The US and Britain expended over 2,000 tons of depleted uranium (DU) in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Syria. Now, London plans to hand DU shells to Ukraine. British and US officials insist the weapons are safe, but what does the evidence say? Sputnik investigates.
The political fallout over the United Kingdom’s decision to send DU anti-tank shells to Kiev for use along with its Challenger 2 tanks continues to spread. On Saturday, President Putin said he didn’t buy Britain’s assurances that the munitions wouldn’t cause any health effects, and that taking into account the toxic radioactive dust generated by the shells, they “of course amount to a weapon of the most dangerous kind.”
Igor Kirillov, the head of Russia’s Radiation, Chemical and Biological Defense (RCBD) Troops, echoed the president’s concerns, predicting that the weapons’ use would “cause irreparable harm” to the health of soldiers and the civilian population alike, with DU compounds expected to remain in the soil and affect people, animals and the environment for many years to come.
Russia’s concerns are not unjustified. Throughout the past year, Russian intelligence and the RCBD Troops issued report after worrying report regarding Kiev’s ambitions to build nuclear weapons, scenarios involving false flags using radioactive dirty bombs, and a long list of evidence of dangerous US and European-funded and coordinated experiments with biological weapons at Ukraine-based biolabs.
But depleted uranium poses a special kind of danger, due both to its availability and record of use.
Discovered during the Cold War by US and British scientists as an effective but controversial armor-piercing weapon, DU tank and artillery shells and air-dropped bombs are stuffed with the uranium byproducts left over from the production of nuclear energy.
The militaries of NATO, the USSR, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and South Africa stockpiled hundreds of thousands of tons of DU materials, but the WWIII scenario they were training for never became a reality.
But having acquired the weapons, the US and its NATO allies quickly found places to use them, overlooking all potential international legal and moral barriers. DU shells and bombs were deployed during the Gulf War in 1991, in the bombardment of Bosnia and the rump state of Yugoslavia in 1995 and 1999, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2001-2021 occupation of Afghanistan, the dirty war against Syria, and, allegedly, the 2011 NATO air campaign in Libya.
Iraq and the former Yugoslavia were hit the hardest, with upwards of 2,300 tons of DU used in the Middle Eastern country in 1991 and 2003-2005, and as much as 30 tons strewn across the Balkans between the mid-to-late 1990s. Almost every country in which DU has been used has reported a surge in deadly ailments, including cancers, strokes, and birth defects. In Iraq, cancer rates in DU-affected areas jumped from 40 cases per 100,000 in 1991 to 800 per 100,000 in 1995, and 1,600 per 100,000 by 2005. Serbs, Bosnians, Kosovar Albanians, Montenegrins and other peoples of the former Yugoslavia suffered a similar fate, with Serbia today facing some of the highest cancer rates in Europe, with many attributing the spike in illness to NATO’s DU deployment two-and-a-half decades ago.
‘Anecdotal Evidence’ Claiming Real Lives
The US and UK governments have bent over backwards to avoid admitting that depleted uranium is the cause of the epidemic of cancers facing Iraqis, Serbs and others, suggesting evidence regarding their effects is “anecdotal” and “circumstantial.”
In 2021, British and US researchers released a much-cited study which concluded that low-level exposure to pesticides and sarin nerve gas, not depleted uranium, were the “most likely” causes of Gulf War Syndrome – the chronic disorder faced by about hundreds of thousands of US vets who took part in the 1991 Gulf War, and who now face a heightened incidence of cancers, respiratory and neurological illnesses, and other diseases.
“The British Army has used depleted uranium in its armor piercing shells for decades,” Britain’s Defense Ministry said in a statement last week meant to “debunk” Moscow’s concerns. “Russia knows this, but is deliberately trying to disinform. Independent research by scientists from groups such as the Royal Society has assessed that any impact to personal health and the environment from the use of depleted uranium munitions is likely to be low.”
But independent academics and researchers who have studied the weapons’ use and impact tell a very different story, as do those who know victims of depleted uranium poisoning, including Iraqi and Balkan civilians, but also NATO troops tasked with handling and deploying the toxic weapons.
“[Coalition forces] used depleted uranium shells in Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf, Baqubah and Fallujah; they were extensively used in Fallujah in 2004, and today, about 15 percent of the children born in this city suffer from congenital deformities, which is a very high rate. About 5 percent die from these deformities,” Dr. Souad Naji Al-Azzawi, a prolific Iraqi researcher specializing in hazardous waste contamination, told Sputnik in an interview.
“They completely destroyed Fallujah with these and other weapons,” the academic said, noting that radioactive contaminants spread by DU munitions have polluted the entire region’s food supply.
Al-Azzawi said there are roughly 5,000 DU-contaminated tanks and other armored vehicles destroyed by the coalition in the 1991 war and after the 2003 invasion spread across nearly two dozen large tank grave yards around Basra. “Whenever a sandstorm blows through the area, an additional dose of radiation moves from these sites towards the civilian population,” she noted.
Srjan Aleksic, a Serbian lawyer who represents victims of the 1999 NATO bombings, says DU has killed and sickened many of his relatives and clients.
“My mother died from depleted uranium, as did many of my relatives from the village of Bushtranje. NATO officials themselves admitted that they bombed Plackovica Mountain, overlooking the city of Vranje, and four villages near the border with Macedonia. There were large numbers of troops and equipment near Vranje, and NATO bombed these villages with depleted uranium every day,” Aleksic recalled in an interview.
“In 2005 alone, an area of about two square kilometers was cleared of depleted uranium. Our army did that. They put up a wire fence and wrote ‘Hazard to Life: Do Not Approach’. But nobody knew about that until 2005,” the lawyer added.
Aleksic hopes to take a case against NATO to Belgrade’s Higher Court later this year, representing a Serbian officer who filed to sue the alliance in early 2021, but subsequently died, with a health checkup finding levels of uranium contaminants in his body to be off the charts. NATO claims immunity from prosecution, but the attorney hopes to win compensation for the victim’s family anyway, saying the court could reach a verdict without the alliance’s participation.
“There is no immunity from criminal responsibility, especially when it comes to responsibility to civilians. My mother got sick, my relatives got sick, my clients got sick. They had nothing to do with the war; I am not getting into politics. I’m just talking about the consequences,” Aleksic stressed.
The lawyer explained that his efforts to defend victims of the 1999 bombings got started after working with Angelo Fiore Tartaglia, a Rome-based attorney who has spent some 20 years of his life representing Italian soldiers injured by DU, and their families.
“He has been very successful. Many Italian soldiers have cancer, especially those who were in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 when NATO bombed it with depleted uranium, as well as Kosovo and Metohija. To date, he has obtained 330 [favorable] final judgements – 400 Italian soldiers have died from the effects of cancer – and he has proven a causal link between depleted uranium and their adverse health effects,” Aleksic said.
Domenico Leggiero is a retired Italian military pilot and weapons inspector who saw firsthand how many of his colleagues began to “fall ill with cancers, just like falling leaves,” after service in the former Yugoslavia. Leggiero now heads Osservatorio Militaire, an Italian military watchdog that seeks to shed light on the consequences of DU use on Italian troops.
“We couldn’t figure out where the cancers were coming from until we and our medics started taking biopsy samples from troops that had gotten sick, or even died. So we would take the primary biopsy of tumors and look at them not as medics, but as physicists, and realized that within these biopsy samples, there were materials that shouldn’t have been there,” Leggiero told Sputnik.
“We’re talking cadmium, we’re talking mineral substances, heavy metals. Furthermore, these heavy metals all had a well-defined shape and size – a very small size – 10-100 times smaller than PM-10 [particles with a diameter of 10 microns or less, ed.]. They basically had a spherical shape,” the soldier explained.
In research, Leggiero and his colleagues discovered that these particles were so minute and numerous that they were could disburse in the air over long periods of time, get inhaled by exposed civilians and military personnel, and enter the food chain after being deposited on crops.
The veteran said the Italian military’s commanders “knew” about the health risks associated with DU munitions since they were provided with this information by the Pentagon, but ordinary soldiers “were not warned.”
