Depleted Uranium and the Gulf War Syndrome
by Siegwart-Horst Günther
[Gulf War; depleted uranium]
The conditions in Baghdad hospitals where leukemia and cancer patients are housed are particularly depressing. The rooms are overcrowded. Most of the cases come from the South. Their increasing number is attributed to the radioactivity and toxicity of depleted uranium (DU) ammunition used by the Allied forces during the war and abandoned afterwards. Since 1991, I have been constantly warned about the DU danger to the population. Many of the DU-projectiles spread over the battlefields have been collected by children and used as toys with possibly devastating consequences. Inhaled uranium dust is highly toxic and can result in lung cancer.
According to recent estimates by UNICEF, 80,000 to 100,000 Iraqi children died in 1993. Thomas Eckwall, UNICEF director in Baghdad , specified that an urgent emergency program would require $83.2 million, but barely an eighth of that sum is in hand.
Properties of Depleted Uranium
In natural uranium, the proportion of the isotope 235 is only about 0.7 percent. The greater part is uranium 238. As only uranium 235 is suitable as fissile material for use in nuclear power plants, the uranium ore has to be enriched by artificially increasing the proportion of this isotope. As a result, there are large quantities of waste produced in this procedure, i.e., the so-called DU consisting almost solely of the isotope 238.
In Europe , these waste products from the uranium industry are stored in specially shielded deposits at considerable cost because of their high toxicity and radioactivity. In order to reduce these high costs, depleted uranium of the isotope 238 is passed on to interested parties, sometimes even free of charge.
Depleted uranium has properties which make it highly attractive to the armaments industry:
1. It is practically the heaviest naturally occurring substance.
2. DU projectiles, the development of which is presumably based on German technology, have a great penetrating power and are better suited for penetrating steel armor plating than any other weapon.
3. It is also an inflammable material. It ignites immediately upon piercing armor plates, releasing highly toxic and radioactive substances upon combustion.
4. After the Gulf War, since 1992, U.S. tanks are being strengthened by a layer of DU.
Different types of depleted uranium ammunition have been manufactured in the U.S. by Aerojet and Honeywell. Aerojet began mass production in 1977. At present such ammunition is also being mass produced in Britain and France . It is likely that it is being exported to other NATO countries as well as to Australia , Japan , and New Zealand .
At the beginning of March 1991, I detected projectiles in an Iraqi combat area which had the form and size of a cigar and were extraordinarily heavy. At a later point, I saw children playing with projectiles of this kind; one of them died of leukemia.
My efforts to have one of these projectiles examined brought me into serious trouble in Germany : the material was highly toxic and radioactive. The projectile was confiscated by a large police detachment, carried away under enormous safety precautions, and stored in a special shielded container.
As early as the end of the 1991, I diagnosed a hitherto unknown disease among the Iraqi population which is caused by renal and hepatic dysfunctions.
During the last five years, I have been able to carry out extensive studies in Iraq . The results produced ample evidence showing that contact with DU ammunition has the following consequences, especially for children:
• A considerable increase in infectious diseases caused by the most severe immuno-deficiencies in a great part of the population.
• Frequent occurrence of massive herpes and zoster afflictions, also in children.
• AIDS-like syndromes.
• A hitherto unknown syndrome caused by renal and hepatic dysfunction-now called "Morubs Günther."
• Leukemia, aplastic anemia and malignant neoplasm.
• Congenital deformities caused by genetic defects which were partly also diagnosed in animals.
DU and the Gulf War Syndrome
The results of my studies show similarities to the Gulf War Syndrome found in Allied soldiers and their children. The congenital deformities caused by genetic defects in American and Iraqi children are identical.
According to U.S. statements, vaccinations against anthrax and botulism, malaria prophylaxis, benzenes used for delousing, pyridostigminbromides DEET or permethrin, as well as the DU ammunition are responsible for the development of this syndrome. The Allied troops were not informed about the health dangers caused by the DU projectiles until nine days after the end of the war. Like all heavy metals, such as lead, or cadmium, uranium is highly toxic. The human body must not come into contact with them.
Newspapers recorded that many Gulf War soldiers from the U.S. feared they may have been used as guinea pigs in a radiation experiment. This syndrome among U.S. Gulf War soldiers and their families was debated in the U.S. Congress.
In the opinion of the American nuclear scientist Leonard Dietz, the development of the uranium projectiles is as revolutionary as the machine-gun was during the First World War. However, he observed that the Gulf War was the most toxic war in the history of mankind.
According to statements by the U.S. Army, about 14,000 high-caliber shells were fired during the Gulf War. Estimates by the British Atomic Energy Authority say about 40 tons of this type of ammunition are scattered in the border regions between Iraq , Kuwait , and Saudi Arabia . Other experts assume that there are probably 300 tons of it. Not more than 10 percent of these projectiles have been detected. The major part of them have been covered with blowing sand or are lying deep in the ground. When it rains, the toxic substances permeate into the ground water and enter the food chain—a long-term source of danger in areas of Saudi Arabia , Kuwait and Iraq .
A British company had rejected the order to remove this uranium ammunition because the health risks to their staff would be too great.
Bedouins from Kuwait battlefields, which U.S. soldiers used as training grounds, reported that hundreds of dead camels, sheep, and birds lie in the desert. Examinations made by an American veterinarian, a specialist in infectious diseases, showed that the animals had died neither from bullets nor from disease. Some carcasses were covered with insects, but the insects were also dead.
Saudi Arabia had demanded that all tanks, vehicles and instruments of war, which had been destroyed by uranium ammunition on their territory, be collected by the U.S. Army. This material was carried away and transported to the U.S. Before that, it had been buried in the desert.
Postwar Death Toll
The president of the American Gulf War Veterans Association is especially preoccupied by the Gulf War Syndrome. This syndrome includes damages to organs, genetic manifestations, chronic fatigue, loss of endurance, frequent infections, sore throat, coughing, skin rashes, night sweats, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, headaches, memory loss, confusion, vision problems, muscle spasms and cramps, joint pains and loss of mobility, aching muscles, swollen glands, dental problems, and malformation of newborns. According to his estimates, 50,000 to 80,000 U.S. Gulf War veterans are affected; 39,000 have been dismissed from active service already; and 2,400 to 5,000 have died so far. Today in Great Britain around 4,000 soldiers suffer from the Gulf War Syndrome. About 160 already have died, as have a number of Australians, Canadians, and French.
Similar symptoms have occurred in Kuwait and are proliferating. It is believed that in Iraq , 250,000 men, women, and children may have been affected. The death rate is high. A study carried out in 1993 by three American scientists estimated that about 50,000 Iraqi children had already died during the first eight months after the Gulf War from the detrimental effects of DU projectiles.
DU Dangers are Spreading
In May 1994, reports published in the U.S. found that among 251 families of veterans of the Gulf War living in the state of Mississippi , 67 percent of the children were born with congenital deformities—their eyes, ears, or fingers are missing or they are suffering from severe blood disease and respiratory problems.
A parallel can be drawn with the situation that has developed after the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Since then, there has been a sharp increase in cancer, especially among children. Their mortality rate is very high, as are malformations at birth.
It is important to point out what happened in Germany in 1988, after a U.S. Army plane crashed in Remscheid , and in Holland , in 1992, after an Israeli El Al transport plane crashed in Amsterdam . It is suspected that both planes were carrying radioactive material. In both these regions there has been an increase in skin diseases, kidney dysfunctions, leukemia among children and birth defects.
In Bosnia , it was reported in November 1996 that about 1,000 children were suffering from an unknown disease: earaches, aching muscles, abdominal pain, dizziness, respiratory problems, and other afflictions. Similar symptoms were described by victims of the Gulf War Syndrome. Meanwhile, six hundred of these children still receive hospital treatment. In December 1997 and January 1998, the media in the Balkans reported a dramatic increase in leukemia and cancer within the population of Republika Srpska as well as an increased number of malformations in babies. The cows in these regions also show reduced and bloody milk production, while in other animals, milk production stopped. Unusual vegetation is growing, and many fruits have strange formations. After investigations by experts from the Nuclear Research Institute in Vinca , Yugoslavia , it was found that radiation increased dangerously after the NATO bombardment, in which DU ammunition was used.
The grave dangers are increasing because DU weapons are at the disposal of several states. These weapons have already caused irreparable damage. It is for the citizens of the world to see that such dangerous weapons systems are not used again and are immediately banned.
Siegwart-Horst Günther (M.D., D.Sc., Ph.D.) is President of the Yellow Cross and lives in Germany . This is excerpted from a lecture, "A study of the health situation in Iraq resulting from the Gulf War and the sanctions."