Depleted Uranium: An Unacceptable Toxic Legacy

by Rachel Thompson

The UN will be considering a motion on depleted uranium weapons this month. Here we present a primer on what depleted uranium is, what its effects are, and UK hypocrisy in its use.

First published: 08 October, 2012 | Category: Foreign policy, International

The Uranium Weapons Network and the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) are hoping that a precedent will be set in disarmament politics when the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly meets this month.

The UN First Committee discusses and proposes resolutions to the plenary session of the UN General Assembly.  This year a resolution sponsored by the Non-Aligned Movement will table a resolution concerning depleted uranium.  ICBUW have been advocating for the text to include a request that states take a precautionary approach to depleted uranium (DU) weapons.

The use of depleted uranium (DU) in weapons has proved controversial from its development in the 1960s through to the present day.

During the earliest stages of its research and development programme, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) discovered that DU released a chemically toxic and radioactive dust that contaminated areas they fired it into. The UK has since used uranium weapons in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, without a full understanding of what effect this contamination would have, but knowing that it was a potential hazard to human health and the environment. The concerns surrounding the use of DU would only be investigated once it had been fired and the damage was done. Where research has been undertaken, it has been retrospective and has focused largely on the impact on veterans, not on civilians who are faced with chronic exposure. The DU issue is complex – its use raises issues of environmental and social justice and post-conflict peace building and redevelopment. However, the main users, the UK and the US, have consistently sought to frame it as a question of military capability in order to diminish humanitarian and environmental concerns . Over the years scientific research has emerged showing that DU has the potential to cause cancer, damage DNA, lead to birth defects and that it can contaminate soil and groundwater. Yet, user nations state that there is insufficient evidence of a causal link between such problems and its use, when in fact they should put humanitarian concerns first and adopt a precautionary approach.  This article will examine the impact of DU and show that it is hypocritical and wrong for the UK’s to continue to use DU munitions. When there are scientific uncertainties regarding the damage caused by a weapon, those uncertainties should not be used as an excuse for continuing its use.

What is Depleted Uranium?

Depleted Uranium is a hazardous, chemically toxic and radioactive by-product of uranium enrichment.  It is carcinogenic and genotoxic i.e. it can damage DNA.  The military uses DU for armour-piercing ‘kinetic energy penetrator’ ammunition because of its density – it is 1.7 times denser than lead – and other physical properties.

As DU is pyrophoric – small particles of DU burn in air – it behaves like an incendiary weapon. After penetrating armour it generates a high temperature metal fire capable of destroying a tank and forms an aerosol of fine DU particles that can spread up to 400m.

Where has it been fired?

Around 20 countries are thought to have DU weapons, although the US and the UK are the only countries known to have fired DU rounds during conflict.  Uranium weapons were fired in a number of conflicts during the 1990s starting with the Gulf War (1991).  The US then used them whilst part of the NATO force during the conflict in the Balkan states, in Bosnia (1994, 1995), Serbia (1999) and Kosovo (1999).

More recently they have been used by both the UK and US in the Iraq invasion (2003). There are suspicions that they have also been used by the US in Afghanistan.  The US, however, denies this.

Approximately 290,300kg of DU was fired during the Gulf War (1991), 12,700kg during the Balkans conflicts and an estimated 140,000kg during the first six months of the 2003 Iraq invasion. A lack of transparency from users has made exact data hard to come by, but an interesting point to note is that 57 times more DU has been used in Iraq than was used in all of the Balkan operations combined.

Toxic effects - the impact of DU

Effect on the Environment

When a DU round hits an armoured vehicle, between 10% - 25% of the penetrator will be converted into dust and can be dispersed into the environment by winds or human activities.

The bulk of this DU dust remains within a few hundred metres of the target. Re-suspended fine particles present an inhalational hazard to civilians and research has shown that it can mobilise from soils and enter groundwater.  The long term effects of groundwater contamination are as yet unknown and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) have recommended continuous monitoring of contaminated sites. However, there is a risk of long-term human exposure via drinking water and possible plant uptake.

In spite of research on DU’s behaviour in the environment, its activity is highly variable and is dependent on climatic conditions and soil types. This uncertainty makes it very difficult to quantify the risk it poses, which will vary from site to site. UNEP has highlighted these uncertainties and used them to justify a call for a precautionary approach to the weapons.   