“I am in possession of all possible and imaginable documentation, including the rules on how to treat material contaminated with uranium. These rules were established at the level of the general staff; they were never issued among the troops, and therefore we essentially had a massacre,” Leggiero said.
‘Depleted Uranium Makes No Distinction Between Nationalities’
Dr. Hans-Christof von Sponeck, a former UN assistant secretary-general and UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq who resigned in 2000 in protest against the UN’s sanctions regime, which he said constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions, has no doubt in his mind about the consequences of the US and Britain’s use of DU on Iraqi civilians.
“I will not pronounce on the question of whether the use of depleted uranium is legal or illegal – this debate is still taking place elsewhere. What I can state without hesitation is that I have seen the victims of depleted uranium munitions used by the US military in southern Iraq. On several occasions, I visited the Mother and Child Hospital in Basra in 1999 and saw young mothers with their horrifically deformed babies, something that had not existed before the 1991 war,” Sponeck told Sputnik.
“Let me also add that depleted uranium does not make a distinction between different nationalities. British and American soldiers deployed to southern Iraq and their families, also became the victims of depleted uranium, as court cases in the UK and the US confirm…Should depleted uranium munitions be used in Ukraine, it would mean that people in the area, soldiers and civilians alike, would be victimized even though the dangers of such munitions are well known in 2023,” the veteran German diplomat stressed.
What Makes DU Charges Difficult to Pursue?
“Based on what we know, depleted uranium will be bad for health and likely cause cancer. However, linking depleted uranium exposure to its effects using epidemiology is extremely difficult,” says Dr. Keith Baverstock, a veteran University of Eastern Finland biologist and former head of the Radiation Protection Program at the World Health Organization’s European office.
For one thing, Baverstock said, “exposure is very local to where a depleted uranium munition impacts but the depleted uranium, particularly in arid conditions, persists on the surface of the ground, so defining an exposed population is also difficult.” On top of that, the security situation in some affected countries, particularly Iraq, makes meaningful epidemiological research next to impossible, according to the scientist.
“However, we have information from animal and laboratory studies that tell us that DNA will be damaged if inhaled depleted uranium dust crosses the blood/air barrier in the lung (it can become systemic), and thus the normal functioning of cells, including germ cells, could be impaired and thus health effects, including cancer and birth defects, are likely risks in persons exposed to depleted uranium dust via inhalation,” the academic said.
“As a public health scientist, I regard these weapons as illegal, as do some EU countries,” Baverstock added.
Cancer Rates Double Those of Hiroshima
Chris Busby is a physical chemist, internal ionizing radiation expert and former senior researcher for a 2000s UK Ministry of Defense study examining the effects of DU weapons on veterans of the First Gulf War.
In an extensive, wide-ranging and highly illuminating interview with Sputnik, Dr. Busby explained how he and a group of British and Iraqi colleagues carried out extensive, first-hand, on-the-ground research into oncological diseases and child mortality in Iraq in the mid-to-late 2000s. Research led them to discover that cancer rates in Fallujah – specifically those associated with radiation, like leukemia and lymphoma, were higher than those in Hiroshima, the Japanese city hit with a US atomic bomb in 1945, and not just by a little, but by a factor of two or even more, depending on the cancer type.
“We found out the high level of infant mortality within the first year of life and the cause of these deaths were congenital malformations. We also [found a] skewed birth sex ratio, which is another sign of genetic damage associated with radiation exposure. We put all of these results together and concluded that there had been some very large genetic damage event which occurred around the time of the Fallujah [campaign],” the academic said.
Busby recalled how at the time, the Americans denied using DU munitions, prompting him and his colleagues to examine the hair of Iraqi women whose children suffered birth defects. That’s when they found what looks like smoking gun evidence of a direct correlation between the genetic mutations and DU use.
