Saturday, August 27, 2005

Weapons of Slightly Delayed Mass Destruction 

Courtesy of our stalwart colleagues at Cursor: Dave Lindorff last week reported on a growing movement by state legislatures to test returning National Guardsmen for exposure to depleted uranium. Now, in a follow-up article for In These Times, Lindorff lays out the potential consequences of DU contamination for American troops and Iraqi civilians alike -- consequences the Pentagon refuses to acknowledge. “DU is a war crime. It’s that simple,” says Dr. Doug Rokke of the University of Illinois. “Once you’ve scattered all this stuff around, and then refuse to clean it up, you’ve committed a war crime”:
[New York National Guardsman] Gerald Matthew, 31, decided that since he’d spent much of his time in Iraq lugging around DU-damaged equipment, he’d better get tested too. It turned out he was the most contaminated of them all.

Matthew immediately urged his wife to get an ultrasound check of their unborn baby. They discovered the fetus had a condition common to those with radioactive exposure: atypical syndactyly. The right hand had only two digits . . . .

The Pentagon has expanded DU beyond tank and A-10 shells, for use in bunker-busting bombs, which can spew out more than half a ton of DU in one explosion, in anti-personnel bomblets, and even in M-16 and pistol shells. The military loves DU for its unique penetration capability—it cuts through steel or concrete like they’re butter.

The problem is that when DU hits its target, it burns at a high temperature, throwing off clouds of microscopic particles that poison a wide area and remain radioactive for billions of years. If inhaled, these particles can lodge in lungs, other organs or bones, irradiating tissue and causing cancers.

Worse yet, uranium is also a highly toxic heavy metal. Indeed, while there is some debate over the risk posed by the element’s radioactive emissions, there is no debate regarding its chemical toxicity. According to Mt. Sinai pathologist Thomas Fasey, who participated in the New York Guard unit testing, the element has an affinity for bonding with DNA, where even trace amounts can cause cancers and fetal abnormalities.

Dr. Doug Rokke, a health physicist at the University of Illinois who headed up a Pentagon study of depleted uranium weapons in the mid ’90s after concerns were raised during the Gulf War, concluded there was no safe way to use the weapons. Rokke says the Pentagon responded by denouncing him, after earlier commending his work.

No one knows how many U.S. soldiers have been contaminated by DU residue. Despite regulations authorizing tests for any military personnel who suspects exposure, the U.S. military is avoiding doing those tests—or delaying them until they are meaningless . . . .

At the war’s start, the United States refused to allow U.N. or other environmental inspectors to test DU levels within Iraq. Now the United Nations won’t even go near Iraq because of security concerns.

“It doesn’t seem right that we are poisoning the places we are supposed to be liberating,” [Sgt. Ray] Ramos says.

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