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April 6, 2004 2:23 PM   Subscribe

That American forces use depleted uranium in our weapons isn't news, but these statistic are a little spooky. According to Bob Nichols at the Dissident Voice, we've unleased 4,000,000 pounds of DU in Iraq. That's the radioactive equivalent of 250,000 Nagasaki bombs (pdf) says Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, former chief of Naval Staff in India. And since it's dust...it travels with the wind, which means Europe will see some fallout. It also turns out that most of the soldiers didn't know they were using DU, didn't know what DU was, and are now suffering reactions to it.
posted by dejah420 (32 comments total)

 
Maybe it's just me, but this seems like a terribly bad idea.
posted by The God Complex at 2:32 PM on April 6, 2004


It probably goes without saying, but Wikipedia has a good write-up on DU. The article seems to conclude that harmful effects of DU are as of yet... inconclusive.
posted by gwint at 2:35 PM on April 6, 2004


Last I heard, there were only 4 confirmed cases of radiation contamination, none of them on soliders who were closely associated w/ DU shells.

When did it become most?

(I'm not saying 4 is good, I'm just saying... )
posted by daver at 2:49 PM on April 6, 2004


Unfortunately, a cursory glance evinces loss of all credibility through statement in the good admiral's presentation that, "Cancer is initiated with one alpha particle..." Bullshit.

The Nagasaki bomb was of the "Fat Man" design, which used plutonium, not uranium.

If I understand the Dissident Voice writeup by Nichols, the admiral's thesis bases its calculation on "the number of radioactive atoms" in the DU versus that in the bomb, which seems odd, as they are two different materials chemically & radiologically (& thus toxicologically) - plus such an analysis woulfd seemingly ignore the effect of ionizing radiation emitted by the blast & the formation of fission activation products, which would make the bomb, pound for pound, more of a concern radiologically.

Half-assed fear-mongering hysteria like this does nothing to further meaningful discourse on the issue.
posted by Pressed Rat at 3:05 PM on April 6, 2004


this article is less hysterical, but perhaps more "fear-mongering" if that's what getting the truth out about scary things is. also, it's a sneak preview of the "fallout" from the present war.
posted by badstone at 3:12 PM on April 6, 2004


oops, that should say:
a sneak preview of what the "fallout" from the present war will be like.
posted by badstone at 3:16 PM on April 6, 2004


Four million pounds of it? I have a very hard time believing that one. I'm also not familiar with any support for his claim that it was used in bullets. Perhaps he means 30mm shells from the A-10's cannon, but he makes it sound as if every shot from an M-16 rifle is DU, and to my knowledge, that's not the case.
posted by Zonker at 3:17 PM on April 6, 2004


wo different materials chemically & radiologically

I'm not disagreeing, but could you clarify "different radiologically", is not all radiation radiation? What would be the difference (besides intensity) of radiation from a plutonium source vs a uranium source?
posted by geoff. at 3:21 PM on April 6, 2004


Also (from about.com and other Internet sites), I saw the highest recorded temperature as:

"In 1922 the temperature reached 136° Fahrenheit (58° C) in Libya."

That's a good 9 degrees below the state "in the shade" temperature in the article. I don't believe he was exagerating for effect.

While I'm as liberal as the next mefi, I don't want to become like the other side and spew uncited, fictitious garbage all over the Internet. This looks like a case of emotion over reason.
posted by geoff. at 3:26 PM on April 6, 2004


could you clarify "different radiologically"

All radiation is not just "radiation" - there are a few main categories that it can fall into, as a minimum of research will show you.
posted by majcher at 3:30 PM on April 6, 2004


It's particularly silly to suggest that the military chose to use DU penetrators in order to SOW RADIOACTIVE DEATH!!! in our enemies' soil. DU gets used because it's hugely dense, because it has the useful property of ablating itself as it hits armor so you get even better penetration, because it's easier to work than tungsten, and because it's dirt-cheap because it's a waste product of making nukes.

And DU isn't much more radioactive than your average lump of granite or coal. The one article even admits this, noting that DU will remain radioactive for 4.5 billion years -- which necessarily implies that it isn't very radioactive at all.

What the less histrionic articles note in passing, but don't dwell on, is that DU's primary toxicity is as a heavy metal, not as a radioactive. While problematic, the immediate alternatives, such as tungsten, would also be bad news.

What would be the difference (besides intensity) of radiation from a plutonium source vs a uranium source?

There's a huge difference in a fission bomb (of any element) versus uranium that's just sitting there. Fission bombs create all sorts of nasty radioactives when they go boom -- stuff with much shorter half-lives that will fuck you up but good, like strontium-90 and, especially, one or another isotope of iodine (googling: iodine-131, with a half-life of only eight days -- death in your thyroid).

Also, even sitting there, Pu-239 is a whole damn lot more radioactive than U-238. ISTR that Pu also has a whole shitload of other unpleasant properties.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:34 PM on April 6, 2004


geoff: Mode of decay is the main difference: alpha vs. beta vs. gamma. Alpha particles are helium nuclei, beta particles are electrons, and gamma "particles" are electromagnetic radiation (like visible light, or x-rays, or radio waves). Roughly speaking, alpha and beta radiation will only hurt you if you get really close to the emitter (i.e. direct physical contact). This includes, of course, eating or inhaling something that emits alpha or beta radiation: tiny, dust-like radioactive particles can therefore be particularly dangerous.

