The Hidden Killer

child's drawing of a plane dropping bombs
by Reese Erlich

During the Persian Gulf War, the United States and Britain fired 320 tons of depleted uranium (DU) ammunition. And the United States is using depleted uranium ammunition again in the current war with Iraq. Critics say an inordinate number of children exposed to DU—even years later—get cancer, and many are born with birth defects. The Pentagon says DU poses no danger to civilians. read more
"That's how they destroy a peaceful nation," said the 11-year-old who drew this picture. Originally from Grozny, the young person now lives as a refugee in Ingushetia. Learn more about these drawings

a young Iraqi girl in a hospital bed
A girl diagnosed with a tumor undergoes treatment at the children's hospital in Basra, Iraq. Doctors there blame the increasing number of childhood cancers on the US use of depleted uranium ammunition. Pentagon officials insist that DU doesn't harm civilians and that the cancers and birth defects may have been caused by the use of poison gas in the Iran-Iraq war. Photo by Reese Erlich.

Doctors in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia believe DU has had a dramatic impact on children of war in those regions.

Dr. Asad Eesa, chief resident at the children's and maternity hospital in Basra in southern Iraq, recently treated an 8 1/2-year-old girl who lives in an area where depleted uranium ammunition was fired during the Gulf War.

Her prognosis is poor.

"She has an abdominal tumor, neural plastoma, near the kidney," said Eesa, as the crying little girl sat on the floor of a hospital corridor with her mother. "Surely she will die."

Why Depleted Uranium?

The United States and Britain use such ammunition because it is denser than lead, meaning it is highly effective in slicing through enemy armor. But when DU hits a hard target, it creates a small, radioactive fireball. Pulverized dust can enter the air, soil, and water. And it remains radioactive for billions of years. Iraqi doctors blame many childhood cancers and birth defects on the use of depleted uranium.

"After the war we immediately saw malignancies and congenital abnormalities," Eesa said. "We didn't see it before. There [have been] no changes in Iraqi conditions except the war. Iraq was bombed by air with weapons containing DU. It is one of the major factors for development of malignancies."

Iraqi doctors report a fourfold increase in birth defects since the end of the Gulf War and a similar rise in childhood cancers. Doctors in former Yugoslavia, where the United States also used DU, have discovered similar problems.

The US Military View

Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, the deputy director at the Pentagon's Deployment Health Support Directorate, acknowledged that serious medical problems exist among Iraqi children, but says DU doesn't harm civilians because the fine dust doesn't disperse very far. He said the cancers and birth defects may, in fact, have been caused by poison gas used in the Iran-Iraq war.

"The allegations that this is from the Gulf War do not seem to be credible," he said. "Some of this population during the Iran-Iraq war was exposed to a mustard agent. A mustard agent can cause cancers in children born of people exposed.... That would have to be studied to see if it's a cause of some of the illness being seen."

But that's not what another military expert believes.

Major Doug Rokke, now retired, was in charge of cleaning up American tanks hit by DU during the Gulf War—casualties of friendly fire. He said the DU dust got blown far away by the wind and entered the soil and water supply. Dr. Rokke, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, said many of the men in his cleanup crew developed the same kinds of cancers seen among Iraqi children.

"The first member of our staff to develop cancer was sleeping downwind from where we collected the contaminated equipment," he said. "This was in Saudi Arabia. He developed cancer of the larynx and throat within nine months. He was breathing in the dust, which we know goes tremendous distances. The first lung cancers were within two years and the first deaths were fairly rapid."
When DU hits a hard target, it creates a small, radioactive fireball.
mother holding a child in an Iraqi hospital
A young cancer patient at the children's hospital in Basra, Iraq. Photo by Reese Erlich.

"The use of uranium munitions is going to cause the children of Iraq."
child drawing of girl on crutches standing in front of shelled buildings amidst flowers growing out of a bomb in the ground
This sketch by an 11-year-old, who lives in a war zone, includes a drawing of flowers growing out of an unexploded bomb.
Learn more about these drawings


Children More Vulnerable

Dr. Rokke believes depleted uranium poses a particular danger for children because their young bodies are more vulnerable. DU is both radioactive and a toxic, heavy metal. Children who breathe or eat even a small amount can be affected. He said using depleted uranium in Iraq may well cause serious health problems in years to come.

"In no circumstances should the citizens of the world allow the use of uranium munitions in this current war," he said. "The use of uranium munitions is going to cause cancers, respiratory [problems], eye problems, neurological problems in the children of Iraq."

While something is terribly wrong with the children of southern Iraq, no one has conducted a thorough epidemiological study that links the problems directly to DU. Even critics of US policy concede that the use of poison gas or heavy air pollution could also be causing health problems. That's why developments in former Yugoslavia are so intriguing.

The United States also used DU ammunition in the Bosnia and Kosovo wars. Pediatricians in Sarajevo now report a fivefold increase in childhood leukemia.

Dr. Nada Cicmil-Saric, a medical oncologist, treats Bosnian families who lived near a bridge hit by DU ammunition in 1994.

"The bridge has been completely destroyed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Eight years after this we observe some families who live quite close to this bridge," she said. "The increase in leukemias in childhood really exists."

Dr. Cicmil-Saric also reports a five- to sixfold increase in breast cancer, which is not known to be caused by DU. So, as in Iraq, there may be a number of other factors at work.

But the governments of Serbia and Montenegro aren't waiting for conclusive scientific proof. They are taking steps now to clean up the depleted uranium and protect their children.

War's Lingering Effects

In Cape Arza, a spectacularly beautiful area just south of Dubrovnik along the Adriatic coast, US planes fired DU ammunition in the closing days of the Kosovo war. The DU remains buried in the soil.

Physicist Tomislav Andelic is in charge of removing the DU, along with all the contaminated soil.

Andelic ran a Geiger counter over the ground until finding a bullet fragment.

"This is one larger fragment," he said. "He is destroyed practically. When he hit the stone, he broke. Lots of little particles oxidizing, which is a real danger."

The DU is dangerous because as it decomposes, the dust can fly into the air or seep into the water table. Children handling the fragments on the surface could face serious health problems, said Dr. Andelic.

"Somebody may come in the future, spread a tent, and endanger his life if the area is not cleaned up. There's also the possibility that children, out of curiosity, could find a uranium bullet and pick it up. Then we would face a big problem."

The Serbian government also plans to clean up five sites where DU was used during the Kosovo war, at a cost of about $400,000 for each site.

Entering a shed where the DU fragments are stored, Dr. Andelic said no one in the international community will help.

"If any country or any organization recognized the need for cleaning depleted uranium, it would automatically mean that they recognized the danger of using DU," he said. "If this happened, we could have damage claims in the courts, and nobody is ready to accept this."

While the Pentagon continues to insist that DU poses no danger to children and other civilians, the Marines and Navy say they have replaced DU with other kinds of ammunition, and the Air Force plans to do the same. That could help the children of future wars, but it is of little solace to those in Iraq and former Yugoslavia.

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