In 2012, European researchers visited a scrap metal site in Al Zubayr, an area near Basrah in southern Iraq. A local police officer told them that the site had at one time held military scrap metal from the bloody battles waged during the American invasion. A local guard told the researchers that children had been seen playing on the scrap during that time, and both adults and children had worked disassembling the military leftovers. At one point, the guard said, members of an international organization with equipment and white suits showed up, told guards that the site was very dangerous and “quickly ran off.”
The researchers, working with the Dutch peace group IKV Pax Christi, with funding from the Norwegian government, visited areas in Iraq where depleted uranium contamination had been reported by Iraqis and international observers. Depleted uranium is a chemically toxic and radioactive heavy metal produced as a waste product of the nuclear power industry. Depleted uranium was used in armor-piercing munitions fired by US and Coalition forces during both the 2003 invasion and the 1991 Gulf war in Iraq.
There are between 300 and 365 sites where depleted uranium contamination was identified by Iraqi authorities the years following the 2003 US invasion, with an estimated cleanup cost of $30 million to $45 million, according to a report recently released by IKV Pax Christi. Iraqi authorities are currently cleaning up the sites, mostly located in the Basrah region, and 30 to 35 sites still need to be decontaminated.
The health impacts of depleted uranium have been subject to international debate since the 1991 Gulf war in Iraq, and the US and British governments have disputed allegations that their weapons have poisoned soldiers and civilians and caused increased rates of cancer and birth defects. Depleted uranium is 40 percent less radioactive than uranium in its natural form, but the heavy metal is toxic and can potentially cause kidney damage, according to the US Department of Defense.
Doctors and researchers have reported increased rates of cancer and birth defects in areas where coalition forces used depleted uranium, but a lack of data and long-term studies in contaminated areas make it difficult to determine if depleted uranium contributed to the uptick in health problems along with other environmental and war-related factors, according to the report.
Sensationalist reports on the impacts of depleted uranium, along with a general distrust of both foreign and domestic authorities, have stoked continued anxiety among civilians about the potential dangers of contamination, the report states.
Research conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 2006 to 2007 in four areas in Iraq determined that radioactivity from depleted uranium did not pose a significant health risk to civilians who might encounter residues or inhale airborne radioactive dusts, but the IAEA warned that civilians could be exposed to higher doses if they enter vehicles destroyed by depleted uranium munitions.
The IAEA has recommended that contaminated military equipment not be reprocessed as scrap and instead be disposed of as low-level radioactive waste.
The report also warns that scrap metal dealers are spreading contamination, and poor oversight has allowed children and other civilians access to contaminated areas and equipment with little or no information about the potential dangers of exposure.
The report documents evidence that depleted uranium munitions were fired on light vehicles, buildings and other civilian infrastructure, including the Iraqi Ministry of Planning in Baghdad.
“The use of depleted uranium in populated areas is alarming,” the report states, casting doubt on previous assurances by coalition forces that depleted uranium would only be used on targeted armored vehicles, a major justification for using the heavy metal during the war.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has estimated that 1,000 to 2,000 metric tons of depleted uranium was fired during the 2003 war in Iraq.
The extent of the depleted uranium contamination remains unclear, however, and the report blames a lack of transparency on behalf of coalition and US forces on the use of depleted uranium during the invasion. There is an absence of data and “crucial information” on the amount and types of depleted uranium weapons used, their targets, and the remediation efforts undertaken shortly after the war by the provisional government, making it difficult for international aid organizations and Iraqi authorities to assess and manage contamination with the ultimate goal of reducing harm to civilians.
In a statement, a military official with US Central Command told Truthout that US forces and the US embassy “tried to share everything we knew with the Iraqis (Ministry of Health), including locations depleted uranium [was] used, as best as we could track it.” He added that no depleted uranium munitions were used after 2003.
A spokesperson with the Defense Department stated that, under wartime conditions, it would be “impossible” to track all the depleted uranium used during fighting.
The report argues that the Iraqi government lacks the resources to decontaminate areas impacted by depleted uranium and has been unable to regulate the trade of military metal. More international assistance and data from the US military is needed, and with both adults and children reportedly coming into contact with the scrap, concerns about potential health impacts remain very real in Iraq.