Just slower and more painful.
Depleted Uranium: Pernicious Killer Keeps on Killing
By Craig Etchison, Ph.D.
t r u t h o u t | Guest Contributor
Monday 19 February 2007
I live a few miles from an ATK (Alliant Tech) plant that produces depleted uranium (DU) tank shells for the military. Tank shells destroy and kill, and they, along with all military hardware, are a constant reminder of our failure as a civilization. But DU weapons and tank shells are only two of many items that raise questions that even our violence prone society needs to address. Since shortly after Gulf War I, soldiers and civilians have been questioning the safety of these weapons which are made of radioactive material. The more questions raised, the more the military-industrial complex has hauled out studies showing the safety of DU munitions. One CEO called DU the “skim milk” of uranium in an article penned for my local paper. An Air Force officer is even stalking the internet, trying to intimidate anyone who suggests DU is anything but benign.
Yet the numbers suggested that something insidious happens when DU munitions are used. How to explain the exploding rates of cancer, birth defects, and radiation poisoning among Iraqis in the Basra region? How to explain a Department of Veterans Affairs study of 21,000 veterans of the Gulf War that found rates of birth defects were twice as great for male vets and three times as great for female vets who served in the Gulf War compared to vets who did not? How to explain a Washington Post report in January of 2006 that 518,00 of the 580,000 Gulf War veterans were on disability, over half on permanent disability. How to explain over 13,000 dead Gulf War veterans when only 250 were killed and 7,000 injured in the war itself?
Finally, through the work of internationally recognized research scientist, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, we may have an answer to these questions. The answer has to do with using an analytical methodology appropriate to low level radiation, as opposed to inappropriate methodologies used to date that show DU is harmless, and, equally important, understanding that DU has both a radiological component as well as a heavy metal component, and the two in combination are far more toxic than either is singly.
What is DU and Why Is It a Problem?
Depleted Uranium (DU) is the waste left after the isotope uranium-235 (used for bombs and nuclear reactors) has been removed. DU (mostly U-238) makes up the largest amount of radioactive waste other than uranium mining waste worldwide and has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. In the United States, DU can only be handled by persons trained in radiation safety procedures. DU must also be isolated from the environment.
Much of the scientific evaluation of uranium oxide has come from analysis of uranium mining and milling, but this ignores a major fact-that battlefield uranium oxide is very different from uranium oxide produced at normal temperatures. When a DU shell hits a hardened target, it bursts into flame and creates an invisible metal fume, often called an aerosol. (Tests carried out eight to ten years after Gulf War I found that the DU aerosol from the battlefield had been carried to Basra and Baghdad, though no fighting occurred in those areas.)
Aerosolizing DU involves temperatures between 3,000 and 6,000 degrees centigrade, which turn the oxide into a nano-sized ceramic particle that is insoluble in body fluids. If these nano particles are inhaled, they provide contact radiation and a source of heavy metal poisoning. These high temperatures will also aerosolize other heavy metals in the area such as steel, nickel, aluminum, and iron, which can be inhaled. Nano-sized uranium oxide [along with other metals] is roughly the size of a virus [scientifically: nanometer-sized], invisible, able to penetrate the lung-blood barrier and can be carried throughout the body. Nano particles can reach sensitive targets, including the lymph nodes, spleen, heart, and access to the central nervous system.
Uranium-238 is an alpha particle emitter. The range of these alpha particles is only about six cells; therefore, it is highly localized. Because DU has less radioactivity than natural uranium, many consider DU to be low-level radiation and not harmful to people. But research does not bear this view out.
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