In the areas
where depleted uranium was used in southern Iraq, a number of serious
health problems have emerged among both soldiers and civilians.
For instance, there has been a 66% increase in leukaemias and cancers
in southern Iraq. There has also been a marked increase in the
numbers of children born with birth malformations, with horrific reports
of 3 children in one family being born with severe congenital malformations.
There are also
large numbers of soldiers who served in the Gulf with Allied forces
and in the Iraqi army, who are now suffering from mysterious illnesses
- often referred to as Gulf War syndrome. Many of these illnesses
reflect those seen among Iraqi children and civilians. For example,
of the 697,000 US troops who served in the Gulf, over 90,000 have reported
medical problems. There are also defects reported among their newborn
children. In a veterans community in Mississippi, 67% of the children
were born with malformations.
The area of
southern Scotland used to test depleted uranium weapons has the highest
rate of childhood leukaemia in Scotland. The residents of the
flats in Amsterdam into which the El Al jet crashed in 1992 have also
reported mysterious illnesses (the jet had depleted uranium counterweights
- see CADU News issue 3).
we can point to these facts and statistics in relation to the use of
depleted uranium, it is impossible to prove a causal link. Just
as it is impossible for scientists to prove a causal link between the
leukaemia clusters around Sellafield nuclear power station, and radioactivity
released from the plant. It is not scientifically possible to
categorically state that depleted uranium has caused any particular
illness in any person - certainly, in relation to the Gulf War, there
were many other 'compounding' factors - other toxics present which could
be linked to illnesses.
What we can do though, is examine the toxic and radioactive properties
of depleted uranium, and the potential adverse effects resulting from
these - and place this alongside reported illnesses where depleted uranium
has been used.
Like other heavy metals,
depleted uranium is chemically toxic: it causes chemical poisoning of
the body, particularly to kidneys and tubules.
However, it is its radiological properties which cause the most concern.
On impact, depleted uranium burns and oxidises to form tiny ceramic
aerosol particles. These particles are between 1 and 5 microns
in size, which means they are easily breathed in. As they are ceramicised
depleted uranium, they are insoluble - they do not dissolve in bodily
fluids, and so are not easily flushed through the body and may remain
lodged in the lungs or other organs for years. It is also important
to note that these particles can be carried in air, by wind, or can
be disturbed by movement of vehicles or people. Tests have shown
they can be carried for at least 26 miles.
The Ministry of Defence, government scientists, among others, claim
that as depleted uranium is only of low level radioactivity, it is not
particularly dangerous. In fact, it is this type of thinking which
is dangerous, as they use a radioactive model based on the effects of
gamma and beta radiation, external to the body.
Depleted uranium, however, is an alpha particle emitter. Of all
the types of radiation alpha particles when released internally (ie
breathed in) are the most dangerous to living cells. They are the biggest
and most heavy of the three types of radiation. Because they can be
stopped by a piece of paper they are sometimes considered less dangerous
than beta (which need a centimetre of aluminium to stop it.) or gamma
(which need several feet of lead to stop it), but that is only when
they are outside of the body. As the Low Level Radiation Campaign
and other scientists have proved, an alpha source next to living tissue
can severely damage the DNA in the nucleus of the cell, cause mutations
and later cancers. On its way from the lungs to the bladder the depleted
uranium spends time in the blood and could get lodged in a capillary
or tissue anywhere in the body and cause cancer there. This is why depleted
uranium is so dangerous if it is in the body: particularly if it stays
there for many years.
Government scientists claim that the radioactivity dose received from
inhaling depleted uranium would not exceed the minimum radiation dose
permitted. However, this is because they take the effects of alpha
particles in one small section of body tissue, and average the harm
out over the entire body. Yet as shown above, the damage to this
small part can lead to cancers and mutations affecting the whole body.
The expected health effects of chronic lung burdens of depleted uranium
include fibrosis of the irradiated lung tissue, lung cancer, eventual
entry of depleted uranium into blood over subsequent years, with effects
on liver and kidney, together with incorporation of depleted uranium
into bone. When in bone, the uranium can irradiate the sensitive
stem cells which form the white blood cells, especially the monocytes.
Clinical manifestations of this toxicity include kidney and liver damage,
anaemia, depressed cellular immune system and general heavy metal poisoning.
Uranium can pass the placenta causing congenital malformation and can
be carried to the infant in mothers milk. It can damage the ovum and
sperm causing genetic damage.
when we look at the properties of depleted uranium, the effects it could
have on the body, and compare this with the medical problems among depleted
uranium workers, Gulf veterans, Iraqi civilians and so on, we cannot
rule out depleted uranium as one of the caues.
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