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2nd March 2001

Depleted Uranium Watch

Medical Consequences of Depleted Uranium

Dr. Helen Caldicott

On October 30, 1943 senior Manhattan Project scientists – the S-1 Executive Committee on the "Use of Radioactive Materials as a Military Weapon" – in a letter to General Leslie Groves, postulated that the inhalation of uranium would be followed by "bronchial irritation coming on in a few hours to a few days….Beta emitting products could get into the gastrointestinal tract from polluted water, or food, or air. From the air, they would get on the mucus of the nose, throat bronchi, etc. The stomach, caecum and rectum, where contents remain for longer periods than elsewhere would be most likely affected. It is conceivable that ulcers and perforations of the gut followed by death could be produced…" And so on. 

They could have been describing some of the acute medical affects experienced by the Gulf War veterans after they were exposed to depleted uranium, DU, now littering the former battlefields of the Gulf War and the Balkans – and in fact they were, although DU has half the
radioactivity of natural uranium as described above. 

DU is actually uranium 238, what's left after the fissionable element uranium 235 is extracted from the ore and used as fuel for weapons and nuclear reactors. 700,000 tons of this discarded radioactive material accumulated over the last 60 years throughout the United States until the American military discovered that it was valuable. Almost twice as dense as lead, it sliced through the armor of tanks like a hot knife through butter. As it was free and plentiful, DU bullets and shells would be cheap to make. But uranium 238 has dangerous properties. It is pyrophoric, bursting into flames when it hits tanks at great speed. The fire oxidizes the uranium, and up to 70% is converted into microscopic aerosolized particles to be inhaled into the small air passage of the lung where it can reside for many years. 

Because radioactive uranium 238 and its decay products are both alpha and beta emitters, as a carcinogen it can damage cells in the lung, bone, kidney, prostate, gut and brain causing cancer in those organs, as found in a 1999 review of US uranium workers conducted by the Department of Energy. Following inhalation it is solubilized and transferred from the lung to other organs, including liver, fat and muscle. Eventually it is excreted through the kidney where, because it is a heavy metal, it induces nephritis, a chronic kidney disease. Studies of Gulf War veterans find they are excreting uranium 238 in their urine and semen. It has been estimated that some 300,000 US veterans have been exposed to inhaled DU. 

Children in Iraq – where over 300 tons of DU in spent shells and aerosolized powder was left behind by the Allies – are reported to have a higher than normal incidence of malignancies and congenital malformations. Similar reports come from Bosnian and Kosovo hospitals, while some studies of children of American veterans seem to show a higher than normal incidence of congenital disease. 

The US Department of Energy recently admitted that contaminated uranium reprocessed from military reactors had been mixed with the "pure" DU at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion plant in Paducah, Kentucky. This contaminated uranium contains traces of neptunium, plutonium and uranium 236 – elements which are thousands of times more carcinogenic than the uranium. 

Uranium 238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, while neptunium 237 and plutonium 239 which are many times more carcinogenic than uranium, have half lives of some hundreds of thousands of years. Therefore, Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo are contaminated with carcinogenic radioactive elements forever. And because the latent period of carcinogenesis – the incubation time for malignancy, ranges from 5 to 60 years, it is almost certain that malignancies reported in the NATO troops and peacekeepers who served in the Balkans and the American soldiers and their allies who served in the Gulf, as well as civilians who live in these countries, are just the tip of the iceberg.  

References: British & European Press 
Pentagon documents 
Cancer data from uranium workers in US facilities 

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