Depleted Uranium: The Invisible Threat

New evidence that depleted uranium munitions may have sickened European and American soldiers who served in Kosovo and in the Gulf War is sparking a worldwide outcry. In 1999, the MoJo Wire was the first to report that the Pentagon had no plans to clean up the DU left behind in Kosovo, despite health concerns. Here’s the original story from our archives, along with more resources on DU.

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NATO’s continued bombardment of Yugoslavia had several stated goals, one of which was the safe return of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees. With refugees already pouring back over the borders, attention and concern now turn to the conditions facing returning refugees: bombed roads and bridges, burned villages, and an almost non-existent civil infrastructure. But there’s another potential problem: depleted uranium (DU). The Pentagon has confirmed that it used DU in Kosovo. It has also confirmed it has no plans to clean it up.

Depleted uranium is twice as heavy as lead. As a result, ammunition made from DU can pierce just about any armor. But while it’s an extremely effective an anti-tank weapon, DU does have a downside: It is radioactive and, in dust form, it can cause serious internal injuries.

A waste product of nuclear weapon manufacturing and reactor use, depleted uranium is only about half as radioactive as natural uranium. When used in combat, the uranium in the bullet or round ignites upon impact and, when it combines with oxygen, forms a toxic cloud of uranium oxide dust. Solid uranium is not harmful; DU is toxic only if the dust is inhaled or ingested, or if DU-contaminated shrapnel enters the body. Once oxidized, the dust — which remains toxic to those who may inhale or ingest it — settles in the immediate area and is also dispersed by wind and rain.

What risks does DU pose to returning refugees? It depends on who you ask. Predictably, the Pentagon denies that the DU used in Kosovo poses any danger to the refugees. Indeed, it cites a number of studies in support of its conclusion. But there are a number of critics who say, essentially, the Pentagon is lying. Significantly, one of the biggest critics of the Pentagon’s policy on DU is a former U.S. Army officer who was in charge of cleaning up DU after the Gulf War.

Doug Rokke served as the Theatre 12th Preventative Medicine Command health physicist with the 3rd U.S. Army Medical Command in the Persian Gulf War. Rokke had overall responsibility for radiological safety in the war, and his team was charged with the “clean up” of DU-contaminated battlefields and equipment in Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. His team never received any specialized training or protective gear.

Within two weeks of his return from duty in the Middle East, Rokke and the other members of his DU assessment team began developing health problems. “The Department of Defense doesn’t want to admit that DU is harmful because they don’t want the liability,” he says. In March of 1991, Rokke says he received a faxed memorandum from Lt. Col. Ziehmn of Los Alamos National Laboratory suggesting “that we didn’t ‘find’ anything that would disrupt the military’s use of depleted uranium. They were using it, period.”

In the past eight years, most of the original team has developed health problems, and some have died, according to Rokke. Rokke himself has had severe kidney and respiratory problems. A urinalysis conducted in March of 1994 — three years after he returned to the States — showed that the level of uranium present in his urine exceeded the normal level by more than 2,000 percent.

Lt. Col. Diane Lawhon, a spokesperson for the Pentagon’s Office of the Special Assistant for the Gulf War Illnesses [OSAGWI] acknowledges that DU weaponry gives off “minor radiation,” but says that the DU released in such “minute fragments … should not be a health concern for returning refugees.” According to Lawhon, “Uranium is all around us, in the air, the soil … when exposed [to DU] the body just assimilates it.”

The MoJo Wire received a faxed confirmation from Department of Defense press officer Lt. Col. Mike Milord that the Pentagon does not have plans to clean up the DU contamination in Kosovo: “No. It’s use has been minimal and we do not believe it poses any significant health risk.”

Rokke, of course, disagrees. The key to determining the danger posed to refugees, he says, is the quantity of DU used in Kosovo. That fact is impossible to determine given that the Pentagon refuses to release any information about its use of DU, beyond a general acknowledgement that it was used. However, by taking into account the number of sorties the A-10 Warthogs (the planes firing the DU bullets, according to the Pentagon) were flying per day, the estimated percentage of those sorties which actually fired DU rounds, and the number of rounds their guns hold, it is possible to arrive at an estimate. According to John Pike, a well-respected defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists “one could reasonably assume that we have fired at least 10,000 of [DU] rounds.”

Based on a conservative estimate of 10,000 fired rounds, the amount of DU used in the Gulf War was approximately 100 times greater than the amount used in Kosovo. But Rokke is quick to stress that the quantity of DU used in Kosovo would still “absolutely have a negative impact” on refugees that come in contact with contaminated areas: “Those areas need to be cleaned up, each of those rounds has to be cleaned up, or the stuff will just stay there forever.” Rokke cautioned that people cleaning up contaminated areas, unless provided with the proper protective clothing and training, may develop serious health problems.

Refugees returning to their villages may kick up and inhale the dust simply by walking; children playing on tanks or other destroyed equipment could inhale it or ingest it (if they put their hands in their mouths, for example); soil, surface water, and ground water may be contaminated. According to some critics, enough DU exposure would likely cause refugees increased cancers, possibly damage to internal organs (primarily kidneys), and birth defects.

Roy Farrell, an emergency physician on the National Board of Directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility, says that it’s difficult to know decisively what the long-term effects are, because not enough research has been done on depleted uranium in general.

However, Farrell points to Iraq as an example of the kind of effects combat use of DU can have on civilian populations. “Depleted uranium was used by U.S. and British forces in the Gulf War, and thousands of people were exposed to residual contamination.” Although downplayed by the Clinton administration and Western media, Iraqi physicians have reported sharp increases in cancers such as lymphomas and leukemia in Southern Iraq, as well as an increase in birth defects.

Daniel Fahey, a former Naval officer who is now the research director at the National Gulf War Resource Center (NGWRC), has conducted extensive research on depleted uranium. DU contamination poses a hazard to NATO troops and Kosovar civilians alike, Fahey says, unless they are provided with appropriate training and protective clothing. “You’re talking about something that should be stored as a radioactive waste, and [instead they’re] spreading it around other countries — and the Pentagon is saying there’s not a problem.”

While publicly claiming that DU is safe, the Army has quietly outfitted its men in full protective gear during DU testing. In the course of such testing at the Department of Energy’s Nevada test site in 1994 and 1995, Rokke and his team were outfitted with head-to-toe protective gear, including full-face respirators. “We were totally encapsulated — they taped us in,” he says.

Indeed, Rokke says his team received the go-ahead to bury six Bradley fighting vehicles — casualties of American “friendly fire” incidents — during the Gulf War cleanup. The vehicles were “scrap heaps,” Rokke says, and decontaminating them would have been impossible. They were buried in the sand instead.

While the Pentagon says that a clean up in Kosovo is simply unneccessary, there may be another factor in their decision: it’s too expensive. According to Fahey, a DU clean-up effort is Kosovo would be “very difficult and costly.” Tanks and other contaminated equipment would have to be wrapped in tarps and taken to decontamination sites. Additionally, the top layer of soil — roughly one foot deep — of all affected areas would have to be removed, “containerized” and disposed of properly. Likewise, all the rounds which missed their targets would have to be found and properly removed.

Fahey points to the Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana as an example of the prohibitive cost of such an effort. In 20 years of DU testing, roughly 150,000 pounds of uranium were discharged over the Ground’s 500 acres. The estimated cost for cleaning up that area was between $4 billion and $5 billion. “They’re not cleaning it up — [the Department of Defense] decided it was too expensive,” Fahey says.


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