Spoils of War
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YORK -- As the Bush administration prepares to make war on the Iraqi people --
for it is the civilian population of that country and not
Saddam Hussein who will bear the brunt of the hostilities -- it is important
that we recall the medical consequences of the last Persian Gulf war. It was, in
effect, a nuclear war.
the end of that 1991 conflict, the United States left between 300 and 800 tons
of depleted uranium 238 in anti-tank shells and other explosives on the
battlefields of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
term "depleted" refers to the removal of the fissionable element
uranium 235 through a process that ironically is called "enrichment."
What remains, uranium 238, is 1.7 times more dense than lead. When
into an anti-tank shell and fired, it achieves great momentum, cutting through
tank armor like a hot knife through butter.
other properties does uranium 238 possess?
it is pyrophoric. When it hits a tank at high speed, it bursts into flames,
producing aerosolized particles less than 5 microns in diameter, making them
easy to inhale into the terminal air passages
it is a potent radioactive carcinogen, emitting a relatively heavy alpha
particle composed of two protons and two neutrons. Once inside the body --
either in the lung if it has been inhaled, in a wound if it penetrates flesh, or
ingested since it concentrates in the food chain and contaminates water -- it
can produce cancer in the lungs, bones, blood or kidneys.
it has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, meaning the areas in which this
ammunition was used in Iraq and Kuwait will remain effectively radioactive for
the rest of time.
are 10 to 20 times more sensitive to the effects of radiation than adults. My
fellow pediatricians in the Iraqi city of Basra, for example, report an increase
of six to 12 times in the incidence of childhood leukemia and cancer. Yet
because of the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United States and the United
they have no access to antibiotics, chemotherapeutic drugs or effective
radiation machines to treat their patients.
incidence of congenital malformations has doubled in the exposed populations in
Iraq where these weapons were used. Among them are babies being born with only
one eye and with an encephaly -- the
of a brain.
the medical consequences of the use of uranium 238 almost certainly did not
affect only Iraqis. Some American veterans exposed to it are reported, by at
least one medical researcher, to be excreting uranium in their urine a decade
later. Other reports indicate it is being excreted in their semen.
nearly one-third of the American tanks used in Desert Storm were made of uranium
238 is another story, for their crews were exposed to whole body gamma
radiation. What might be the long-term consequences of such exposure has not,
apparently, been studied.
these effects have surprised U.S. authorities? No, for incredible as it may
seem, the American military's own studies prior to Desert Storm warned that
aerosol uranium exposure under battlefield conditions could lead to cancers of
the lung and bone, kidney damage, non-malignant lung disease, neurocognitive
disorders, chromosomal damage and birth defects.
President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul
Wolfowitz, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld understand the medical
of the 1991 war and the likely health effects of the next one they are planning?
they don't, their ignorance is breathtaking. Even more incredible, though,
and much more likely, is that they do understand but don't care.
Caldicott, founder and president of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute,
has devoted 25 years to an international campaign to educate the public about
the medical hazards of the nuclear age. Her most recent book is The New Nuclear
Danger: George W. Bush's Military-Industrial Complex-The New Press, 2002)
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