Deadly, Dangerous and Indiscriminate
The Full Picture
Anne Gut and Bruno Vitale
Reviewed by Douglas Holdstock
When The Guardian's environment correspondent, Paul Brown, visited Iraq shortly after the 1991 war, it was to investigate its environmental consequences, such as oil burning. He was struck be the large number of burnt-out Iraqi tanks; his military escort enthused about the allies' wonderful new tank-buster weapons, missiles tipped with "depleted uranium" (DU). As Brown noted in his account, uranium is radio-active, though of low activity. Soon after, reports began of increased illness rates in both US and UK troops returning from service in the Gulf, and later of higher than normal leukaemia and other childhood cancers and birth defects in the Iraqi population in and around Basra. Despite claims from the military that the health risk from DU was low except for those who had gone into disabled tanks without protective clothing, DU was soon being directly blamed for these illnesses, and strident calls have persisted for DU weapons to be banned.
There is no doubt that DU is indeed radioactive, and that according to international regulatory bodies there is no safe dose of radiation; as a "heavy metal" (like lead or mercury) it is also a chemical poison. This book, first published from Switzerland in French, is a very thorough review of the uses, misuses and effects of DU on the body and the environment, in Iraq, former Yugoslavia and various test sites. It excludes Afghanistan and the most recent Gulf war where no reliable figures on its use have yet been published. These chapters are thoroughly referenced (so that the book may not be easy reading for the non-scientists) and mention many of the uncertainties surrounding the subject, as well as the certainties - some further confirmed since the book was written. For instance, the increased sickness rate (though not death rate) among GW veterans has been further confirmed, though there is apparently no definite "Gulf War Syndrome".
There is increasing concern that radioactivity from sources entering the body (such as inhaled DU dust) could be more dangerous than corresponding exposure to external radioactivity. (The report on this topic by the CERRIE committee set up by Michael Meacher, which should appear at about the same time as this review, will be of particular interest.) As Keith Baverstock, formerly of WHO, concluded at the recent low level radiation conference in Edinburgh, there is now a strong case for banning DU weapons under the Precautionary Principle.
As Andre Gsponer's contribution, written specially for the English version of the book makes clear, DU weapons do have considerable military utility - though I was not convinced by his conclusion that they are preferred as a forerunner of "forth generation" nuclear weapons rather than simply much cheaper than the alternative, tungsten. (DU is available in large amounts as waste from preparing uranium for nuclear reactors and warheads). Either way, it is more likely that they will not be given up willingly.
Moreover, the book says little about the many other possible causes for the illnesses in both veterans and Iraqi civilians - exposures including variously toxic smoke, multiple vaccinations, and chemical warfare protective agents. The insecticides sprayed inside the army tents are under suspicion of causes similar illnesses to "Gulf War Syndrome" in farmers. Recent evidence to Lord Lloyd's investigation into GW illnesses (which is being boycotted by the MoD) suggests that many veterans could have been exposed to low doses of chemical weapons released by bombing of Iraqi munitions dumps. The population of Basra could have been exposed to small amounts of the mustard gas (a know carcinogen), used by Iraq itself used not far a way in its war with Iran. To complicate matters still further, DU could be synergistic with any of these factors.
The effects of anti-personnel land mines are clear and immediate, and eventually, despite resistance from the military, led to their being banned by the Ottawa convention. As this book makes clear, there are still uncertainties about DU, and there may never be consensus between governments, their militaries, and its opponents. As so often in preventing the harm that comes from war, the best preventative measure still seems to be stopping the wars in which DU weapons might be used.
Price £7.99 - ISBN 0 85124 685 0
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