San Antonio Express-News

No direct hit against controversial weapon

by Howard Fienberg
March 31, 2000

We are up in arms over depleted uranium munitions. The U.N. Environment Program's Balkan Task Force recently confirmed that the United States used as many as 31,000 depleted uranium rounds during the Kosovo conflict.

What makes depleted uranium munitions so offensive? Unlike conventional weapons, they are both nuclear and toxic. Veterans groups link depleted uranium to the myriad symptoms of Gulf War illnesses.

However, reliable clinical and epidemiological data are hard to come by, and U.S. officials contend that the Iraqi government remains more interested in propaganda than the health of its people.

The process of refining raw uranium for use in nuclear power plants results in uranium "depleted" of most of its powerfully radioactive component. Depleted uranium, though radioactive, is not a nuclear weapon. But its extreme density makes it militarily beneficial as both armor and an armor-piercing munition.

Many military personnel were exposed to depleted uranium during the gulf war — and some during the conflict in Kosovo. Fortunately, the radioactivity is so faint that mere exposure to it poses little discernible health risk.

Unfortunately, war is not clean. Opponents of depleted uranium point out that when the shells explode into armor, a quantity of the depleted uranium burns and oxidizes into minute particles.

These particles create an airborne dust that can be inhaled or ingested. In addition to the danger posed by particles lodging in the lungs (which might eventually lead to cancer), uranium is toxic and can lead to kidney failure and other health problems.

But lead, tungsten and other metals used in armor and armaments are also unhealthy to ingest and are more common sources of adverse wartime health effects.

A U.S. presidential oversight board reported that "the available evidence does not support claims that depleted uranium is causing the undiagnosed illnesses some gulf war veterans are experiencing."

Similarly, a report from Rand, the independent think tank, for the Department of Defense, showed an extremely low likelihood of long-term ill health effects from depleted uranium.

But some do not accept these conclusions. Last year, the International Institute of Concern for Public Health claimed their clinical study of 16 veterans "proved" uranium poisoning. Another scientist, Dr. Hari Sharma, has been researching depleted uranium for the Military Toxics Project.

Sharma has personally asked NATO heads of state to stop using depleted uranium because he believes it has resulted in 20,000 to 100,000 fatal cancers in gulf war veterans and Iraqi citizens. But his research, despite a BBC report to the contrary, is neither complete nor published.

"We have to add a good bit of data and therefore, we have to collect samples for analysis from the vets and the civilian population before we have something worthwhile," said Sharma.

Not only should the public beware researchers who make excessive use of the word "proof," they should wait to see the study survive the peer-review process and publication in an established scientific journal. Neither has been achieved yet.

Opponents of depleted uranium so far lack the ammunition needed to score a direct hit. The majority of evidence shows depleted uranium a weapon more effective, but no more dangerous, than most other instruments of destruction.

Howard Fienberg is research analyst with the Washington-based Statistical Assessment Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization researching science and the media.

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