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How harmful is depleted uranium?

Iraqis believe the radioactive substance from weapons is making people sick. The Pentagon says there's little to worry about.

Published May 25, 2003

BASRA, Iraq - There is no question 12-month-old Mohammed is a very sick child.

His skin has a ghostly pallor. His left eye is sealed shut by the huge tumor ballooning from his cheek.

Mohammed is dying of Hodgkin's disease, and Dr. Mohammed Al-Dorky has little doubt about the cause.

"DU," he says.

In the 1991 Gulf War, allied forces bombarded southern Iraq with weapons made of a radioactive substance called depleted uranium - DU for short. Al-Dorky and other Iraqi doctors are convinced that exposure to DU caused what they say has been an alarming increase in cancer and birth defects in recent years.

"We live in the same land, by the same river," Al-Dorky says. "The only difference is the Gulf War. I think DU is the main cause of these problems - even U.S. and British soldiers have suffered from the "Iraqi curse.' "

In the most recent war, American and British forces also used DU weapons and exposed thousands of other soldiers and civilians to its potentially harmful effects. And in doing so the allies revived an angry debate:

Is depleted uranium a major threat to health, as anti-DU activists claim? Or have its dangers been exaggerated, as the Pentagon insists?

"The issue has gone to polar extremes," says Dan Fahey, a Navy veteran and expert on DU. "The Pentagon has put a lot of PR effort into saying this is nothing to worry about. Then you have some of the activists saying the United States is using DU as an act of genocide to intentionally cause cancer and destroy the genetic future of the entire population. It's gone to hyperbole - it's worse than the Pentagon is saying but not as bad as a lot of activists are saying."

To date, there has been little study of DU's effects on humans, though tests on mice suggest it can cause cancer, reproductive disorders and other problems.

The U.S. military monitors only a small group of veterans who were exposed to DU in the '91 war. And Saddam Hussein's government never allowed the World Health Organization to investigate Iraq's sensational claims of DU-related illnesses and birth defects.

With the old regime gone and the latest war over, experts say it is time to get a better handle on DU.

"It is highly unsatisfactory to deploy a large amount of a material that is weakly radioactive and chemically toxic without knowing how much soldiers and civilians have been exposed to it," says Brian Spratt of the Royal Society, Britain's national science academy.

"One of the problems is that we don't have a lot of information about DU. And if we don't have that data it's very hard to start talking about what the health effects are."

Of the three types of uranium, two are fissionable and thus key in the making of nuclear bombs. The leftover material - depleted uranium - is valuable in other types of weapons because it is so dense and heavy.

At high speed, a shell containing DU can slice through tanks and other armored vehicles. It burns on impact, releasing particles that are toxic and remain radioactive for billions of years.

During the '91 Gulf War, the first time depleted uranium was used in combat, allied troops fired almost 1-million DU rounds. Most struck Iraqi targets, but the Pentagon later acknowledged that as many as 932 American soldiers had "moderate to heavy exposure" to DU when they were hit by friendly fire or inhaled contaminated dust.

Since 1993, a doctor at the Baltimore VA center has followed fewer than 100 of the vets, primarily those with DU fragments still embedded in their bodies. Her study found one case of Hodgkin's disease as well as a bone tumor.

"In a group of 50, 60, 70 people, you'd expect to see somebody having a cancer and the real question is, is that due to DU exposure?" asks Dr. Michael Kilpatrick of the Department of Defense Office of Health Affairs.

"These are the most highly exposed individuals and if you're not seeing anything there, expanding it to include all the others isn't going to add much to scientific knowledge."

But Fahey argues that the study size is much too small to be conclusive.

"Look at Agent Orange in Vietnam - they've followed every one of those guys and did detailed studies of those who handled it. But here you have 900 people definitely exposed to DU. I don't understand what the reluctance is on the part of the VA to bring all these in and start doing a health survey."

Although many veterans have complained about Gulf War syndrome, the most dramatic claims of DU-related problems come from the area around Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. Iraqi troops came under heavy fire here as they retreated from neighboring Kuwait in 1991.

Women who lived near the battlefields or whose husbands had fought in the Gulf War began having more babies with birth defects, doctors say. Some survived, usually those with cleft palates or missing limbs. Others were stillborn, including some with two heads, a single Cyclopean eye or such terrible malformities they barely appeared human.

"Pieces of meat," says Al-Dorky, chief of residents at Basra's maternity and pediatric hospital.

Researchers in Basra claim the number of birth defects has increased seven-fold since the Gulf War. Cases of childhood leukemia have doubled, they say.

But there have been no epidemiological studies, and one U.S. official said Hussein's regime might have exaggerated the health risks of DU hoping that allied forces would stop using it.

"The Iraqis tell us terrible things happened to our people because you used it last time," Col. James Naughton said in a media briefing in March. "Why do they want it to go away? They want it to go away because we kicked the c--- out of them - okay?"

Although the incidence of cancer and birth defects appears high in the Basra area, the link to depleted uranium is far from clear, experts acknowledge. Other factors could include industrial pollution, poor prenatal care and Hussein's use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war in the '80s.

Still, "there are important gaps in knowledge about the effect of DU on the human body," the World Health Organization has said.

A recent study by the Royal Society found that most soldiers and civilians are unlikely to be exposed to dangerous levels of DU during and after its use on the battlefield. Because DU is so heavy and dense - all 320 tons of it used in the Gulf War would fit inside a cube just eight feet wide - it tends to fall quickly to earth and stay near the point of impact.

But the study found that soldiers could suffer kidney damage and have a greater risk of lung cancer if they breathed substantial amounts of DU dust, especially from inside a tank hit by DU rounds.

The study also showed that soil where DU landed could be heavily contaminated and harm children if swallowed. Depleted uranium might also pose a long-term threat to civilians if it leached into water supplies.

"There may be many more pressing problems in Iraq at the moment, but we do think DU rounds that are in residential areas need to be identified and disposed of and that DU-contaminated tanks in residential areas need to be cordoned off," says Spratt of the Royal Society.

The British Ministry of Defense, whose troops were deployed in the Basra area, has agreed to publicize the location of sites where it used DU during the recent war. British soldiers returning from Iraq also will be offered tests to check for DU in their bodies.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is monitoring the health of an unspecified number of Marines whose vehicle came under friendly fire from DU weapons. But a Pentagon spokesman says there are no plans to clean up sites, even in heavily populated Baghdad where thousands of DU rounds rained down on the center of the city.

Fahey, the Navy veteran and DU expert, thinks the United States is reluctant to plunge too deeply into the DU controversy for fear it might be liable for enormous health care and environmental cleanup costs.

"The issue clearly has significant political overtones to it," he says. "Ideally, you'd get a respected team of scientists to go in there and do scientific studies. But I have a feeling this administration is not interested in allowing an outside group to come in and look at this issue."

- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified May 25, 2003, 01:30:37]

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