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July 23, 2014
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Current Concerns  >  2007  >  No 16, 2007  >  International Law and Modern War: [printversion]

International Law and Modern War:

The changed battlefield and Depleted Uranium

by H. Rosalie Bertell, Ph.D., G.N.S.H.*


Editorial Note
cc. Up to the first months of 2001, there was an intense controversy in the European media regarding the consequences of the so-called depleted Uranium or DU. Numerous soldiers had fallen ill with cancer after service, e.g. in former Yugoslavia; Italy had six cases of leukemia among its soldiers immediately after their mission. The discussion, however, stopped abruptly and sustainably around January 2001. Now, hardly any newspaper tackles the issue. The NATO took side accordingly – the discussion was unwelcome. The effect of DU was played down, the obvious consequences among the soldiers and the affected population were concealed and shrugged off with strange explanations like leukemia clusters.
The following statement of the Heritage Foundation, a neo-conservative think tank, shows that there must have been vehement discussions within the NATO about the issue:
“The international outcry regarding the claims that the use of depleted Uranium during the Kosovo intervention had caused leukemia among 24 [!] members of the peace keeping force is unfounded. Numerous studies regarding depleted Uranium – a byproduct of the enrichment process to obtain fuel for nuclear reactors and Uranium weapons – have not shown any connection between its use by the military and any form of cancer or other health problems. The controversy which arose after the discovery of leukemia among the soldiers threatens to undermine the structure of the alliance in Europe. It is mandatory to ensure that the facts about depleted Uranium do not get lost in the debate.”

For quite a while, however, cancer rates have been rising in the countries destroyed by the war alliance: in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Somalia. Eventually the facts can no loner be suppressed. Health damages and cancer rates have to be acknowledged ever more:
-    The British ministry of defense recently confirmed the existence of the so-called Gulf War Syndrome among the Gulf War veterans of 1991 and 2003.
- The Italian government came out with the fact that meanwhile over 300 soldiers have fallen ill with leukemia.
- The Iraqi government declared that several places in Iraq are too contaminated with radiation to be inhabitable.
- In Serbia and Kosovo, cancer rates have increased grossly within a short period.
But still no party dares to touch the hot potato. The American war mongers are still dreaming of a “feasible” nuclear war, even though political heavyweights among their own administration are warning against committing this madness. A discussion about all the consequences of Uranium weapons obviously interferes with the plans of the war alliance and the industries in the various countries connected with it. But the suffering people in the war-stricken countries, the accumulation of severe effects, especially cancer, genetic defects and development disorders among humans and animals, can no longer be ignored. The soldiers coming home suffering from the same health problems and their relatives will not remain silent. They all have a right to honest information, real medical care and support.
We are indebted to various physicians and scientists, committed media persons and citizens who have tracked these issues meticulously, who have documented them and are going on to do their research in order to set a stop to this wrong and, if possible, to help the affected people. Even when neglecting the condemnable political and military side of the issue, the humanitarian and medical aspects have to be looked into. The following articles are meant as a contribution towards drawing conclusions from the known facts in order to prevent further suffering. Any further delay of this debate will lead to more severe and often lethal diseases.

What has changed on the battlefield since 1991?

1.    There has been an extreme change in the heat of impact fires from penetrators, guided missiles and other ordnance, on the battlefield. For example, TNT burns at about 575 degrees Centigrade, while Depleted Uranium (DU) burns at 3000 to 5000 degrees Centigrade. This new intense heat produces what is called a metal fume – an aerosol mixture of the uranium plus the aerosolized metals in the target. All metals, whether iron, steel, aluminum, nickel, usw., will be aerosolized at the extreme temperature of a uranium fire. This was not true for TNT ammunition.
2.    The aerosol mixture when it cools in the ambient air will produce respirable particles of average aerodynamic diameter 5 nanometers. The particles will be ceramic. They can be identified under an electron microscope as smooth oval shaped particles, the larger particles being hollow. There were ceramic nano-particles found in all veteran tissues examined in Italy after the war in Kosovo. Ceramic particles do not dissolve easily in body fluid, hence, when inhaled, the length of time retained internally can be significantly longer than for non-ceramic uranium and metal debris. NOTE: Most research on uranium is based on uranium mine dust, which is not ceramic and which has an average aerodynamic diameter of 5 microns, approximately 1000 times larger than are nano particles from uranium metal fume. Uranium mine dust research is irrelevant for understanding the ceramic nano particle toxicity in the human body.
3.    Radiation dose to a human being who is exposed depends on the strength of the source, distance from the source and the length of time exposed. This is well understood with respect to sitting in the sun. Time of day, and time spent in the sun regulates burn! Although ceramic DU has slightly less radioactivity than natural uranium, internal direct contact with delicate tissue and significantly longer time in the body serve to increase the dose to tissue.
4.    Particles smaller than 2.5 microns can travel into the body through the respiratory system and the deep lung tissue. They are invisible to the naked eye, so asking the veterans if they were exposed to metal or uranium debris is a failed strategy bound to miss most of the truly exposed personnel. Nano particles have very little mass and easily stay suspended in air or travel on the wind great distances from the point of origin. In the first Gulf War, the battles were in southern Iraq and northern Kuwait, but DU particles were measured in soil from Baghdad. DU particles do not occur naturally. The air of the entire battlefield must have been contaminated with ceramic heavy metal fume, including the aerosolized DU.
5.    Nano particles easily pass the lung-blood barrier, can enter into human cells like micro-nutrients, and pass through the blood-brain barrier causing neurological damage. They have been found in male seminal fluid, and can cross the placenta and damage a developing embryo or fetus. They are so small that they cannot be filtered out by the kidney tissue. They have very long residency time inside of the human body.
6.    Uranium nano-particles have radioactive properties which can attack the mitochondrial DNA, the source of energy for the cell. Mitochondrial DNA is 16 times more vulnerable to radiation than is the DNA of the nucleus, since mitochondria lack histone. It can disable the body’s repair mechanisms by depleting the glutathione and superoxidase dismutase. Radiation damage to the mitochondria can cause severe damage to the heart, brain, liver and kidneys, and can lead to various cancers, reproductive problems and birth defects in offspring.
7.    Heavy metal nano-particles (including uranium, which is also a heavy metal), produce various degrees of toxicity, including weight loss, shaky hands, muscular weakness, paralysis, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, headaches, weakness, visual disturbances, tachycardia, and hypertension in adults, and potential birth defects, mental retardation, autism, psychosis, allergies, dyslexia, and hyperactivity in offspring.

