By LARRY JOHNSON
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER FOREIGN DESK EDITOR
SOUTHERN DEMILITARIZED ZONE, Iraq -- On the "Highway of Death," 11 miles north of the Kuwait border, a collection of tanks, armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles are rusting in the desert. They also are radiating nuclear energy.
In 1991, the United States and its Persian Gulf War allies blasted the vehicles with armor-piercing shells made of depleted uranium -- the first time such weapons had been used in warfare -- as the Iraqis retreated from Kuwait. The devastating results gave the highway its name.
Today, nearly 12 years after the use of the super-tough weapons was credited with bringing the war to a swift conclusion, the battlefield remains a radioactive toxic wasteland -- and depleted uranium munitions remain a mystery.
Although the Pentagon has sent mixed signals about the effects of depleted uranium, Iraqi doctors believe that it is responsible for a significant increase in cancer and birth defects in the region. Many researchers outside Iraq, and several U.S. veterans organizations, agree; they also suspect depleted uranium of playing a role in Gulf War Syndrome, the still-unexplained malady that has plagued hundreds of thousands of Gulf War veterans.
Depleted uranium is a problem in other former war zones as well. Yesterday, U.N. experts said they found radioactive hot spots in Bosnia resulting from the use of depleted uranium during NATO air strikes in 1995.
With another war in Iraq perhaps imminent, scientists and others are concerned that the side effects of depleted uranium munitions -- still a major part of the U.S. arsenal -- will cause serious illnesses or deaths in a new generation of U.S. soldiers as well as Iraqis.
Depleted uranium, known as DU, is a highly dense metal that is the byproduct of the process during which fissionable uranium used to manufacture nuclear bombs and reactor fuel is separated from natural uranium. DU remains radioactive for about 4.5 billion years.
Uranium, a weakly radioactive element, occurs naturally in soil and water everywhere on Earth, but mainly in trace quantities. Humans ingest it daily in minute quantities.
Dr. Khajak Vartaanian
Zoom Paul Kitagaki Jr. / P-I
Dr. Khajak Vartaanian, a radiation expert, holds a Geiger counter next to a hole in an Iraqi tank destroyed by depleted uranium weapons in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The shell holes show 1,000 times the normal background radiation level.
DU shell holes in the vehicles along the Highway of Death are 1,000 times more radioactive than background radiation, according to Geiger counter readings done for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by Dr. Khajak Vartaanian, a nuclear medicine expert from the Iraq Department of Radiation Protection in Basra, and Col. Amal Kassim of the Iraqi navy.
The desert around the vehicles was 100 times more radioactive than background radiation; Basra, a city of 1 million people, some 125 miles away, registered only slightly above background radiation level.
But the radioactivity is only one concern about DU munitions.
A second, potentially more serious hazard is created when a DU round hits its target. As much as 70 percent of the projectile can burn up on impact, creating a firestorm of ceramic DU oxide particles. The residue of this firestorm is an extremely fine ceramic uranium dust that can be spread by the wind, inhaled and absorbed into the human body and absorbed by plants and animals, becoming part of the food chain.
Once lodged in the soil, the munitions can pollute the environment and create up to a hundredfold increase in uranium levels in ground water, according to the U.N. Environmental Program.
Studies show it can remain in human organs for years.
The U.S. Army acknowledges the hazards in a training manual, in which it requires that anyone who comes within 25 meters of any DU-contaminated equipment or terrain wear respiratory and skin protection, and states that "contamination will make food and water unsafe for consumption."
Just six months before the Gulf War, the Army released a report on DU predicting that large amounts of DU dust could be inhaled by soldiers and civilians during and after combat.
Infantry were identified as potentially receiving the highest exposures, and the expected health outcomes included cancers and kidney problems.
The report also warned that public knowledge of the health and environmental effects of depleted uranium could lead to efforts to ban DU munitions.
But today the Pentagon plays down the effects. Officials refer queries on DU munitions to the latest government report on the subject, last updated on Dec. 13, 2000, which said DU is "40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium."
The report also said, "Gulf War exposures to depleted uranium (DU) have not to date produced any observable adverse health effects attributable to DU's chemical toxicity or low-level radiation. . . ."
In response to written queries, the Defense Department said, "The U.S. Military Services use DU munitions because of DU's superior lethality against armor and other hard targets."
It said DU munitions are "war reserve munitions; that is, used for combat and not fired for training purposes," with the exception that DU munitions may be fired at sea for weapon calibration purposes.
In addition to Iraq and Bosnia, DU munitions were used in Kosovo and Serbia in 1999.
Hamdin and brother Amhid
Zoom Paul Kitagaki Jr. / P-I
Hamdin and his brother Amhid are receiving follow-up treatment after being treated successfully for leukemia two years ago at the Basra Hospital for Maternity and Children.
Also in 1999, a United Nations subcommission considered DU hazardous enough to call for an initiative banning its use worldwide. The initiative has remained in committee, blocked primarily by the United States, according to Karen Parker, a lawyer with the International Educational Development/Humanitarian Law Project, which has consultative status at the United Nations.
Parker, who first raised the DU issue in the United Nations in 1996, contends that DU "violates the existing law and customs of war."
She said there are four rules derived from all of humanitarian law regarding weapons:
# Weapons may only be used in the legal field of battle, defined as legal military targets of the enemy in war. Weapons may not have an adverse effect off the legal field of battle.
# Weapons can only be used for the duration of an armed conflict. A weapon that is used or continues to act after the war is over violates this criterion.
# Weapons may not be unduly inhumane.
# Weapons may not have an unduly negative effect on the natural environment.
"Depleted uranium fails all four of these rules," Parker said last week.
On Oct. 17, 2001, Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., introduced a bill calling for "the suspension of the use, sale, development, production, testing, and export of depleted uranium munitions pending the outcome of certain studies of the health effects of such munitions. . . ."
More than a year later, the bill -- co-sponsored by Reps. Anibal Acevedo-Vila, Puerto Rico; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.; Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio; Barbara Lee, D-Ca.; and Jim McDermott, D-Wash. -- remains in committee awaiting comment from the Defense Department.
Gulf War veterans faced a wide array of potentially toxic materials during the war: smoke from oil and chemical fires, insecticides, pesticides, vaccinations and DU.
Of the 696,778 troops who served during the recognized conflict phase (1990-1991) of the Gulf War, at least 20,6861 have applied for VA medical benefits. As of May 2002, 159,238 veterans have been awarded service-connected disability by the Department of Veterans Affairs for health effects collectively known as the Gulf War Syndrome.
Saddam Teaching Hospital
Zoom Paul Kitagaki Jr. / P-I
The woman in the foreground shares a room with four other cancer patients at the Saddam Teaching Hospital in Basra. The patient lying on the bed behind died earlier in the day on which this photograph was taken.
There have been many studies on Gulf War Syndrome over the years, as well as on possible long-term health hazards of DU munitions. Most have been inconclusive. But some researchers said the previous studies on DU, conducted by groups and agencies ranging from the World Health Organization to the Rand Corp. to the investigative arm of Congress, weren't looking in the right place -- at the effects of inhaled DU.
Dr. Asaf Durakovic, director of the private, non-profit Uranium Medical Research Centre in Canada and the United States, and center research associates Patricia Horan and Leonard Dietz, published a unique study in the August issue of Military Medicine medical journal.
The study is believed to be the first to look at inhaled DU among Gulf War veterans, using the ultrasensitive technique of thermal ionization mass spectrometry, which enabled them to easily distinguish between natural uranium and DU.
The study, which examined British, Canadian and U.S. veterans, all suffering typical Gulf War Syndrome ailments, found that, nine years after the war, 14 of 27 veterans studied had DU in their urine. DU also was found in the lung and bone of a deceased Gulf War veteran.
That no governmental study has been done on inhaled DU "amounts to a massive malpractice," Dietz said in an interview last week.
Dr. Doug Rokke was an Army health physicist assigned in 1991 to the command staff of the 12th Preventive Medicine Command and 3rd U.S. Army Medical Command headquarters. Rokke was recalled to active duty 20 years after serving in Vietnam, from his research job with the University of Illinois Physics Department, and sent to the Gulf to take charge of the DU cleanup operation.
Today, in poor health, he has become an outspoken opponent of the use of DU munitions.
"DU is the stuff of nightmares," said Rokke, who said he has reactive airway disease, neurological damage, cataracts and kidney problems, and receives a 40 percent disability payment from the government. He blames his health problems on exposure to DU.
Rokke and his primary team of about 100 performed their cleanup task without any specialized training or protective gear. Today, Rokke said, at least 30 members of the team are dead, and most of the others -- including Rokke -- have serious health problems.
Rokke said: "Verified adverse health effects from personal experience, physicians and from personal reports from individuals with known DU exposures include reactive airway disease, neurological abnormalities, kidney stones and chronic kidney pain, rashes, vision degradation and night vision losses, lymphoma, various forms of skin and organ cancer, neuropsychological disorders, uranium in semen, sexual dysfunction and birth defects in offspring.
"This whole thing is a crime against God and humanity."
Speaking from his home in Rantoul, Ill., where he works as a substitute high school science teacher, Rokke said, "When we went to the Gulf, we were all really healthy, and we got trashed."
Rokke, an Army Reserve major who describes himself as "a patriot to the right of Rush Limbaugh," said hearing the latest Pentagon statements on DU is especially frustrating now that another war against Iraq appears likely.
"Since 1991, numerous U.S. Department of Defense reports have said that the consequences of DU were unknown," Rokke said. "That is a lie. We warned them in 1991 after the Gulf War, but because of liability issues, they continue to ignore the problem." Rokke worked until 1996 for the military, developing DU training and management procedures. The procedures were ignored, he said.
"Their arrogance is beyond comprehension," he said. "We have spread radioactive waste all over the place and refused medical treatment to people . . . it's all arrogance.
"DU is a snapshot of technology gone crazy."
BIRTH DEFECTS IN IRAQ
At the Saddam Teaching Hospital in Basra, Dr. Jawad Al-Ali, a British-trained oncologist, displays, in four gaily colored photo albums, what he says are actual snapshots of the nightmares.
Birth defects in Iraq
This picture is from one of four albums shown by Dr. Jawad Al-Ali that are filled with photos of deformed infants -- examples, he says, of the surge in birth defects in southern Iraq that he blames on depleted uranium.
The photos represent the surge in birth defects -- in 1989 there were 11 per 100,000 births; in 2001 there were 116 per 100,000 births -- that even before they heard about DU, had doctors in southern Iraq making comparisons to the birth defects that followed the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII.
There were photos of infants born without brains, with their internal organs outside their bodies, without sexual organs, without spines, and the list of deformities went on and on. There also were photos of cancer patients.
Cancer has increased dramatically in southern Iraq. In 1988, 34 people died of cancer; in 1998, 450 died of cancer; in 2001 there were 603 cancer deaths.
On a tour of one ward of the hospital, doctors pointed out boys and girls who were suffering from leukemia. Most of the children die, the doctors said, because there are insufficient drugs available for their treatment.
There was one notable exception, a young boy whose family was able to buy the expensive drugs on the black market.
Al-Ali said it defies logic to absolve DU of blame when veterans of the Gulf War and of the fighting in the Balkans share common illnesses with children in southern Iraq.
"The cause of all of these cancers and deformities remains theoretical because we can't confirm the presence of uranium in tissue or urine with the equipment we have," said Al-Ali. "And because of the sanctions, we can't get the equipment we need."
To learn more ...
# For earlier stories on the P-I's trip to Iraq, go to seattlepi.nwsource.com/iraq2002/
# U.S. Department of Defense: www.defenselink.mil/
# The National Gulf War Resource Center, Inc.: www.ngwrc.org/Dulink/du_link.htm
# Uranium Medical Research Centre: www.umrc.net/
Dr. Doug Rokke, a U.S. Army health physicist assigned to help clean up depleted uranium after the Persian Gulf War, will speak in Seattle on Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. at University Baptist Church, Northeast 47th Street and 12th Avenue Northeast. Rokke is on a six-state speaking tour sponsored by The Interfaith Network of Concern for the People of Iraq, and co-sponsored by the Traprock Peace Center in Deerfield, Mass.
P-I foreign desk editor Larry Johnson can be reached at 206-448-8035 or firstname.lastname@example.org