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Depleted uranium, first used in Iraq, deployed in Bosnia.

The Army is taking a critical second look at the risks involved in using depleted uranium, the controversial radioactive component of one of its most common conventional weapons systems, but not in time to prevent its use in Bosnia.

U.S. soldiers are hauling more than 100 depleted uranium-armed and plated MIAI Abrams main battle tanks into Bosnia, where it is unclear whether the government has been told of the environmental hazards posed by the use of those weapons.

While calling for more information on the health and environmental consequences of using depleted uranium, or DU, the summary of an Army document on DU expected to be made public next month concludes: "To give the U.S. soldier the best battlefield advantage, the United States must continue fielding superior weapon systems."

In the first battlefield use of DU (NCR, Aug. 8, 1995), during Operation Desert Storm,. shells loaded with the highly toxic, radioactive byproduct of the uranium enrichment process did prove their superiority in penetrating tank armor. But one problem for the Army was that some of the armor and people hit by U.S.-fired DU shells were American.

Fourteen Abrams tanks and 15 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which are equipped with protective DU plating, were hit by so-called "friendly fire," and 22 male soldiers are known to have as many as 30 DU fragments each still embedded in their bodies, according to the Army document.

In addition, scores of ill-equipped U.S. soldiers charged with cleaning up the damaged vehicles unknowingly handled and breathed DU, which dissolves into a fine aerosol after it is fired and easily becomes airborne again each time it is disturbed.

Battlefields in Iraq have been left with dangerous soil and groundwater DU contamination that health officials there believe is leading to mysterious new birth defects and high levels of illness and death among young children. In numerous trips to Iraq since the war, a German researcher, Dr. Siegwart Horst Gunther, has seen a startling increase in the number of children dying from kidney and liver disease, which the Iraqi government now ranks as the fourth and fifth causes respectively of death among children under age 5.

The Pentagon maintains that in its benign state surrounded by a protective shield, as it is in armor and ammunition, DU emits levels of radioactivity that fall within federally established safety standards. But according to the Encyclopedia of Environmental Health and Safety, depleted uranium can "greatly increase the risk of cancer" if even a few microscopic particles make their way into the kidneys or lungs. And when that happens, according to the Army, DU "delivers radiation exposure to the site of contact as well as to other organs in the body to which uranium migrates."

Also, because DU is mixed with magnesium, which occurs naturally in the human body, some scientists say that allows it to freely cross the placenta and can lead to birth defects.

After the Gulf War, the U.S. Army was hit with more friendly fire from the General Accounting Office. In a January 1993 report, the GAO determined that Army personnel had not been adequately trained in the use and handling of DU munitions after soldiers told GAO investigators they had no idea they'd been handling radioactive material. Some speculated their ingestion or inhalation of DU particles was responsible for an array of postwar flulike symptoms as well as fatigue, memory loss, bloody stools and rashes.

The GAO report concluded that the Army was not prepared to deal with DU contamination. The Army concurred with the findings.

The DU issue caught the attention of lawmakers on Capitol Hill when the British Atomic Energy Authority warned of possible long-term consequences of leaving DU on the battlefield. (Like Russia, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Thailand and France, Britain uses DU weapons.) So Congress asked the Army's Environmental Policy Institute to study the health and environmental consequences of the use of DU, remediation technology that exists or could be developed to clean up DU contamination and how best to protect the environment from DU use.

The Army has completed its response to that question and is currently briefing top-level defense officials before the document is made public in about a month, according to Col. Hugh Wolfe, assistant to the Army's deputy assistant secretary for environmental safety and occupational health. Wolfe was present at a Jan. 4 briefing of the deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security.

"Some of the findings were that we needed to look at additional studies of the migration of DU in the soil from an environmental perspective," Wolfe said in a telephone interview. "Another finding was that we need to do additional training of soldiers that handle and use depleted uranium and to look at the additional consequences from the medical and biological aspects of DU."

In a 15-page summary of the report released in 1994, the Army Policy Institute admits "the first U.S. battlefield use of DU has clearly presented new areas requiring attention." There is need for more data on potential health and environmental consequences of DU, the document states, as well as for an evaluation of the long-term health risks to U.S. soldiers "in light of the acknowledged characteristics that make DU desirable for use in weapons systems."

Wolfe said studies are being carried out at two test sites in the United States where DU has been fired under extremely controlled circumstances, but he knows of no testing being done at sites like Doha, Saudi Arabia, where it's believed thousands of rounds of DU ammunition went up in smoke during a fire, or elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Iraq where a total of 14,000 large-caliber DU rounds were "consumed" during Operation Desert Shield/Storm.

The Army has produced several new videos on how to handle depleted uranium, which Wolfe said were shown to U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe before they were sent to Bosnia. However, as Army spokesman Capt. Joseph Pick pointed out, the deployment of U.S. troops "doesn't necessarily evolve around the speed with which we develop new training program."

That's not good enough for Damacio Lopez, a Vietnam-era disabled veteran and an activist with the Depleted Uranium Network, a coalition of scientists and environmentalists opposed to the proliferation of DU weapons. "What it boils down to is: These weapons damage the user, and that's not acceptable to me and I don't believe it's acceptable to the American public or American troops. The weapons they're using backfire on them and hurt the user. That's inexcusable and should not be taking place."

Lopez wants to know whether Balkan leaders have been told of the risks. "Are the Bosnian people aware of it? Have they been given an accurate description of what happens when this stuff is used?"

Pentagon spokespersons were unable to answer that question. Nor did anyone at the Bosnian mission to the United Nations know. A spokesperson there said simply: "I think we don't have a choice even if we did know." Repeated calls to the military attache at the Bosnian Embassy in Washington were not returned.
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Title Annotation:US forces have more than 100 tanks armed with the hazard DU in Bosnia which threaten U.S. soldiers and the environment
Author:Casa, Kathryn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 19, 1996
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