When the dust settles on Afghanistan, will it be full of depleted uranium?

There are serious and unanswered questions as to the military use of depleted uranium (DU) in Afghanistan; questions which none of the mainstream media are addressing. Dr. Dai Williams, an independent researcher, has concluded that, despite MoD denial, it is highly likely that the new generation of hard target guided weapons contain DU, possibly as a component of a dense metal alloy. These weapons, part of the Hard or Deeply Buried Defeat Capability Program, achieve their effectiveness by increasing the area/density ratio of the new advanced unitary penetrator warheads. The only metals capable of this are DU or tungsten or a combination of the two. DU has the advantage over tungsten of being considerably less expensive and burning spontaneously on impact at an intense heat of 2000 degrees which carbonises anyone in its range. The heat transforms much of the uranium into minute, insoluble, radioactive particles which can then be ingested or inhaled. There have been reports from Afghanistan of a ‘strange metal’ appearing in bombed areas and Afghan doctors are concerned about the incidence of radiation induced illnesses. 10 – 15 patients have been cited. A 10-year-old boy was described as having superficial wounds and respiratory problems. He died after six hours. A 50-year-old woman who had minor injuries also died. ‘They were both toxic cases,’ Dr. Wazir said. ‘We don’t have the ability to make a diagnosis, but clinically we see symptoms as such.’ Another report referred to three other patients who only had slight injuries but died within hours of arriving at the hospital after developing breathing problems and internal bleeding. Radioactive particles also affect the immune system. Following the bombardment of both Kosovo and Iraq, there were immediate epidemics of flu-like symptoms and in Iraq a rise in meningitis. Symptoms such as these may well go unnoticed in Afghanistan as many will die through the winter from a generally weakened condition. The first cancers, leukaemia and birth defects usually appear within a year. Neighbouring countries may also be affected. The prevailing wind would carry the dust toward western China and the contamination of the water systems may affect Pakistan. In Iraq and Kosovo DU has entered both the surface water and food chain. This could be even more serious in Afghanistan if DU was used to bomb the ‘qanats’, the ancient water tunnels in the southern mountains. In January 2001, Dr Repacholi from the World Health Organisation argued that inhaling ‘ultra-fine particles could lead to a theorectical risk of cancer’. He also warned that:

‘In arid regions, most DU remains on the surface as dust. It is dispersed in [non-arid] soil more easily, particularly in the areas of higher rainfall. Children rather than adults may be considered to be more at risk of DU exposure when returning to normal activities within a war zone through contaminated food and water, since typical hand-to-mouth activity of inquisitive play could lead to high DU ingestion from contaminated soil.’

The most dangerous time in Afghanistan will be the spring. When the snow and ice melts hundreds of tons of DU oxides could be recycled into the environment and it is perhaps significant that the US troops will not be around to take part in any clean up operation. Kenneth Bacon, an American Defense Department spokesperson, stated in October, ‘We obviously put out instructions about avoiding Depleted Uranium dust. Our troops are instructed to wear masks if they’re around what they consider to be atomised or particle-sized Depleted Uranium’. Repeated questions to the British parliament have been answered with absolute denials that DU has been used at all. Dr. Lewis Moonie, the minister responsible for DU and veterans affairs, wrote in a letter to Sir Paul Beresford MP, that ‘Whether DU is used in munitions for the United States forces is a matter for the US Government.’and that the ‘the Ministry of Defence cannot confirm the specific compositions of these types of munitions’. That it might also be a matter for UK troops currently being sent out to the region and for whom he is directly responsible did not apparently occur to Dr Moonie, but then he believes that there is ‘no scientific or medical evidence linking DU with the ill health of Gulf veterans or with ill health in Balkan peacekeepers’.

The controversy over the dangers of internal low level radiation is, however, now on the political agenda. The UK Departments of Health and of the Environment have set up a new Working Group to investigate the health effects of internal radiation. This is the Consultative Exercise on Radiation Risk from Internal Emitters (CERRIE). It means that NRPB’s risk factors are in effect under review. Announcing the Working Group in July, Environment Minister Michael Meacher said:

‘There are significant differences of view among experts about the precise impacts of the internal ingestion of radionuclides and these need to be resolved. This new Working Group will reach across all parties in the debate on risks of radiation, to assess the impact and reach a consensus on whether the current risk models continue to be valid.’

According to many independent experts, low level alpha emitting particles which damage but do not directly kill the cell, would seem to be a major cause of the cancers, birth defects and immune deficiency syndromes that are besetting both military personnel and civilians in DU affected areas. Tests done in Berlin, show that some Gulf War veterans, with high levels of DU in the body, have three times the chromosome damage as people living in the vicinity of Chernobyl. As depleted uranium is a waste product of the nuclear industry, the results of this enquiry may have massive implications for the future of nuclear power and both civilian and military use of DU. Many fear that the mixing of DU with other dense metals in the civilian as well as the military sector, is an attempt to disguise its widespread use in the face of increasing public concern.

In the absence of any explicit information from the US/UK governments, the truth about the use of DU in Afghanistan may only be known if or when the hospitals begin to fill with unprecedented numbers of cases of childhood leukaemia, congenital multiple malformations, thyroid malfunction, rare kidney disorders and all such manifestations of internal radiation damage. It is hard to see how an already over burdened health service could cope and, as in Iraq and the Balkans, many would be left to suffer in poverty and pain.

The news just before new year that the al-Qa’ida were stockpiling uranium near to Kandahar Airport was just the beginning of a strange series of reports, culminating in the admission that DU was used by the allies. The big question, is where did this DU or uranium come from. DU researchers believe that the Afghanis neither had the knowledge or facilities to separate U-235, nor did they have the facility for producing radioisotopes. One possible scenario is that the US provided these materials when they were funding the fight against the Soviet Union. The other question is what benefit would the Taliban have in contaminating their own territory or their own fighters for that matter, especially in the more conservative villages of the Kandahar region? A more realistic explanation is that the allies have planted the material to explain away their own high level usage during bombing. These tactics of switching blame are not new, and were used against Iraq in 1991, over the use of chemical weapons and the release of radioactive materials. The more widesread cover up of the DU issue has already involved serious intimidation and harassment of veterans, journalists, scientists and activists.