“There’s a method called ICP-MS, Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry, in which you can take a hair sample and you can dissolve it in acid, and then you can measure the atoms inside the hair sample and see what the concentration of all these different elements are. So we looked at 52 elements in the hair of 20 mothers of children with congenital malformations, and we found that there was an anomalously high level of uranium. The only anomaly we found associated with an element which can cause congenital malformations was uranium. And we found that. Arab women have very long hair. We know the rate at which hair grows, so we cut the hair into little slices and measured the uranium in each of the slices going back to the first bit. So we [could] get a graph of the uranium in the hair going right the way back to about 2005. And what we found is that the uranium went up, when we went back in time. So clearly there was an increase in uranium round about the time just after Fallujah battle, which then reduced as time went on, obviously because it got excreted from the system. So we had more or less proof, that uranium was the cause of all of these congenital malformations, genetic damage, sex ratio and extraordinary high level of cancer,” the scientist said.
Busby says that one of the factors making DU so deadly is its ability to bind strongly to DNA – a factor the scientific community has known about since the 1950s. As uranium burns, it produces microscopic volatile particles which behave like a gas and can contaminate wide swathes of territory, not only the environment surrounding battlefields, but neighboring countries or even distant regions. The academic pointed out, for example, that filters in the UK looking out for uranium picked up contamination from Iraq in 2003.
Another issue, which Dr. Busby said he discovered mostly independently, and which he presented to the MoD’s Depleted Uranium Oversight Board in 2004, is uranium’s very high atomic number (the number of protons in the nucleus of an atom), which he said turns it into “a sort of amplifier for normal radiation.”
“We all live in an environment where we get gamma rays that come through our body and go out… If you’ve got uranium inside you, then it intercepts this [radiation] because of its high atomic number and all its electrons. In my opinion, and I’ve written quite a lot about this, this is the reason why uranium is very dangerous. First of all, it binds to DNA. Secondly, it causes these photo electrons to be omitted into the DNA. And all studies that have been done of people exposed to uranium showed massive chromosome damage. So when they look to see the chromosomes in their cells, in the peripheral blood cells, they find massive amounts of chromosome damage that leads to genetic effects – cancer, birth defects and so forth. So that’s the reason why uranium is so dangerous,” the academic emphasized.
‘There’s Nothing to Do Except Wait for Them to Die’
Busby noted that once uranium contaminant particles enter the body, they don’t go away. Instead, they sit inside the victim, “shooting off little cannonballs all the time, close into the cells,” into the DNA, until a tumor is formed.
Recalling visits to Iraqi hospitals and conversations with local doctors treating people suffering from the DU usage after the First Gulf War, the scientist recalled how doctors told him that there was nothing they could do to combat the disease thanks to the tough sanctions regime against Iraq.
Busby emphasized that even with access to the right medicines and medical care, “to be honest, there’s not much you can do” for those affected.
“If you’ve got the sorts of pictures that we see and that I have, of the children with congenital malformations, there’s nothing you can do except throw your hands up and wait for them to die. I talked to a number of families while I was in the hospitals and looking at the poor children with leukemia lying there in beds. They were going to die, that’s it. There’s nothing you can do. And the contamination of the area is a public health nightmare, because the doctors can’t do anything,” the academic said.
Putin ‘Absolutely Right’ to Be Concerned
Saying that he’s familiar with President Putin’s remarks on the dangers posed by the potential use of DU weapons in Ukraine, Busby said the Russian leader was “absolutely right” to be upset and concerned.
“President Putin has accurately identified this as a weapon of mass destruction, a weapon of indiscriminate effect. The British and the Americans continue to cling to their crazy theory that these radioactive substances which bind to DNA are effectively harmless and have no genetic or indiscriminate effects on populations. In this case, I just have to say that the British are wrong, that this substance is contaminating Europe and it will cause all of the effects that it caused in Iraq that I have shown. It will cause all those effects in Germany, and Luxembourg, and France, and Sweden, and the Baltic States and long list of countries which stand between Ukraine and the United Kingdom,” the observer stressed.
The problem today, according to Dr. Busby, is that the military planners in Washington and London see DU as a “magic” anti-tank weapon. “It’s inconceivable that the military would allow anyone to stop them using [DU] in a real war where you want to win, and they don’t really care about the people that die as a result of all of this, the collateral damage…the cancers downwind, the congenital malformations, the weeping parents and all the rest of it,” the scientist summed up.