The United States announced plans to send depleted uranium to Ukraine earlier this month. Uranium is very dense, which is useful on the battlefield: Bullets that have elements of depleted uranium can pierce armor, and tanks made of depleted uranium stand up well against enemy fire.
Almost all the reporting about the move includes the clarification that adverse health risks of depleted uranium — a byproduct of uranium enrichment for nuclear reactors and weapons — are not conclusive. Studies cannot find depleted uranium to be the sole cause of illnesses experienced by U.S. service members after returning home from Iraq in the ‘90s and early aughts. But in Fallujah, Iraq, where the U.S. used tons of depleted uranium munitions, the fallout from the 2003 invasion is ongoing, with Iraqi babies still experiencing congenital abnormalities at staggeringly high rates.
Areas of the former Yugoslavia, where depleted uranium was used by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, are likewise still reaping the consequences. In 1999, NATO used depleted uranium in its attacks on Yugoslavia. In 2001, a UN inquiry led by Pekka Haavisto went to Kosovo to assess radiation levels where depleted uranium was used. He said, “We were surprised to find this a year and a half later. People had collected ammunition shards as souvenirs and there were cows grazing in contaminated areas, which means the contaminated dust can get into the milk.” Just two years after the bombing, nine Balkan veterans in Belgium had been diagnosed with cancer, and five of them had died, according to the New York Times. In Italy, 12 were diagnosed with cancer and six of them died from leukemia.
It is true that public health issues stemming from the invasion of Iraq can’t be attributed solely to depleted uranium, because the U.S. unleashed multiple kinds of chemical or radioactive weapons on the Iraqi people, including white phosphorus. Researchers cannot necessarily only point to depleted uranium or white phosphorus, also used in Fallujah, because perhaps all these weapons in unison caused the problems we are still seeing nearly 20 years later.
Independent researchers published a study in Environmental Pollution focusing on the health outcomes of Iraqis who were exposed to uranium and thorium. Researchers wrote that, “Doctors are regularly encountering anomalies in babies that are so gruesome they cannot even find precedents for them.” The conclusion was that, “the more you were around these American weapons, the more likely you were to bear children with [congenital abnormalities] and other health problems.” Keith Braverstock, who researched at the World Health Organization (WHO) for 12 years, discovered evidence of depleted uranium’s likely toxicity while the WHO was developing its position on depleted uranium. As journalist Doug Weir reports in the New Internationalist:
During the development of the WHO’s stance, [Braverstock] discovered evidence that [depleted uranium] was potentially genotoxic – in other words, it is capable of damaging human genetic material, potentially leading to cancer. This peer-reviewed data, which came from the US military’s own research, was excluded from the final draft of what would become the ‘WHO Monograph’. Baverstock blames direct pressure from senior management.
While mainstream reporting suggests depleted uranium has not been conclusively linked to negative public health outcomes, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has its doubts. The VA’s website encourages veterans to report any health issues they think may be a result of depleted uranium. Some symptoms that are associated with depleted uranium exposure are kidney failure, headaches and respiratory issues. The VA explains that uranium is “‘depleted’ of about 40 percent of its radioactivity, but retains the same chemical toxicity as natural uranium.”
As a radioactive material, depleted uranium can enter a human body through inhalation or as fragments puncturing parts of the body. The full impact of the hundreds of tons of depleted uranium used in Iraq and Yugoslavia won’t be understood for a long time because of the substance’s long disintegration rate. Still, the notion that depleted uranium does not carry conclusive health risks is inaccurate. The VA’s Depleted Uranium Follow-Up program mentions the treatment of some cases consisting of removal of the depleted uranium if it is lodged somewhere in the body.
The reports seem hesitant to draw any conclusions between depleted uranium and decades-long public health crises in Iraq, Yugoslavia and elsewhere. However, we can draw at least one clear conclusion after the recent shipment of cluster munitions and depleted uranium to Ukraine: President Joe Biden has shown an unwavering willingness to use and send weapons that are known to cause long-term health issues and decades-long fallout. Cluster munitions were banned by over 100 countries around the world because of the risks to civilian populations, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has expressed concern over the potential harm associated with using depleted uranium. While President Biden expresses his concern for civilians, he ships controversial weapons that can harm civilians for generations.
When wars are over, the remnants don’t just evaporate into thin air. Run-down tanks, bullets and undetonated bombs litter war zones for decades. In countries like Laos and Cambodia, children who were born years after the U.S. left Vietnam picked up unexploded cluster bombs that left them maimed for the rest of their lives. Since the end of the Vietnam War, 20,000 people in Laos have been killed or injured by undetonated bombs.
Despite the fallout experienced in Iraq and Yugoslavia, there are no international treaties banning the use of depleted uranium in war.
In southern Iraq, where the U.S. used depleted uranium, the community has experienced unprecedented rates of congenital birth abnormalities and cancer. War and trauma stick around. By shipping depleted uranium to Ukraine, the U.S. has extended the harm caused by the conflict well past its final day, whenever that may arrive.
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