Why is this DU problem not widely understood?

8.    The basic problems preventing public understanding of this new situation include our academic specialties and the newness of the exposure. Toxicology has studied heavy metals for over a century, but not ceramic nano-size heavy metal particles. Moreover, toxicology courses in Universities do not include the study of radioactive materials like uranium, since this discipline is left to the Health Physicist. Calculation of the radiation dose is the job of physicists, who use the Respiratory Model proposed by ICRP (International Commission on Radiological Protection).
9.    ICRP is a non-governmental self-appointed and self-perpetuating organization, in which all decisions are made by its 13 member Main Committee. When the United Nations established the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and mandated it to set radiation protection standards, the IAEA turned to ICRP, rather than the WHO (World Health Organization) for formulating recommendations. IAEA made legal «Memo of Understanding» (MoU) agreements with the other U.N. Agencies, including the WHO, which allow IAEA to take the lead in matters which involved standards for radiation protection and assessment of damage after any accident. ICRP has imposed a mathematical methodology which determines how one calculates dose, and also determines the number of fatal cancers predicted to occur for every dose. This methodology assumes a normal functioning repair system, and uses the observed characteristics of uranium mining dust. It has been publicly recognized as wrong when calculating internal dose by both the ECRR (European Committee on Radiation Risk) and the official Radiation Protection Agency in France.
10.    This mathematical population exposure model does not depend on the age distribution or health status of those exposed; or the other toxic exposure which are concomitant with radiation. It also does not distinguish between a two microgram particle and 40,000 to 60,000 nano-particles with 2 microgram mass. When the two micrograms of DU are aerosolized into 40,000 to 60,000 nano particles, they deliver a different dose to the person breathing them. This dose is at least 36 times higher than the dose from the intact 2 microgram DU particle. The increase is caused by the increased surface area to volume of the mass. The smaller particles will make contact with approximately 3.6 times the surface area of tissue, and the alpha particles emitted by the uranium will do contact damage to tissue ten times more effectively than when in one larger intact particle. This is because they are emitted from the surface and not reduced by self-shielding
11.    WHO, UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on Atomic Radiation) and UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) have been constrained to use IAEA (basically ICRP) methodology and recommendations by the above mentioned MoU’s. There is no independence in these agencies. Since all use the ICRP methodology and risk factors, all come to the same conclusions.
12.    In the United Nations hierarchy of agencies, the IAEA reports directly to the UN Security Council, while the WHO reports to ECOSOC which in turn reports to the UN General Assembly. This effectively gives IAEA the priority especially in military related matters.

Some suggested remedies:

13.    Reduce the mandate of the IAEA to prevention of nuclear weapon proliferation. [Eliminate the mandate to promote nuclear energy uses].
14.    Establish an independent International Sustainable Energy Agency.
15.    Mandate the WHO to recommend safety standards and be responsible for assessing the damage to human health due to ionizing and non-ionizing radiation exposure, along with all other recognized hazardous exposures.
16.    Raise the status of the WHO in the United Nations system, by mandating WHO to report directly to the Security Council. Protection of health is vital to human, national and international security.
17.    Assure the independence of the various agencies of the United Nations, and the transparency and professionalism of appointments to those agencies. Most are now appointed to the agencies by the member governments, which can have politically biased reasons for their choices.
18.    Give official recognition to the published peer reviewed work of scientists, even when their work is not recognized by their own governments.
19.    Ban all wars as increasingly toxic, significantly destructive to the biosphere and gene pool, and therefore crimes against humanity.

* Rosalie Bertell is a founding member and past president of the International Insitute of Concern for Public Health (IICPH), and Editor in Chief of International Perspectives in Public Health. By choice, Dr Bertell works for the victims or potential victims of industrial, technological and military pollution with a particular emphasis on assisting the struggles of third world and indigenous people to preserve their human rights to health and life. She has received numerous awards and five honorary Doctorate degrees. Dr Bertell is a member of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart.