Radiation Warfare with Depleted Uranium: Human Consequences, Pentagon Lies
(Part 3 of 3)

By John LaForge, Nukewatch Staff

"History is likely to judge this military use of depleted uranium as the use of chemical and radiological warfare agents nominally to prevent Iraq from using them." This is the conclusion of Dr. Rosalie Bertell, the renowned epidemiologist, writing in NGO News & Views. (1)

The political, ecological, and medical consequences of using radioactive weapons against Iraq in 1991 are so explosive that the military kept its knowledge of depleted uranium (DU) hazards secret from soldiers. To hide its liability, the Pentagon conducted a public relations campaign promoting the ammo and the military still denies that U.S. troops were harmed by it.

DU weapons are the armor-piercing munitions made of toxic radioactive waste left over from the making of H-bombs and nuclear reactor fuel. DU is uranium-238, a radioactive heavy metal with a half-life of 4.5 billion years. It is misnamed because it's not depleted of uranium, but only missing the uranium-235 that was extracted during "enrichment." DU also contains radioactive thorium, protactinium and other radionuclides.

DU weapons were used massively against the Persian Gulf during the 1991, U.S.-led massacre of some 200,000 Iraqis. (There were 358 U.S. fatalities.) 300 metric tons of uranium-238 pollution was left by the bombing--mostly in southern Iraq--and will contaminate the soil, water and food chain of the region forever. Upon impact, the DU shells burn and disintegrate to uranium oxide dust and smoke that is carcinogenic and toxic. The exploded DU's microscopic air-borne particles can travel 26 miles on the wind. Hundreds of thousands of military personnel in the Gulf may have inhaled and/or ingested this extremely hazardous material.

DU Threats to Targets and Shooters

Dan Fahey, author of a 289-page "Case Narrative" on DU exposures, reports that a July 1990 study from the U.S. Army Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command, describes depleted uranium as a "low level alpha radiation emitter which is linked to cancer when exposures are internal, [and] chemical toxicity causing kidney damage." (1.2)

Bill Mesler reports in The Nation that the British Atomic Energy Authority warned that there was enough DU left behind in the Persian Gulf to account for "500,000 potential deaths" through increased cancer rates. This grim prognosis was based the estimate that Iraq was bombed with only 40 tons of DU. (2)

Mesler explains that "DU, unlike most metals, dissolves and is spread through the body, depositing itself in organs like the spleen and the brain." (3) Dr. Bertell notes that, "The expected health effects of chronic lung burdens of DU include fibrosis of the irradiated lung tissue, lung cancer, eventual entry of the DU into the blood over the subsequent years, with effects on liver and kidney, together with incorporation of DU into bone." The Army's Office of the Surgeon General published a "Depleted Uranium (DU) Safety Training" document August 16, 1993, which states that the expected effects from exposure include a possible increase of cancer (lung and bone) and kidney damage. (4)

Scientists and doctors, veterans groups and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) from around the world are compiling evidence of the human health effects of exposure to the 600,000 pounds of uranium-238 contamination that the U.S. spewed across the region.

Unpublished Iraqi government documents show a steep rise in cancer rates among Iraqi civilians in southern Iraq. The number of childhood leukemia cases is triple what it was before 1991. The incidence of miscarriage among 1,625 pregnant Iraqi women nationwide is 3.2 times greater if the father had been a soldier in 1991. (5) Iraqis scientists found DU in 36% of 154 plant-tissue samples from southern Iraq. Canadian and European scientists are seriously considering DU as a cause of certain cancers in the region that they say occur now five times as often as before 1991. (6)

More than 110,000 U.S. veterans of the Persian Gulf action have complained of unusual and often undiagnosed illnesses usually referred to as Gulf War Syndrome. Many of the symptoms are common to victims of radiation contamination: hair loss, bowel disruptions, chronic fatigue, asthma, skin disorders and reproductive problems among women partners of exposed vets such as miscarriages, infant mortality and birth defects. On March 25, 1998, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) said its doctors had found uranium in the semen of 5 of 22 veterans in its DU program. Uranium fragments had wounded the five men. (7)

Military Knew of DU Hazards and Kept Them Secret

The dire consequences of exploding radioactive ammunition in the Persian Gulf are hard to cover up. Still, the U.S. military is sticking to its story that the uranium-tipped shells it blew off across Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have not caused illnesses. Official Pentagon denials of responsibility for Gulf soldiers' ailments have been issued in March, June and December of 1994, August of 1995 and April and November of 1996. Only the VA has said that some of the veterans' health problems are related to DU exposure. (8)

Most recently--July 31, 1998--the Pentagon brass reported (contrary to the Army's finding that no DU dose is so small as to be risk-free) that, "In minute quantities, [DU] exposures will not produce harmful effects…" The lengthy report again concluded however that "medical and scientific research to date, have not established any relationship between DU exposures and the undiagnosed illnesses presented by some Gulf War veterans." (9) Such denials are proving to be lies.

"We have obtained documents that show the DOD was aware of the exposure of soldiers from DU when it burns, aware of the downwind spreading and incidental contamination hazard, and aware of the large number of military personnel that were exposed," said Chris Kornkven, president of the National Gulf War Resources Center. Indeed, the Kornkven's group has concluded that, "military commanders consciously ignored U.S. Army and Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations in place during Operation Desert Storm which required medical testing and care for vets exposed to DU. Denial of medical care for soldiers exposed to DU was so complete it applied even to soldiers wounded by DU fragments in "friendly fire" accidents. (10)

A report by the Army's Mobility Equipment, Research and Development Command concluded on March 7, 1979, over ten years before the Gulf bombing: "Not only the people in the immediate vicinity but also people at distances downwind from the fire are faced with potential over exposure to airborne uranium dust." Mesler also found that the Army's AMCCOM (radiological) task group found as early as 1990 that "long term effects of low doses [of DU] have been implicated in cancer…there is no dose so low that the probability of effect is zero." (10.5)

A 1990 study done for the Army by Science Applications International Corp. says that DU is "linked to cancer when exposures are internal, (and) chemical toxicity causing kidney damage."

At the VA Medical Center in Boston, Dr. Belton Burroughs and David Slingerland identified 14 veterans as having measurable DU in their lungs. Their testing was terminated and all records have since been supposedly "lost." (11)

As of August 1997, there were 91 federally funded studies of veterans' illnesses underway, but only two were focused on the effects of embedded depleted uranium shrapnel and not one was looking into the effects of inhaling or ingesting DU. (12)

The U.S. isn't the only government trying to cover-up DU's trail of illness. Two British veterans who are still sick from their Persian Gulf deployment acquired secret Ministry of Defense (MoD) papers that confirmed that the MoD was investigating possible links between DU and Gulf-related illnesses. These investigations were previously denied by MoD, and military police raided the homes of the two ex-soldiers. (13) In the former Czechoslovakia, the Defense Ministry was so alarmed about health problems among its soldiers who served in the Gulf that in 1991, it placed a lifetime ban on blood donations by the veterans. The military was obviously aware that soldiers were exposed to toxic, long-lived agents that had entered their bloodstream. (14)

DU Public Relations Campaign Fails

The Army's 1990 AMCCOM paper (above) recommended "public relations efforts" to prevent a possible "adverse international reaction."

A March 1, 1991 memo on the "Effectiveness of Depleted Uranium Penetration," written by Army Lt. Col. M.V. Ziehmn, Los Alamos National Laboratory says in part: "There has been and continues to be concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus be deleted from the arsenal." (14.5)

Dr. Asaf Durakovic was formerly the chief of nuclear medicine at the Wilmington, Delaware VA hospital. He has accused the VA of joining a "conspiracy of silence" to avoid liability for vets who may develop cancer. Durakovic says the Army is also afraid of being stuck with the cost of cleaning up the Persian Gulf. The discovery of these deliberate efforts to downplay the health effects of exposure to DU and to highlight, ironically, the weapons' killing power has energized veterans and their supporters and even congressional critics.

In addition, the Pentagon's "investigations" of Gulf-related illnesses have been attacked with unusually harsh criticism. A presidential advisory committee Sept. 5, 1997 called Pentagon studies "superficial" and charged that the military had a "pervasive inclination" to ignore evidence that didn't support its dismissive conclusions. (15) Both the presidential advisory group and on Oct. 25, 1997 the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, demanded that the Pentagon be stripped of all its authority to study the Gulf-related illnesses and that scientists independent from the military lead new studies. President Clinton has not acted. (16)

Doug Rokke, an Army Reserve Capt. who was the director of the Pentagon's DU Project, was outraged when the presidential advisory group concluded that it was "unlikely" that Gulf illnesses were caused by DU. Rokke said of the panel's finding, "It's a deliberate cover up." (17)

U.S. Senator Russ Feingold has also called for an independent study of DU effects of sick veterans. Feingold said last September that the Pentagon's conclusion that DU didn't cause harm to soldiers "contradicts numerous pre- and postwar reports, some from the U.S. Army itself." (18)

Under intense pressure, the Pentagon conceded in August 1997 that 112 soldiers had been exposed to dangerous levels of DU. Then on January 8, 1998 it surprisingly increased its estimate, saying that "thousands" of soldiers may have been exposed. (19)

Dan Fahey, a former naval officer with the veterans' service organization Swords to Plowshares said the admission raised a lot of new questions, for instance, 'How many thousands?' With roughly 110,000 U.S. veterans suffering Gulf related illnesses, Fahey said "We want the Pentagon to do what they finally did with Agent Orange: Give the benefit of the doubt to veterans, grant them benefits." (20) The U.S. must also lead the effort in aiding the affected populations of the Persian Gulf region where most DU contamination remains and lead the world in bringing about a ban on the use, production or stockpiling of this deadly, radioactive boomerang.


(1)Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Depleted Uranium: A Chemical and Radiological Warfare Agent Used Extensively in the Gulf War," NGO News and Views, #6, NGO Committee on Disarmament, Dec. 1997.
(1.2) Dan Fahey, "Case Narrative, DU Exposures," Swords into Plowshares, Nat. Gulf War Resources Center, Inc. & Military Toxics Project, Inc., Sept. 20, 1998, 289 pages.
(2) Bill Mesler, "The Pentagon's Radioactive Bullet," The Nation, Oct. 21, 1996.
(3) Ibid. (4) Ibid. note 1.
(5) The Wisconsin State Journal, March 22, 1998, p. A 12.
(6) The St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dec. 3, 1998.
(7) Ibid, note 1.2. (8) Ibid.
(9) "Environmental Exposure Report, Depleted Uranium in the Gulf," The Office of Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, DOD, July 31, 1998.
(10) Ibid, note 9.
(10.5) Bill Mesler, The Nation, "Pentagon Poison: The Great Radioactive Ammo Cover-Up," May 26, 1997.
(11) Ibid, note 1.
(12) The San Francisco Examiner, August 19, 1997.
(13) Early Warning, Newsletter of Greater Manchester CND, Manchester, UK, December 1998.
(14) The New York Times, Nov. 9, 1996.
(14.5) Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Depleted Uranium: A Chemical and Radiological Warfare Agent Used Extensively in the Gulf War," NGO News and Views, #6, NGO Committee on Disarmament, Dec. 1997.
(15) The New York Times, Sept. 6, 1997, P. A8.
(16) Philip Shenon, The New York Times, Oct. 26, 1997, "House Panel Critical of Pentagon Gulf War Syndrome Inquiry."
(17) The Wisconsin State Journal, March 22, 1998, p. A 12.
(18) The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sept. 4, 1998.
(19) The San Francisco Examiner, Jan. 9, 1998. (20) Ibid.

JOHN M. LaFORGE is co-director of Nukewatch, and edits its quarterly newsletter The Pathfinder.
His articles on nuclear weapons, reactors and wastes have appeared in The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Earth Island Journal, The Progressive, The Nonviolent Activist, Sociological Imagination and Z magazine.