Low-Intensity Nuclear War: Radioactive "Wasting" with the New Agent Orange
(Part 2 of 3)

By John M. LaForge, Nukewatch Staff

U.S. generals failed for 46 years to convince a President to bomb cities again with nuclear weapons--until 1991, that is.

The 40-day carpet bombing of the Tigris and Euphrates River Valley area known as the Persian Gulf war, involved the first publicized use of so-called "depleted uranium" (DU) armaments. Without any public debate, a sort of back door Hiroshima--call it an experimental low-intensity nuclear war --was foisted upon the world by the United States.

Much like how the U.S. sprung the atomic age over Japan 54 years ago, the human costs of testing radioactive weapons may prove to be as much cancer at home as on the battle field. (Add some 600,000 Gulf war vets to the 16,000 civilians used in U.S. government radiation experiments during the cold war.)

About 300 tons of DU was dispersed during the 1,000-bombing-sortie-per-day assault of the Persian Gulf, according to William Arkin writing the May 1993 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Arkin estimates that 940,000 Air Force 30mm DU shells and 4,000 Army 120mm DU anti-tank shells were fired. The military has its own classified estimate, but the 4,000 tank shells alone contained a total of more than 50,000 pounds (25 tons) of DU.

DU is uranium-238, a radioactive, alpha-emitting metallic toxic waste left over from the uranium "enrichment" process. Alloyed with titanium, the DU becomes extremely hard and makes devastating armor-piercing ammunition.

DU is left in vast quantities (1/2 million tons in the U.S.; 1 million tons worldwide) at 50 sites in 18 states where uranium ore has been "enriched" for nuclear warheads and nuclear reactor fuel. Enrichment separates the fissionable uranium-235 from the U-238, but there is only one pound of U-235 in a ton of uranium ore. The remaining 1,999 pounds (of U-238 and other radioactive isotopes) is nothing but nuclear waste and is given away free to industries who use it to manufacture and sell DU shells to the U.S. military.

The danger posed by DU warheads is that when they smash through tanks, etc., the DU partially burns, producing uranium oxide dust which is spread far and wide by the wind. Small particles can be permanently trapped in the lungs, where the alpha radiation dose--cumulative and irreversible--increases over the victim's lifetime. "The air-borne particles enter the body easily," wrote Dr. Eric Hoskins, about the Harvard Study Team's survey of health in post-bombardment Iraq. "The uranium then deposits itself in bones, organs (such as the lungs) and cells. Children are especially vulnerable…" Hoskins warned in 1993.

The UN's World Health Organization is investigating the health effects of the DU weapons that were used against--and left littering--the Persian Gulf. Today, eerie complaints of possibly radiation-induced illnesses are coming from Iraq and from U.S. veterans of the bombing--and their families.

In January 1995, Iraqi diplomats at the U.N protested the use of DU weapons before the International Red Cross, and in May, 1995, acting Iraqi Foreign Minister H.Y. Hammadi blamed the use of "radiation weapons" for the otherwise unexplained incidence in Iraq of certain diseases. In his letter to the U.N. Secretary General, Hammadi also said there is, "an appreciable increase in congenital diseases and fetal deformities." "The wide-scale use" of DU weapons, Hammadi wrote, meant that small particles of uranium oxide were carried by the wind over long distances, "and conflicts with the claims of the coalition countries that the weapons employed…were…conventional."

At home, Gulf war vets in growing numbers have reported strange undiagnosed ailments: 37,000 by April 1994; 43,000 by January 1995. This 43,000 is six percent of the 697,000 people who were sent to the massacre. (Between 75,000 and 150,000 Iraqi conscripts and civilians were killed.)

The Gulf War Syndrome's short-term symptoms are probably the result of untested vaccines and drugs given in untested combinations to vets, without their informed consent. But chromosomal and reproductive damage and possible cancer incidence are the long-term dangers, and early warnings are now appearing in the flesh. Since thousands of vets were exposed to the uranium oxide dust, DU could be responsible for symptoms that often result from radiation exposure: hair loss, fatigue, bowel disruptions, cancer and, ominously, increased birth defects, miscarriages, still birth and infant mortality among women partners of exposed vets.

As usual, the Pentagon has dismissed the symptoms as "stress related" or "in your head." The Defense Department has issued official brush-offs in July of 1992, in March, June and December 1994, and in August 1995.

These official denials of a Gulf War Syndrome are being countered by vets groups and their supporters and by scientists. The Los Angeles Times reported in November 1995 that as many as ten times the expected number of birth defects and infant deaths among children of Gulf vets is perhaps caused by contamination in the Gulf. Uranium was among the possible culprits named by toxicologists who testified to Congress that contaminated men can pass toxic chemicals and genetic mutations directly to their children through sperm. "…as many as 65% of the children born to Gulf war soldiers are afflicted," according to some groups, the L. A. Times said.

One environmental pediatrician, comparing Gulf War babies with others, found a 30% rate of birth defects among the vets' children--"probably tenfold of what is in the normal population."

Complaining of what it called a "hodgepodge" of small-scale Pentagon studies of the vets' ailments, the Institute of Medicine (IOM)--associated with the National Institutes of Health (NIH)--demanded in January 1995 a large epidemiological study, and an end to wasteful, poorly designed research. Then in August the same year, the IOM, supported by Hillary Rodham Clinton, blasted the Pentagon, saying it hadn't supported its August 1, 1995 finding of "no evidence" of a single Gulf war Syndrome. Mrs. Clinton seemed to direct her criticism at an earlier NIH panel's claim (April 1994), that some potential causes of illness--such as DU or experimental drugs--"seemed less likely as major factors." Mrs. Clinton said, "No issue is off-limits and every reasonable inquiry should be pursued."

A service-related disability compensation bill that Congress passed in November of 1994, covers only those who registered a "chronic disability that became evident while in the Gulf." This eliminated diseases with latency periods.

The Veteran Affairs Department says that disability compensation for sick vets cannot be made to those with undiagnosed symptoms. This eliminated at least 6,450 sick vets, by the Army's own count, and it gives the Pentagon a vested interest in not finding a diagnosis for unexplained ailments and reproductive disorders.

In other words, this latest round of human radiation experimentation has consequences that--conveniently for the Pentagon--can be plausibly denied--if you want to be fooled.