'There is no safe level of exposure and there is no dose of (ionizing) radiation so low that the risk of a malignancy is zero."
"The Veterans Administration seems always on the defensive to make sure the victims are not compensated."
These quotes by Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, one of the founders of the field of health physics who also served as radiation safety director at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory from 1944 to 1971, provide a context for a discussion of depleted uranium - DU.
DU, perhaps a deliberately innocuous name for a low-level radioactive waste product from uranium enrichment, is an extremely dense hard metal that is chemically toxic. Probably because it is so dense and burns upon impact and is also essentially available free of charge as a waste product, the U.S. military chose to use DU in armor for tanks and in armor-piercing shells know as DU penetrators. These penetrators are also radiologically hazardous since, upon burning, they create tiny aerosolized glass particles that can be inhaled or ingested. The U.S. military's use of DU weapons in its attacks on Iraq, in the Balkans and possibly in Afghanistan has caused controversy because of DU's likely adverse health and environmental effects.
Those most likely to be affected are soldiers and civilians (especially children and newborns) who live in the regions where DU weapons are used. As usual, the U.S. has not shown much concern about the 'other', but it has paid lip service regarding the health of its forces and returning veterans. However, in terms of examining the effects of depleted uranium on veterans, a key problem is that the Pentagon and the VA haven't conducted the necessary studies nor have they used appropriate procedures in the limited testing that has been done. "The military's policy is don't look, don't find," said Dan Fahey, a Navy veteran in the Persian Gulf and DU activist. Fahey added: "If they don't do proper studies of veterans, they can say there is no evidence of adverse health effects." It is shocking that the U.S. treats its soldiers in this fashion.
Fahey also pointed out in a 2002 presentation that the U.S. government is clearly afraid of what it would find if it were to conduct the long-term studies of those exposed to weaponized uranium waste. Unfortunately the situation with weaponized uranium waste is very comparable to that of the appalling Agent Orange cover-up by the U.S. government against the interest of the U.S. Vietnam vets as well as the Vietnamese population.
Early studies conducted by the military clearly showed that weaponized uranium waste was a major concern. For example, according to an article at commdreams.org on March 27, 2005, by Lucinda Marshall:
"In 1990, U.S. Army Armaments, Munitions and Chemical Command reported that depleted uranium is a 'low-level alpha radiation emitter, which is linked to cancer when exposures are internal.' AMCCOM's radiological task group also pointed out that the '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.' The risk to our own military personnel was spelled out in a 1993 letter from the U.S. Army Surgeon General stating that, 'When soldiers inhale or ingest DU dust, they incur a potential increase in cancer risk.' And in 1995, a U.S. Army U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute report to Congress says that depleted uranium has the potential to generate 'significant medical consequences.'"
In addition to the Army studies, there are numerous animal studies (including many conducted by the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute) and other experiments suggesting that exposure to radioactive substances are dangerous to human health. A report by Drs. Arjun Makhijani and Brice Smith on the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Web site offers a good summary of the potential health effects of DU. An article by Dr. Rosalie Bertell on the International Institute of Concern for Public Health site provides a good overview/summary of how weaponized uranium waste likely causes health problems. Another very good and detailed report by Gretel Munroe that examined health effects of DU is found at www.miltoxproj.org/Health%20Effects%20of%20DU%2010-25-04%20RTF.rtf. A relevant conclusion is that:
"Without more epidemiological studies, those who think DU is not harmful will not be convinced. However there are many signs on the cellular level, in animal models and even indications in some human studies that DU is harmful whether due to DU's chemical toxicity, its radioactivity or both."
These many well-done studies are strongly suggestive of numerous health problems being associated with exposure to weaponized uranium weapons that have been used in combat. Even though some branches of the U.S. military claim that these weapons are necessary, the fact that the U.S. Navy stopped using DU in favor of tungsten suggests that this claim is false. In addition, Fahey pointed out that the U.S. military destroyed the overwhelming majority of Iraqi tanks in 1991 with conventional weapons. Given the potential for large-scale health problems and the lack of a real need for DU weapons, these studies call into question the continued use of DU weapons. Therefore we are calling for a ban on further use of DU weapons until the research called for above has been conducted and the results are known.
Ron Forthofer, Dick Williams and Gretchen Williams are residents of Boulder County.
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