U.S. use of depleted uranium under fire
05:56 PM PST on Thursday, November 11, 2004
By LORI MATSUKAWA / KING 5 News
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Alvin Clark, of Tacoma, developed aplastic anemia he believes is related
to his exposure to depleted uranium dust after he was hit by friendly
fire in Saudi Arabia.
Shells and armor used by U.S. tanks, gunships and helicopters are often
made of depleted uranium because depleted uranium, or D.U., is a heavy
metal, able to pierce armored vehicles or resist being pierced. But it's
also radioactive, a waste product of nuclear enrichment plants like
A pentagon training film shows how the D.U. ordnance bursts into a fiery
powder on contact.
So, what happens when U.S. Troops are forced to march through the D.U.
dust that's left on the ground? Or get hit by friendly fire? Some vets
say it made them sick. The Pentagon disputes that.
Shinichi Matsuura of Renton fought in the first Gulf War. His Bradley
tank was hit not once, but twice, by U.S. forces. He breathed a lot of
"Matter of fact I didn't know we were using D.U. until six years ago,"
Alvin Clark of Tacoma says his unit was nearly hit by a friendly fire
missile in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. He developed aplastic anemia and needed
a bone marrow transplant.
Clark said no one ever warned him there might be some depleted uranium
out there, and if he were exposed to it, what he was supposed to do
Dennis Kyne of San Jose says his unit marched along the bombed-out
"highway of death" to Baghdad. He receives a disability check from the
government each month for an "undiagnosed illness."
"My chain of command says I'm big enough and strong enough and soldier
enough to walk through this stuff and .. it's just like lead. Just a
little bit heavy and might affect the kidneys," he said.
This October, the Pentagon released findings of a five-year study of D.U.
dust. Residue was collected from shot-up tanks, and analyzed by computer
models. The military's conclusion? Half of the inhaled D.U. - a
radioactive heavy metal - would be excreted by the body in 10 to 100
"Even individuals with the highest potential for exposure still have
doses that are well below peacetime safety standards. Which would be
allowable here in the states so if you put that in the context of other
combat risks, I'd have to say the military exposures to depleted uranium
are safe," said Lt. Col. Mark Melanson.
It's a slightly different story for veterans with D.U. shrapnel embedded
in their bodies.
The V.A. in Baltimore is studying about 70 Gulf War one vets, including
Shinishi Matsuura, and has found elevated levels of uranium in the urine
of several men more than a decade after the conflict.
But Pentagon officials say this, too, is no cause for alarm.
"It's important to note that this group has been followed for over 10
years and no adverse health effects associated with depleted uranium
have been found," officials said.
In the first Gulf War, the Pentagon estimates it used 315 to 350 tones
of D.U. In today's conflict, it estimates coalition forces have used
three to six times that.
So what about the D.U. remaining in Iraq?
In a video provided by the Uranium Medical Research Centre of Canada,
researchers found soil and spent munitions with radiation levels
thousands of times higher than Department of Defense guidelines. U.S.
soldiers tried to warn-off the researchers.
Congressman Jim McDermott, a medical doctor and Iraq war critic,
questions using D.U. at all. During a hospital visit in Baghdad before
the war, McDermott was told Iraq now has the highest rate of childhood
leukemia in the world.
"I saw what it did to the Iraqis, but now I see that we're marching our
own people through that, creating birth defects in children, leukemia in
children, illnesses among adults. Then it becomes a question of really a
war crime. The Geneva Convention says you cannot do something that has a
long term effect on the country," said McDermott.
The Pentagon maintains D.U. is safe and necessary in war.
"You take with you the best weapons systems you can so you can defeat
the enemy with overwhelming lethality," said Dr. Michael Kilpatrick.
The Pentagon says for penetrating armor, depleted uranium is the heavy
metal that is the best.
"It's not the best, it's the worst," said Kyne. "It inherently becomes
the worst possible weapon because it's no longer just attacking the
enemy, it's omnicidal, it kills all of us."
The U.S. and U.K. are the only militaries that use D.U. Most exposure to
U.S. soldiers has been from fire from its own forces.
In 1996, the United Nations Sub Commission on Promotion and Protection
of Human Rights found use of D.U. weapons "incompatible" with existing