U.S. myopia on nuclear materials needs attention


The worst of all the news of bad health effects of chemicals and even nukes is the lies that have been told. New Yorkers have recently been reeling from the now public deception by the EPA itself, certifying that the air post 9/11 was safe to breathe when in fact they knew it contained serious toxic elements. For an American populace, this leaves no source now untainted. The lie hurts. The lie hurt the Navajo Nation, too, going back to the early 1950s, when uranium mining and storage became a way of life in the Southwest and they were consistently told by government personnel that such contact was safe. Large cancer clusters now are evident on the reservation.

Similar doubt is now growing on the U.S. military's relatively recent adaptation of depleted uranium for use in munitions. It is possible that the most damnable long-term effects of the U.S. bombing campaigns of the past decade - most prominently the huge ordinance drops in Iraq and Kosovo - is the long-term, radioactive contamination of significant portions of those regions of the world.

Regardless of one's position on war, as a country and as a civilization, we have been loath to use nuclear weapons in warfare. The early use of atomic weapons on Japan at the end of World War II has generated continuous questions. The international consensus has been to consider the unleashing of long-term radiation to be beyond the pale. However, in the past decade, the U.S. military has been doing just that - and in substantial measure. There is growing evidence that major and long-term health hazards are destined to be the result.

The contamination of large areas with radioactive dust results from the use of nuclear materials, particularly depleted uranium (DU) in U.S. bombs. Depleted uranium, enriched for use in nuclear reactors, is recovered after reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. The U.S. and U.K. possess thousands of tons of the extra heavy and heat-resistant material, which burns at 10,000 (C), and can penetrate steel and completely incinerate its targets. DU use is a pervasive issue that seems to have escaped American media and merits more investigation and forthright action.

But while the U.S. Defense Department dismisses the idea, the Royal Society in England has urged the removal of the hundreds of tons of depleted uranium now strewn across much of Iraq. The Society, Great Britain's premier scientific institution, deems the removal necessary to protect the civilian population. The depleted uranium, admittedly an excellent anti-tank and bunker-buster element, is toxic, according to the Society. The Royal Society is on record denouncing the Pentagon's claim that it had the Society's support in its use of the nukes.

Navajos, among other Native peoples affected by the nuclear fuel cycle, know the horrors of unspent, low-intensity radiation. Recent anti-nuke rallies led by both Navajo President Joe Shirley and Vice President Frank Dayish Jr., reveal the collective memory of a tribe with hundreds of cancer victims that trace their illnesses to uranium mining and radioactive discharge from mines on the Navajo Reservation. The Navajo leaders rail against the lies they were told about the supposed safety of working with uranium. "Leetso Dooda," (no more uranium mining) is their featured chant.

Are soldiers being lied to, or at least disregarded, in Iraq and Kosovo, about the actual dangers of depleted uranium? Many scientists believe the long-term radioactivity of DU can cause cancers and other severe genetic illness. Both soldiers and civilians are in short-and long-term danger, according to the Royal Society, which stressed the particular risks to children playing at contaminated sites. The United Nations environment program is currently studying the dangers posed by the use of DU in Iraq. According to Pekka Haavisto, chair of UNEP's Iraq task, previous studies on DU have shown that it "can corrode in the soil and exist for a long time in the dust." The emerging evidence is of genetic damage caused by even by low levels of DU. The Defense Department's own forthcoming study has revealed more extensive genetic damage from DU than previously believed. Researcher Alexandra Miller at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, is finding that the health risk of DU is grossly underestimated. With exposure, the genetic damage particularly to bone tissue is insidious and ongoing. Birth defects over generations are now increasingly under study. The military's own guidelines for surgeons prescribe "aggressive" action in removing any fragments of depleted uranium from patients. Veterans should look for kidney damage and beware of increased risk of lung cancer, which is substantial. In particular, genetic damage is possible from contact with the DU sites.

Used for perhaps some 30 years, but substantially in the past decade, the military has downplayed potential health effects of DU. However, even low-intensity uranium is known to cause chemical and radiation damage to lungs, kidneys, and bone marrow, where its compounds can remain for a lifetime. In the first Gulf War, armor-piercing shells containing around 340 tons of DU were dropped. Two more tons were added during the recent Iraq invasion. As the depleted uranium rod disintegrates inside the armor piercing shell, its toxic, radioactive dust and fragments spread. Rates of childhood leukemia and rare forms of cancer are documented on the increase in southern Iraq, where the largest quantities of DU materials were dropped during the first Gulf War. DU was also used in the Navy's bombing ranges in the small Puerto Rican island of Vieques. High rates of cancer and other diseases among the islands 9,000 inhabitants have spawned several lawsuits.

Professor Doug Rokke, a former U.S. army director of the Pentagon's depleted uranium project, now calls on the U.S. and U.K. to "recognize the immoral consequences of their actions and assume responsibility for medical care and thorough environmental remediation." In the Balkans, seven years after the bombing there, the UN Environment Program documents DU leaching into the water table. It recommends decontamination of structures to protect residents against cancer.

We bring out this warning on a potentially deadly material for all soldiers in the American Army in Iraq and the Balkans because of its importance. Understandably, military personnel and all citizens in Iraq feel more direct dangers from war and crime than from environmental contamination. Radioactivity, however, makes for long term illness, causing genetic damage that creates multi-generational heartbreak. Considering the reluctance of the government to tell the truth in previous cases of uranium and other contamination, it is an issue well worthy of caution, attention and action.