NEW YORK – The widespread use of depleted uranium (search) weapons by U.S. and British forces in Iraq could pose serious health and environmental risks to troops and residents, nuclear and medical experts warned Saturday.
Dr. Helen Caldicott (search), president of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute (search), which organized the gathering, said the hazards of using the radioactive material included severe consequences for kidney function and environmental pollution.
Some experts on the health risks of depleted uranium weapons called for them to be banned. Others came close to the Pentagon's assurances that so-called DU weapons do not pose an "unacceptable health risk" to U.S. troops.
Depleted uranium, which is left over from the process of enriching uranium for use as nuclear fuel, is an extremely dense material that the U.S. and British militaries use for tank armor and armor-piercing weapons. It is far less radioactive than natural uranium.
Most of the scientists, physicians and specialists in the field called for more study about the radioactive and chemical impacts of the material on the lungs, kidneys, lymph systems and other organs. They also demanded a full accounting of its use, not only in the recent war in Iraq but also in the 1991 Gulf War and in the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Hari Sharma, a retired chemistry professor from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, said "as long as something is radioactive, you are going to do harm to human health."
The Pentagon has said the use of depleted uranium weapons gives American forces a tremendous advantage on the battlefield. The Pentagon and many experts also contend that the material, because of its low radioactivity, poses no risk to the health of soldiers handling munitions made from it or to civilians living in areas where those shells were used.
The anti-nuclear institute, based in Washington and San Francisco, invited the Pentagon to send a speaker to the symposium but the Defense Department declined, Caldicott said.
Daniel Fahey, a former member of the Navy who has produced several reports on depleted uranium weapons, said the Pentagon exaggerates the need for them, especially in wars against armies with antiquated equipment.
He called for immediate disclosure of the amounts and locations of the weapons use in Iraq, a post-conflict assessment by the U.N. Environment Program, and cleanup of affected sites.
Experts at the Pentagon and the United Nations have estimated that 1,100-2,200 tons of depleted uranium were used by U.S.-led coalition forces during their attack on Iraq in March and April.
This contrasts with about 375 tons used in the 1991 Gulf War, 11 tons fired during the 1999 war against Serbia over Kosovo and a much smaller quantity used against rebel Serb positions in Bosnia in 1995.
Sharma studied urine specimens from soldiers of several countries that fought in the 1991 Gulf War and later studied tissues samples from people in southern Iraq. All showed evidence that depleted uranium had lodged in the human body, he said.
However, scientists will not be able to say precisely what impact depleted uranium had in the recent war until more tests are done, he said.