The war in Iraq is pretty much over, except for junk scientists. For them, the war may continue for decades  just like Vietnam.

Two developments bear this out.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) last week announced it would study sites in Iraq where armor-piercing weapons containing depleted uranium (DU) were used by coalition forces.

Then, a new study was published this week in the journal Nature reporting the amount of Agent Orange sprayed in Vietnam was significantly underestimated. The researchers called for more study of U.S. troops and Vietnamese civilians in the sprayed areas.

Both lines of study are baseless.

DU is used in armor piercing shells because it’s 70 percent denser than lead. While other metals flatten upon impact, DU projectiles "self-sharpen" upon penetration.

Like other metals, sufficiently high exposures to DU may produce toxic effects. DU also has a low level of radioactivity.

The U.S. and U.K. fired about 350 tons of DU munitions at Iraqi tanks during the 1991 Gulf War. Though Iraqi doctors claimed a subsequent increase in cancers and birth defects was related to DU, their assertions were never substantiated.

UNEP conducted field studies of sites struck by DU munitions during the 1990s conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo. UNEP concluded, "DU contamination does not pose any immediate risks to human health or the environment."

Inexplicably, UNEP has now changed its tune.

"DU is still an issue of great concern for the general public. An early study in Iraq could either lay these fears to rest or confirm that there are indeed potential risks," said UNEP last week.

Don’t count on anything being laid to rest soon.

Despite the lack of evidence that DU causes harm, some now suggest harm may be caused by a synergistic combination of DU’s chemical toxicity and radioactive effects, according to an article in the New Scientist (April 19).

Is there any evidence to support such speculation? No.

Its sole basis is that no one ever has considered the possibility that DU’s toxic and radioactive properties might have some combined effect.

Science, however, is about observing an effect and determining the cause — not about imagining a cause for an effect that’s not been observed. The latter is junk science.

The budding, war-related DU controversy has a disturbing precedent — the never-ending junk science-fueled controversy over Agent Orange.

The U.S. sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange to defoliate the Vietnam jungle during 1961-1971. Agent Orange contained low levels of substances called dioxins, by-products formed during the manufacturing process.

Agent Orange became a cause célèbre for Vietnam veterans after studies reported that dioxin caused cancer in some laboratory animal tests.

The media soon labeled dioxin as the "most toxic manmade chemical."

Environmental activists climbed aboard the dioxin railroad when they learned that low levels of dioxin were produced by many industrial processes. (Dioxin is also a by-product of natural processes such as volcanic eruptions, forest fires and any combustion of plant material.)

Though no study of dioxin-exposed humans (including Vietnam vets) credibly links dioxin with cancer and the only reason Vietnam vets are compensated for Agent Orange exposure is that politicians find it easier to pay-off rather than to fight veterans groups, Agent Orange hysteria is more readily debunked courtesy of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Several years ago Ben & Jerry’s endeavored to do what it could to rid the world of the dreaded dioxin because, as proclaimed in its marketing materials, "The only safe level of dioxin exposure is no exposure at all.

Knowing everyone is exposed unavoidably to dioxin everyday in our food, water and air, Agent Orange expert Dr. Michael Gough and I tested Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for dioxin.

Our tests found a single serving of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream contained 2,000 times the amount of dioxin the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is "safe" for an adult. For a 45-pound child, the figure is about 7,500 times more than the EPA says is safe.

The level of dioxin measured in our Ben & Jerry’s sample is likely greater than dioxin exposures from Agent Orange among U.S. ground troops in Vietnam.

And who’s afraid of Ben & Jerry’s?

Vietnam veterans groups and environmental activists, though, have so much invested in the dioxin myth that they can’t let go.

Failing to find dioxin-related effects in Vietnam vets, these groups have urged researchers to look for harm supposedly caused by Agent Orange among Vietnamese civilians. Sadly, the Vietnamese government seems quite happy to trot out alleged victims, hoping eventually to receive reparations from U.S. taxpayers.

Anyone up for Gulf War Syndrome II?

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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