The Spoils of War
NEW YORK -- As the Bush administration prepares to make war on the Iraqi
people -- for it is the civilian population of that country and not Saddam
Hussein who will bear the brunt of the hostilities -- it is important that
we recall the medical consequences of the last Persian Gulf war. It was, in
effect, a nuclear war.
By the end of that 1991 conflict, the United States left between 300 and 800
tons of depleted uranium 238 in anti-tank shells and other explosives on the
battlefields of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The term "depleted" refers to the removal of the fissionable element uranium
235 through a process that ironically is called "enrichment." What remains,
uranium 238, is 1.7 times more dense than lead. When incorporated into an
anti-tank shell and fired, it achieves great momentum, cutting through tank
armor like a hot knife through butter.
What other properties does uranium 238 possess?
First, it is pyrophoric. When it hits a tank at high speed, it bursts into
flames, producing aerosolized particles less than 5 microns in diameter,
making them easy to inhale into the terminal air passages of the lung.
Second, it is a potent radioactive carcinogen, emitting a relatively heavy
alpha particle composed of two protons and two neutrons. Once inside the
body -- either in the lung if it has been inhaled, in a wound if it penetrates
flesh, or ingested since it concentrates in the food chain and contaminates
water -- it can produce cancer in the lungs, bones, blood or kidneys.
Third, it has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, meaning the areas in which
this ammunition was used in Iraq and Kuwait will remain effectively
radioactive for the rest of time.
Children are 10 to 20 times more sensitive to the effects of radiation than
adults. My fellow pediatricians in the Iraqi city of Basra, for example,
report an increase of six to 12 times in the incidence of childhood leukemia
and cancer. Yet because of the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United
Statesand the United Nations, they have no access to antibiotics,
chemotherapeutic drugs or effective radiation machines to treat their patients.
The incidence of congenital malformations has doubled in the exposed
populations in Iraq where these weapons were used. Among them are babies
being born with only one eye and with an encephaly -- the absence of a
However, the medical consequences of the use of uranium 238 almost certainly
did not affect only Iraqis. Some American veterans exposed to it are
reported, by at least one medical researcher, to be excreting uranium in
their urine a decade later. Other reports indicate it is being excreted in
That nearly one-third of the American tanks used in Desert Storm were made
of uranium 238 is another story, for their crews were exposed to whole body
gamma radiation. What might be the long-term consequences of such exposure
has not, apparently, been studied.
Would these effects have surprised U.S. authorities? No, for incredible as
it may seem, the American military's own studies prior to Desert Storm warned
that aerosol uranium exposure under battlefield conditions could lead to
cancers of the lung and bone, kidney damage, non-malignant lung disease,
neurocognitive disorders, chromosomal damage and birth defects.
Do President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul
Wolfowitz, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld understand the medical consequences of the 1991 war and the
likely health effects of the next one they are planning? If they don't,
their ignorance is breathtaking. Even more incredible, though, and much
more likely, is that they do understand but don't care.
Helen Caldicott, founder and president of the Nuclear Policy Research
Institute, has devoted 25 years to an international campaign to educate the
public about the medical hazards of the nuclear age. Her most recent book is
The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush's Military-Industrial Complex (The
New Press, 2002).
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun