Paper Submitted To:
Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights
Agenda Item 12:
Review of further developments in fields with which the Sub-Commission has been concerned
Sub-item (d) (i) Adverse consequences of the transfer of arms and illicit trafficking in arms
on the enjoyment of human rights
(Scheduled to be discussed Monday, 23 August 1999).
Catherine Euler, Ph.D.
International Peace Bureau/Campaign Against Depleted Uranium
One World Centre
6 Mount St.
Manchester M2 5NS UK
Email: gmdcnd @ gn.apc.org
Written Report - Depleted Uranium Weapons
We are pleased to present further information to the Sub-Commission on the use of depleted uranium weapons, which were included in the list of weapons of mass destruction and indiscriminate effect in the resolutions adopted by the Sub-Commission in 1996 and 1997 (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1996/16 & E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/27). We take this opportunity to thank the Sub-Commission for its work so far and assure you that many NGOs around the world await further action on this issue.
I believe the work of this Sub-Commission is of utmost importance in bringing the human rights issues associated with these weapons to the attention of the rest of the UN system, to the attention of national governments, and to the attention of NGOs worldwide. We have, for example, reprinted your 1996 resolution and distributed it in the information pack which we send to all those from around the world who have been requesting information on depleted uranium in ever greater numbers. This information brief has been sent to government ministers in several countries, including the US and UK. It is possible to progress on this issue partly through means of human rights work primarily because these weapons are already illegal under existing humanitarian law. According to human rights lawyers, there are four main tests to be used to determine whether or not a weapon is illegal: (1) whether or not they stay within the territorial range of the conflict; (2) whether or not the effects of the weapons end when the conflict ends, or the temporal range; (3) whether or not they are inhumane, that is, continue to cause physical damage beyond the point used for military purposes; and (4) whether or not they damage the environment, for example in contaminating food, water and soils. As I believe the Sub-Commission is well aware, Depleted Uranium Munitions fail all four tests. This paper is intended to give basic information about these weapons to help explain how and why these violations occur.
These are not nuclear weapons per se but rather radiological weapons which also have a chemically toxic effect similar to that of other heavy metals. These weapons have already been used in Kuwait, Iraq, Serbia and Kosovo (unconfirmed reports have mentioned Bosnia, but this is still under investigation). It is estimated that between 14-17 countries now have depleted uranium weapons in their arsenals and this proliferation is expected to continue. It is a matter of the utmost urgency that international agreement banning the manufacture, use or sale of these weapons be achieved as quickly as possible, before they are used again. Their use is a gross violation of humanitarian law. The proliferation and trafficking of these weapons should be forbidden because it increases the potential for long-term human rights violations, including damage to the human genome itself.
Depleted uranium has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, the age of the planet. DU is what remains of concentrated uranium (U235, U234, U238) after 5-7% of the isotope U235 has been removed for use in bombs and reactors. The U238 is an alpha emitter, and it has a number of short-lived decay products, including Thorium and Radium, which are beta and gamma emitters. Relative to plutonium and other transuranic isotopes, DU is categorised as a low-level radioactive waste of the nuclear industry. However, in the United States, those handling DU still need to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It is true that depleted uranium is less radioactive than an equal amount and an equal concentration of naturally occurring uranium. However, uranium never occurs naturally in the approximately 100% concentrations we see in DU. The categorisation of DU as a low-level radioactive waste relates particularly to its effect outside the human body. Once ingested or, most particularly, inhaled, even relatively low-level radioactive particles can have a damaging effect on nearby cells. If adult men and adult women receive equal doses of radiation, cancers are 1.5 times as likely to occur in the women. Children are also especially at risk because their bones are still growing and their expected life span means they have a longer period in which latent cancers can develop (Bertell, 1999b). So, in addition to their damage to general human rights, DU aerosols can also have a particularly damaging effect on the human rights of women and children.
DU can be inhaled (or ingested) in soluble, insoluble and ceramic forms. The soluble forms can pass through the human body in about 12 hours; much of the current scientific literature refers to this form. Ceramic DU is especially dangerous, because once inhaled it can stay in the body for a very long time, at least 8-9 years, possibly even 20, but further studies are required in order to know the full amount of time it remains in the body.
How does DU change to a ceramic form? When it hits a target - an armoured tank for instance - it bursts into flame. It is highly pyrophoric. When the temperature of the fire reaches 4500° C, a certain percentage of the DU melts and changes into the ceramic form, which is highly insoluble. It is similar to the process of firing a pot in a kiln. The fire causes the DU aerosol to rise into the air, and this aerosol has been measured up to 26 miles (ca. 40 km) away from the point of the fire. This is a conservative estimate of the range of the aerosol. One scientist has written that "the fallout range of DU aerosol dust is virtually unlimited" (Dietz, 1997). In Kuwait, the DU aerosol remained in the air for at least two years; there are unpublished reports that some of the DU aerosol also traveled to noncombatant countries like Saudi Arabia. The aerosol is composed of a large percentage of very fine particles which can be inhaled. In addition, some Cruise missiles contain a ballast made from depleted uranium; the same principles would apply to this material. We do not yet know for certain how many of the Cruise missiles which exploded in Serbia, for instance, carried DU, nor the approximate quantity involved. The fine black dust from these explosions contaminates soils for at least 50 metres from the point of impact (conservative measurement), and has been measured in soils at 225 metres from the immediate point of impact (Hanson, 1977), as well as in soils several kilometres downstream from the point of impact (Hanson, 1978).
Weapons tests using approximately 40,000-50,000 kg. of depleted uranium were conducted in the US state of New Mexico between 1955-1970. Los Alamos National Laboratory scientific reports on the ecological effects indicate the movement of depleted uranium through soils, water courses and the root systems of plants. In addition, depleted uranium was detected in the bones, hides and internal organs of several species of mammals, as well as in nearby insects (Hanson 1976, 1977, 1978). One former US Army expert on DU has suggested that people should avoid drinking nearby water or growing food in these soils, as some of the DU can be taken up in the root systems. In addition, the dust can be re-suspended whenever the ground is disturbed, eg., when ploughing or digging, thus increasing the potential for inhalation and internal exposure. In one current US army training pamphlet, anyone carrying out operations in DU-contaminated areas is advised to wear respiratory protection, cover their skin and hair and wash their hands thoroughly afterwards. Thus, depleted uranium munitions fail the temporal range tests, geographical range tests and the environmental tests for the legality of weapons.
Once inhaled, the alpha particles in ceramic DU will continue to irradiate a ca. 30 micron radius of cells in the lungs, where they will stay until they pass the lung-blood barrier and begin circulating in the bloodstream. Once they begin to circulate in the bloodstream, they can irradiate cells in the bone marrow, brain, kidneys, reproductive organs, etc., and thus can cause varied health effects, depending on which cells have been particularly affected. Epidemiologist Dr. Rosalie Bertell, of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health in Toronto, and named one of the UNEP 500, states that approximately 6-10 electron volts are required to break the RNA or DNA in cells. Each DU alpha particle releases 4.2 million electron volts when it decays. According to Dr. Bertell, one gram of DU can produce ca.12,000 Becquerels (nuclear transformations or explosions) per second. It is currently estimated that US personnel in the main theatre of operations in the Gulf War inhaled an average of 45 milligrams of DU. However, further studies are needed to confirm the rate of excretion and the amount of time DU actually remains within the human body in order to verify this estimate.
A limited number of scientific studies on the health effects of inhaling the ceramic form of uranium dioxide have so far taken place. We do know that DU has been found nine years after exposure in the urine and seminal fluid of several US, Canadian and UK Gulf War veterans, as well as in the urine of a few of the DU-exposed Iraqi civilians. The illnesses which the veterans report are similar to the illnesses reported among the southern Iraqi population which was also exposed to a widely dispersed DU aerosol. The US Department of Defence have published a map which shows the extent of the DU aerosol contamination in southern Iraq. At an international conference in London last month, Iraqi doctors reported a 7-10 fold increase in the rate of birth abnormalities occurring in approximately the same regional area as is indicated on the DoD map. At the same conference, researcher Roger Coghill estimated the amount of DU used by the US in the recent war in Kosovo and Serbia, and extrapolated from that figure the prediction that several thousand cancers could occur in the region due to exposure to DU aerosol. However, we don’t yet know how much DU was used in that war. The estimate of the potential numbers of cancers occurring over the next several decades in Kosovo and Serbia will remain a mathematical speculation until further in-depth studies can be carried out in the form of soil, water and urine tests. It is hoped that UNEP will be funded to carry out some of these tests independently without undue IAEA pressure or influence.
Cancers are not the only potential health effect of inhaling ceramic radioactive particulates. DU exposure may also be related to a reduced immune system response, to renal and neurological effects, as well as to both in utero and genetic malformations. Thus, like land mines, they continue to have potentially horrific and certainly inhumane effects on both combatants and non-combatants many, many years after the war is over. If the radiation damages the RNA or DNA in the cells, then the health effects of these weapons can continue for several generations into the future. This is one of the primary bases for my human rights argument. The children of Iraq are suffering from a war which occurred before they were born. The Iraqi people are not being allowed to have adequate medical supplies in order to deal with these problems. The children of refugees now returning to Kosovo may be affected, as well as their children’s children children. The great-grandchildren of American, Canadian and UK citizens may be affected, as well as those of Iraq, Kosovo and Serbia. It should not be dealt with as a national or political question so much as an humanitarian question affecting several nationalities. Humanity will not know the full extent of how many generations may be affected in the already contaminated areas, and how these effects may manifest themselves, for several years to come. Even though the half-life of DU is 4.5 billion years, this is a question of great urgency, precisely because once released the particles have the potential to go on killing almost indefinitely.
The inhumanity of this weapon is apparent. When an ionising particle leaves the orbit of its nucleus and smashes into another atom, it can do so with the same amount of force required to knock the earth out of its orbit around the sun (Bertell, 1978). Thus, there is substantial damage done to cells in the 30 micron radius as soon as the ceramic DU particle lodges within the body, albeit at a microscopic level. This damage goes on occurring for as long as the particle is in the body. At one conference on low-level radiation one scientist was heard to say, ‘well, but cells die and repair themselves all the time.’ Yes, but they are not deliberately destroyed by the release of radioactive materials all the time. Also, this damage continues for such a long time that eventually the body can’t keep up. Many of those exposed to DU aerosols are extremely ill; their ability to conduct their lives is severely impaired. They and their children have suffered for several years from the inhumanity of these weapons.
In fact, the toxicity of uranium is well-known, and it should not be needed to prove it again. "In Volume 2 of the Encyclopedia of Occupational Health, under uranium alloys and compounds, p. 2238, it reads: ‘Uranium poisoning is characterised by general health impairment. The element and its compounds produce changes in the kidneys, livers, lungs and cardiovascular, nervous and haemopoitic systems…Chronic poisoning results from prolonged exposure to low concentrations of insoluble compounds…it is reported that uranium exposure inhibits reproductive activity and affects uterine and extra-uterine development in experimental animals. Insoluble compounds tend to be retained in tissues and organs for long periods.’" (Bertell, 1999a, citing Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety).
Inhalation of DU aerosols can reduce the basic human rights of both combatants and non-combatants for generations into the future. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of long-term internal exposure to low-level ionising radiation. Dr. Rosalie Bertell writes that "Women (because of their radiation-sensitive breast and uterine tissue) and children (because their bones are growing and are able to pick up more DU than adults, and because they have a long expected life-span in which the cancers with long latency periods can develop) will be most at risk from the delayed DU weapon action" (August 1999). Human beings have the right to their own health, and to the health of their children. They have the right to life, which implies the right to a stable genome, since the human genome is the map, or pattern of all future life on earth, for as long as humanity exists. These abhorrent weapons can take away all these rights for those exposed, as well as for their families for several generations afterwards.
The UK Ministry of Defence has admitted that UK troops sent to Kosovo have been ordered to wear full radiological protection gear if they are near a tank which has been destroyed by depleted uranium weapons. DU is also used as ballast in Tomahawk Cruise missiles, several hundred of which were exploded inside Serbia at the beginning of the war, and thus anyone coming into contact with buildings destroyed by Cruise Missiles must also take adequate protective measures against DU particles in order to reduce their potential exposure. Pamphlets detailing the suggested protective measures which these populations should take should be translated into the relevant languages and distributed in the affected areas. A suggested pamphlet is available through the office of the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium.
The refugees now returning to Kosovo, as well as the existing population throughout the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, have not been adequately prepared to deal with this threat. It appears that some are being sent to a possibly radioactive environment (not a very humanitarian goal). It is difficult to assess the potential danger without a map of the affected areas, which has been very slow in coming, despite repeated requests by US-based NGOs under the Freedom of Information Act. NATO should release a map showing all the places where DU weapons or Cruise missiles were used in the war, in order to adequately advise refugees, press agencies, aid agencies and reconstruction workers in the area. So far they have delayed doing so. (The US Department of Defence has already published a similar map for southern Iraq.) The UK National Radiological Protection Board (a body with a reputation for a relatively conservative voice on these issues) have suggested that all people visiting or working in Kosovo should seek advice about where the DU contamination is and "avoid disturbing these areas" (NRPB, 1999).
