddenly developing grotesque tumours.'

    As for the principal targets of Nato's bombing in 1994 and 1995, the Bosnian Serbs, Robert Fisk has recently highlighted the plight of the Serbs of the Sarajevo suburb of Hadzici which was struck by an estimated 300 DU missiles. Ethnically cleansed and now refugees in the town of Bratunac, 350 out of 3,500 former residents of the suburb have died of various cancers. In Banja Luka, again heavily bombed in 1995, Robert Fisk was told that cancer rates had risen from 816 in 1999 to 1,800 in 2000.

    Dr Zoran Stankovic, the Serbian pathologist who first set out to investigate the link between DU and cancer in Bosnia in 1997, has reported that he was suddenly refused permission to proceed by the Bosnian Serb authorities, apparently under pressure from the US.

    It is premature to assess what limited statistics are available for Yugoslavia and Kosovo. Certainly the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in October last year has given some Nato states greater freedom to air their suspicions about DU and its effect on their soldiers. Only a few days after the Serbian Revolution, Italy and France suddenly announced inquiries into the health of their Balkans service personnel, while Portugal said it would withdraw its troops to stop them becoming 'uranium meat'. Last month the Greek government announced it would allow any of its peacekeeping troops in Kosovo to return home if they were concerned about the risks of DU contamination, although it is alleged the Greeks too have bought DU munitions from the US. The leader of the Kosovan Albanians, Ibrahim Rugova, has also been anxious to play down the risks associated with DU for fear of precipitating a mass withdrawal from Kosovo.

    The overwhelming concern of the British and US governments is to safeguard the military use of DU munitions regardless of the human cost. In the words of US lieutenant colonel MV Ziehman, writing in March 1991 just after the Gulf War, 'There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore if no one makes the case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefields, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and be deleted from the arsenal... I believe we should keep this sensitive issue in mind when after action reports are written.'

    DU is the symbol par excellence of the imperialism of our age. It pollutes the land it is meant to liberate and poisons the people it is meant to protect. The tragedy of DU yet again confirms what socialists have always argued--that imperialism is no liberator but brings only death and destruction in its wake. We should demand an immediate ban on DU, a full and independent inquiry into its use by successive governments, the immediate identification and decontamination of all DU sites in the Gulf and the Balkans together with the treatment and compensation of all sufferers, paid for by Nato.

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