Despite scant coverage in the U.S. media, a controversy over depleted-uranium ammunition used in the Gulf and Balkan wars has been raging in Europe. Several governments that provided troops for these conflicts fear that a rash of unexplained illnesses in veterans--including hemorrhaging, tumors and cancers--may have been caused by ammunition fired by U.S. warplanes.
Germany, Italy, Norway and the European Parliament have called for a moratorium on using the ammunition, while the World Health Organization has announced plans for a study of civilians in Kosovo and Iraq who may have been exposed. Last week, Pekka Haavisto, the head of the United Nations' investigation of depleted uranium, warned of the necessity to "closely follow the state of health" of those exposed to the ammunition in the Balkans.
Questions abound: Is there a causal link between depleted uranium and serious illnesses? What constitutes dangerous levels of exposure? How many soldiers and civilians have been exposed? How much plutonium is there in the ammunition?
One thing is certain: The Pentagon has inflamed the controversy by withholding information and stonewalling investigations. It is likely to remain a major headache for the Bush administration, especially for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Depleted uranium is a chemically toxic heavy metal that emits low-level alpha radiation. It is used in armor-piercing ammunition because it is extremely dense and pyrophoric, which enables it to punch and burn its way through hard targets such as tanks. But depleted uranium also contaminates the impact area with a fine depleted-uranium dust that presents a health hazard if inhaled in sufficient quantities. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, research on rats conducted by the military's Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute found that depleted uranium's chemical toxicity--not its radioactivity--may cause immune system damage and central nervous system problems and may contribute to the development of certain cancers.
Dr. David McClain, the military's top depleted-uranium researcher, told a presidential committee investigating Gulf War illnesses in 1999 that "strong evidence exists to support [a] detailed study of potential DU carcinogenicity." A separate Army-funded study conducted by the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, N.M., found that depleted uranium caused cancer when implanted in laboratory animals. While Fletcher Hahn, a senior scientist at Lovelace, cautioned about applying the findings to human beings, he also called the study "a warning flag that says we shouldn't ignore this."
Despite the military's own research, however, in recent weeks Pentagon spokesmen have dismissed concerns about depleted uranium as unscientific hysteria and propaganda. For example, Army Col. Eric Daxon recently attributed concerns about depleted uranium to "a purposeful disinformation campaign" by the Iraqi government. Yet, the Army anticipated the current controversy even before the war against Iraq. A July 1990 report from the U.S. Army Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command predicted that, "Following combat, the condition of the battlefield and the long-term health risks to natives and combat veterans may become issues in the acceptability of the continued use of DU [ammunition] for military applications." The report added that depleted uranium is "linked to cancer when exposures are internal."
Six months after the Army's prescient report, U.S. and coalition fighting forces charged into Kuwait and Iraq, oblivious to the hazards of the 320 tons of depleted-uranium ammunition shot by U.S. tanks and aircraft. When thousands of veterans reported myriad health problems after the war, a series of federal investigations queried the Defense Department about its use of depleted uranium. In each case, the Army Surgeon General's office asserted that only 35 veterans had been exposed, a number so small that it did not justify further research.
Through Congressional inquiry and the determined work of Gulf War veterans' advocates, however, the Pentagon was forced to dramatically increase its estimates of the number of veterans exposed to depleted uranium.
In January 1998, the Pentagon's Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses made a long-overdue admission: "Combat troops or those carrying out support functions generally did not know that DU contaminated equipment such as enemy vehicles struck by DU rounds required special handling. The failure to properly disseminate such information to troops at all levels may have resulted in thousands of unnecessary exposures."
The Pentagon's figure of "thousands" tells us little about the effects of depleted uranium on these veterans. Unfortunately, until 1998 the Department of Veterans Affairs accepted the Pentagon's original number and examined only 33 veterans exposed to depleted uranium. Some of these veterans continued to excrete depleted uranium in their semen and urine six years after the war. Several have mild central nervous system problems. The VA removed a bone tumor from one veteran who was wounded by DU shrapnel.
In the absence of an epidemiological study of a larger number of exposed veterans, however, no firm conclusions about the role of depleted uranium can be drawn. Unfortunately, the lack of candor has continued even after Kosovo. When the war ended, a United Nations task force asked NATO to identify areas contaminated with depleted uranium so that peacekeepers, civilians and relief workers might be warned about the potential hazard. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization inexplicably refused to comply with the request. In February 2000, eight months after the war, NATO finally confirmed that U.S. jets had released the equivalent of 10 tons of depleted uranium in Kosovo and Serbia. Another seven months passed before NATO disclosed the 112 locations of contamination. But it wasn't until last month--19 months after the bombing stopped--that NATO finally posted warning signs at the sites.
From all accounts, peacekeepers, civilians and relief workers in Kosovo were surprised to learn about depleted-uranium contamination in their midst. There, as in Iraq, children had long been playing on destroyed equipment. In addition, adults had scavenged destroyed equipment for usable parts and scrap metal.
European outrage increased when the U.N. disclosed that some depleted-uranium ammunition used in Kosovo contains plutonium and other highly radioactive elements. Pentagon spokesmen asserted that the amounts of plutonium in the ammunition are extremely low, but they have failed to publicly disclose the levels of plutonium in ammunition shot in Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq and Kuwait and on training ranges in Japan, Germany, Puerto Rico and the United States.
The Pentagon's history of withholding information about depleted uranium has fueled suspicions among many of our allies. Rumsfeld should try a new approach: ordering full disclosure of all information and complete cooperation with international investigations.