BOSTON — 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."