Huge amounts of depleted uranium (uranium 238 from which most uranium 235 has been extracted) are generated in the process of enriching uranium for nuclear weapons or nuclear reactors. Denser and more penetrating than lead, DU has proven to be extremely effective when used for penetrators fired from anti-tank guns. Quick to ignite from friction, DU burns on impact, dispersing minute radioactive particles into the air. This radiation, in combination with high chemical toxicity, contaminates the environment and produces harmful effects in animals and humans.
During the Gulf War, US and British troops fired from tanks and planes a combined total of about 950 thousand rounds (about 320 tons of DU) over a wide geographical area. As a result, it is estimated that 436,000 US ground troops entered areas contaminated with radioactivity, inhaled particles of depleted uranium, and were thus exposed to radiation.
As of July 1999, of the 579,000 American veterans who participated in the Gulf War, 251,000 (43%) were seeking medical treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs. About 182,000 (31%) were seeking compensation for medical disabilities or damage related to illness or injury. The illnesses for which claims are being filed include leukemia, lung cancer, chronic kidney and liver disorders, respiratory ailments, chronic fatigue, skin spotting, and joint pain.
To date, more than 9,600 veterans have died, and quite number of their children, born after the war ended, suffer from congenital defects. Similar health problems have appeared among the British soldiers who took part in the war.
In Iraq, soldiers who managed to survive the combat show an increased incidence of leukemia, lymph cancer, and a variety of other cancers, as do Iraqi civilians and children. A conspicuously large number of newborns are being born with congenital abnormalities. The shortage of medicines and medical equipment resulting from UN-based economic sanctions against Iraq applied by the US, Japan and the Western allies aggravates the situation tragically.
The US Defense Department and the British Ministry of Defence refuse to concede that depleted uranium shells harm human bodies or the environment in any way. The US military used DU again in the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. In a letter on Kosovo sent to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on February 7 this year, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officially admitted that about 31,000 depleted uranium shells were used.
In the US, the effects of DU are apparent
among employees working at factories that
produce DU munitions, those who live near
those factories, and those who live near
firing ranges, but a comprehensive picture
of DU radiation exposure has yet to emerge.