User states have failed to take up this call.  In a Ministerial statement regarding the Article 36 legal review of CHARM3, required by the Geneva Conventions, Minister for the Armed Forces, Nick Harvey failed to mention the UNEP statement when stating that UK use of DU is not in breach of international humanitarian law.   (For more information on the campaign and possible legal action concerning this review by the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium (CADU), please see here).

Effects on Human Health

There is a lack of exposure studies on civilian populations in contaminated areas. One study in Kosovo, which was conducted to test civilians for exposure to DU contained a study sample of only 25 individuals.  It also failed to detail how any of these civilians had been selected for the study. Similarly, whilst a number of studies have been carried out on veterans, these cannot be compared to the exposure that civilians living in the area may have had.  It is unlikely that a soldier would be living, working, eating and sleeping in a contaminated area.

Unfortunately, studies such as one carried out by the Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER), who were mandated by the European Commission to report on the environmental and health risks posed by DU, have then chosen to cite such inadequate studies in their own research. 

Animal and cellular studies have shown clear evidence of the carcinogenic, neurotoxic and immuno-toxic effects of DU (the immune system defends the body from infections and even some types of cancerous cells), as well as its ability to damage the reproductive system and foetus, which is a possible cause of birth defects.

Some data also suggests that uranium can directly damage the DNA and enzyme proteins in living cells but, as with the exposure studies, no major assessments of the health impact of DU on civilian populations have taken place.  

A report released by the World Health Organisation (WHO), ‘Depleted Uranium: Sources, Exposure and Health Effects’, which is often cited by proponents of DU munitions, failed to include a key paper by initial co-author, Dr Keith Baverstock, which highlighted the genotoxic aspect of DU. 

Dr. Baverstock’s paper condemned the use of uranium weapons and stated:

 "When you breathe in the dust the deeper it goes into the lung the more difficult it is to clear. The particles that dissolve pose a risk - part radioactive - and part from the chemical toxicity in the lung - and then later as that material diffuses into the rest of the body, and into the blood stream, a potential risk at sites like the bone marrow for leukaemia, the lymphatic system and the kidney."

Why the world’s largest specialised public health agency omitted a report that points to DU use as a potential cause for cancer is open to debate, though one must hope that the WHO is not shying away from the politically sensitive issues of its highest bilateral donors.  Three of the top five bilateral donors are the US, UK and France, all of whom have DU weapons in their arsenals and consistently vote against UN General Assembly Resolutions.

Known Unknowns

Research has shown that the composition of radiochemical containments change within each batch of DU that is processed into penetrators, which has significant implications for accurately modelling the health risks they pose.

The UK’s DU munitions were manufactured from US DU, and have subsequently been found to be contaminated with traces of other radionuclides such as Plutonium.  This means that DU is likely to be more radioactive than previously considered.

This revelation also means that previous studies done on the health hazards of DU may have missed critical information.  

Post-conflict development

 As societies emerge from conflict they face the enormous challenges of restoring peace and ensuring political, social and economic development.  The burden that the use of uranium weapons places on post-conflict states is significant – as well as the strain placed on the public healthcare system, the cleanup of contaminated sites is technically difficult and costly. This is further exacerbated by the fact that a post-conflict state is unlikely to have a radiation management structure with trained personnel in place to find and deal with DU contaminated sites. This task is made more difficult when user states such as the US do not reveal the firing co-ordinates of DU rounds.

Decontaminating DU is complex in ways unaccounted for by user states. For instance, many Iraqi vehicles destroyed by DU strikes during the invasion subsequently found their way into the civilian scrap metal trade, putting collectors and processors at risk from contamination. UNEP estimates that over 8,000 Iraqi tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery pieces have been scrapped since 2003.

A 2005 UNEP investigation of an Iraqi scrap yard showed no separation of military and civilian scrap, and that crushing and cutting of both had occurred with minimal precautions on a site that bordered residential areas and even had some dwellings within its perimeter. This has been raised as a high risk issue by UNEP, yet little regard has been paid to this aspect of decontamination by the UK or US.

Uranium weapons have also become of great concern to those undertaking the post-conflict clearance of cluster munitions as it is common for uranium weapons to be fired in similar areas. The presence of uranium weapons together with unexploded cluster munitions has meant that those planning demining activities have, as one Bosnian deminer put it, “to weigh up the risks of losing a limb versus a risk of developing cancer later in life.”

Hypocrisy

When the MoD first chose to fire uranium rounds they knew they were controversial.  They now know that DU is carcinogenic and genotoxic, that DU can remain in the body for decades, and that hotspots of DU contamination exist around DU strike sites in the Balkans and Iraq. Yet the armed forces continue to use DU in weapons.