It is also important that the soils in Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Iraq be tested for the presence of DU, and that an extensive programme of random urine testing of all veterans and a selection of civilians of each nationality involved be instituted as quickly as possible. At the moment, the position of the UK Ministry of Defence is that it will test veterans for exposure to DU if the veterans can first satisfy the clinician that they have been exposed to DU. This is a circular logic which is far from satisfactory. All national governments involved, including the UK government, should make every effort to determine whether or not the human rights of their own people have been violated. If the UK government funded independent scientists to carry out random tests (on those exposed and on those not exposed), this would go a long way towards showing good will towards these men, some of whom are very ill.
Meanwhile, the scientific debate on DU goes on. Both the US and UK defence ministries have repeatedly suggested that there is no evidence to suggest a link between DU and the observed health effects in their veteran populations. The US DoD has relied on the RAND Corporation report on DU, which they asked it to produce. The RAND Corporation has been the main military think-tank in the US since the early 1950s. Their published report on DU is primarily a review of literature on uranium, but it does not adequately address the question of the inhalation of the ceramic, aerosolised form of DU during or after battlefield conditions. In addition, NGOs like the Gulf War Resource Centre in Washington, DC, have identified several relevant scientific reports and articles which the RAND Corporation failed to review at all, including some results from the Veterans Administration programmes which point to the mutagenic nature of excreted urine containing DU. Recent statements by the US Department of Defense have minimised the harm which depleted uranium weapons can cause, discussing only the external effect of the radiation, not its effect within the body, and suggesting that we all take in natural uranium in food and water every day. This is true, but we ingest natural uranium in such small quantities that the body is able to excrete again quickly without much harm done. Natural uranium is present in approximately 1 part per million parts of soil. It is present in a soluble form, not an insoluble ceramic form. This is a crucial difference. (Soluble uranium is regulated by its chemical properties; insoluble uranium by its radiological properties. (Bertell, 1999)). If you have one gram of 100% concentrated natural uranium, and one gram of 100% concentrated depleted uranium, it is true that the depleted uranium will emit about half the radioactivity of the natural uranium, due to the removal of 5-7% of the isotope U235. However, natural uranium is never present in the 100% concentrations present in depleted uranium. Thus, depleted uranium in a concentrated form is much more radioactive than natural uranium ores, for example. (And we already know that the mining of natural soluble uranium ores can cause substantial damage to the health and lives of the miners; it is often mined on the lands of and by indigenous peoples in Canada, the US, Australia, and in sub-Saharan Africa.)
Thus, the public statements made by DoD personnel seem to be a deliberate attempt to confuse the public, the media, the servicemen and the world at large about the real danger of ingesting or especially inhaling DU particulates in real battle conditions. The type of DU analyses which the Veterans Administration are currently conducting are focused on embedded DU fragments rather than inhaled particulates, and also the technique being used appears to preclude the possibility of reconstructing the dose estimates for soldiers and civilians in southern Iraq, something which might be required in the event that compensation cases were brought. One member of the US military has stated that the US intends to continue using DU weapons because of their military effectiveness (Ziehm, 1991). The military like using DU weapons because they are so dense they penetrate armour very easily. The armour used in tanks can also be made with a DU component, so that they are more able to resist the impact of conventional shells.
Some researchers have also pointed to the concurrent presence of chemical toxins in some Iraqi areas. However, the correlation between these and the regions correlated to the observed health effects is not yet firm. In any case, the effect of low-level radiation can be to enhance the effect of exposure to chemical toxins. The governments which have used these weapons continue to point to the relative harmlessness of handling DU materials, without adequately discussing the potential health effects of inhaling the DU ceramic particulates. It may be that the governments’ responses to this question are not fully informed. In any case, the Precautionary Principle dictates that no further use of these weapons be made, so as to avoid risking long-term damage to the human genome and thus to humanity’s right to life. Depleted Uranium Munitions are quickly becoming an issue which the General Assembly, the Conference on Disarmament, the UNHCR, the ILO, WHO, UNEP, the Red Cross, and the Commission on Human Rights need to face very courageously, for the sake of all human beings who will ever exist after us.
We urge the Sub-Commission to continue to work in this area as a matter of pressing urgency.
Dr. Catherine Euler
Campaign Against Depleted Uranium
One World Centre
6 Mount St.
Manchester M2 5NS
Email: gmdcnd @ gn.apc.org
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