No detailed epidemiological studies into the effects of DU on civilian populations have ever been done.  The MoD uses this to support an argument that there is no evidence that DU causes ill health, and to continue to use these weapons. Given that we already know DU has the ability cause cancer and birth defects, this stance is questionable to say the least. This is surely an obvious case where the precautionary approach should be applied.

The government further refuses to take any legal responsibility for the contamination caused when DU is used abroad and offers inadequate forms of assistance to help to clean it up. In fact, a brief browse through parliamentary questions concerning DU shows that the government consistently states that decontamination and civilian health is the responsibility of the affected state and the international community, something that CADU and many other civil society organisations strongly contest.

Nonetheless, the MoD has admitted that the UK has a moral obligation to deal with its use of DU, as acknowledged by a spokesperson to the MoD in 2003:

"Legally, we have no obligation to clean up the remains of the DU we used. It's the responsibility of the new regime in Baghdad.  But morally we do recognise an obligation, as we have in the past.”

In reality, in 2007 the Department for International Development did provide a small amount of funding to UNEP to train Iraqi nationals to assess the levels of contamination.  But this investigatory work was hindered by the refusal of the US to give co-ordinates of strike sites, so UNEP managed to compile a list of just four sites, relying on known data such as media reports and satellite imagery. They were further hindered by the insufficient quantity of funding made available, so that teams on the ground did not have radiation meters or even basic equipment such as disposable gloves.

Internationally, the UK opposes efforts at the UN and in Europe to take stronger action on DU.  The MoD does not recognise the potential health impact of DU on civilians and votes against UN resolutions that call for further research and transparency.  However, military manuals are very specific about how their own soldiers should act upon encountering contaminated vehicles or areas.

They are warned to never touch DU ammunition or enter contaminated vehicles, to cover exposed skin, use a mask to protect the respiratory system, not to eat, drink or smoke, to stay upwind and 50 metres away and limit their stay in contaminated areas. 

Like other militaries the UK now takes a precautionary approach to hazards their own troops may encounter. Yet few specific warnings are given to civilians in contaminated areas.  

Furthermore, uranium rounds are not used in military training in the UK.  When rounds are tested in the UK it is done under strictly controlled conditions and with contamination limits set at much lower levels than statutory requirements. Yet when firing DU rounds in conflict, such procedures do not exist.

Conclusion                                                                                                                                        

 The impact of DU weapons on people and the environment remains a contentious and serious issue. The UK and US insist that there is no evidence that DU causes ill health, campaigners argue that there has been no research done into the effect of DU weapons on civilian health, and that lack of sufficient data on human exposure should not be used to dismiss the risk.  Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Campaigners urge user states to extend the precautionary approach they take to their troops to civilians. User states should be open about their use of DU and take responsibility for the consequences.  The case around DU highlights the immediate need for binding international legislation to protect the environment and the population of a country during and after a conflict.

Unlike campaigns that focus on explosive remnants of war, where the causal link between use and harm is clear, showing the link between a weapon’s use and harm is more complex when dealing with weapons that create a toxic legacy. A precautionary approach is justified in this instance because there is sufficient data suggesting potential harm but ongoing uncertainties mean it is impossible to accurately quantify the risk to civilians and the environment.

This month will see the fourth UN General Assembly resolution on DU; each has garnered more support than the last. The text in 2010 called for greater transparency from users in order to facilitate clean up and research and was supported by 148 states. The UK, US, France and Israel consistently vote against but the growing opposition demonstrates the intrinsic unacceptability of these indiscriminate and polluting weapons. A General Assembly resolution on this issue, noting that a precautionary approach should be taken, would be a major step forward for anti-DU campaigners and disarmament politics as a whole. Whilst General Assembly resolutions are non-binding in effect, they do carry considerable political weight, focus attention on key issues and in time can form part of customary international law. It would also set a valuable precedent by drawing attention to the global legacy of toxic munitions and polluting military activities.   

It is time for the UK government to admit that they have made mistakes regarding their use of DU, support the proposed resolution and a precautionary approach and offer environmental and health assistance to all affected communities.

Rachel Thompson is a campaigner for the Uranium Weapons Network

For more information on the DU issue and CADU Campaigns please see:

When the Dust Settles: A short introductory film on DU

DON’T DU IT

Article 36 Transparency

International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons

 

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