There are other factors to consider, as well. For instance, even within one type of radiation, different radioisotopes will emit particles of different energy. The more energetic the particle, the more potential for damage. There are also chemical considerations. For example, iodine radioisotopes are considered particularly dangerous because your body concentrates iodine in the thyroid gland. Ingesting radioactive iodine can therefore lead to very high doses of radiation to this small organ.

On top of the radiation (which could be argued to be a minimal risk, as this is, after all, depleted uranium), there's also the fact that uranium is a heavy metal, and therefore probably not the most friendly thing to ingest....
posted by mr_roboto at 3:35 PM on April 6, 2004


Argh. forgot to add in...

Pu-239 is a whole damn lot more radioactive than U-238

As in thousands and thousands of times more radioactive. Pu-239's half-life is 24,000 years, compared to U-238's 4.5 billion.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:37 PM on April 6, 2004


I'll be more likely to give consideration to hawks' "justification" of this once they agree to have a fine DU powder sprinkled into their household ventilation system for a decade or so.
posted by badstone at 3:48 PM on April 6, 2004


My point is that by making hyperbolic claims in contravention to known science, health physics and epidemiology, the argument's case is irreparably damaged. State the scientifically refereed truth, rather than diverging into rank heresay or hysterics - the truth may indeed be scary enough, but what's presented in the FPP & its references seems crap to me.

I'm not a nuclear engineer, but in layman's terms, all radiation is not equal. The hazard depends on the specific type of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, neutron), the energy level associated with it, the means and duration of exposure. Plutonium and uranium emit different types at different energy levels, corresponding to the particular isotope's half-life - essentially, the shorter the half-life, the greater the energy level emitted.

A fairly random, inexhaustive set of source material that may be useful, some of which is extraneous to this specific discussion, may be found at

WISE, World Nuclear, Canadian Coalition for Nuc Responsibility, Oak Ridge Assoc. Universities, EPA, ANS, etc.
posted by Pressed Rat at 3:53 PM on April 6, 2004


all radiation is not equal

Yes, particularly when the source is aerosolized to the point of solubility and then gets lodged in your brain and the rest of your organs. Yeah, that's a little bit "not equal."

just being hysterical here, don't mind me.

oh, and don't mind the ten fold increase in these since Gulf War I.
posted by badstone at 4:05 PM on April 6, 2004


mr_roboto makes the salient points.

it doesn't matter how radioactive or poisonous this stuff is...the fact that it's a little bit of either is horrendous considering the fact that it's inhaled. uranium oxide...my God, can you imagine this stuff getting out at a munitions plant explosion?

inhaling any kind of poison, whether it's heavy metals or radioactivity, is a sure-fire way to fuck you up real good. i'm not very interested in what studies say about how low the radioactivity levels or toxicity of this stuff is. i think common sense dictates that this is something we don't want to be messing with.
posted by taumeson at 4:12 PM on April 6, 2004


i'm not very interested in what studies say about how low the radioactivity levels or toxicity of this stuff is

Then don't act as if people should take you seriously. Common sense isn't much of a guide here, because we can't divine through common sense how bad something is going to be for us.

Most of the radiation we're exposed to is just background radiation, from radon seeping out of the ground and such. Our bodies can deal with radiation. So this attitude of "any is too much" is nonsense. It's a matter of how radioactive something is, and the quantities to which one is exposed. DU is called depleted because it isn't very radioactive, and ROU_Xenophobe does a good job in his posts of debunking a lot of the junk science that infects the rhetoric in this debate.
posted by Dasein at 6:38 PM on April 6, 2004


Merrill Eisenbud, a renowned Health Physicist and Winner of the 2003 Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award (posthumous) at the 48th annual meeting of the Health Physics Society, San Diego, CA 20-24 July 2003, authored a book entitled Environmental Radioactivity. Let us assume, for arguments sake, that he ascribed to the canon of ethics of his profession.

He estimated that in 1963, at the beginning of the atmospheric test ban treaty between US-USSR that there were 4 1/2 metric tonnes of plutonium in the upper atmosphere from above ground test shots. Moreover, at this period when, presumably, residual atmospheric contamination at ground level would have been at its historical highest, he estimated that there were 17 fempto-curies (10 to the minus 15) of Pu per cubic meter of air in New York City.

Accepting this hypothesis, application of the specific activity of weapons grade Pu to convert curies to grams and use of Avogadros number results in an effective ground-level concentration (if memory serves) on the order of ~39 million atoms of Pu per cubic meter of air in NYC at the time. I notice that neither is NYC a wasteland (perhaps open to debate), nor has its population from that time forward all succumbed to cancer. The admiral alludes to one alpha particle equaling cancer, as if that's a surity. I therefore contend that he is less interested in observable phenomena than in promoting hysteria.

You take my earlier comment out of context, badstone. Indeed, all radiation is not equal, which comment was in response to geoff.

Obviously, breathing uranium dust is not advisable, and probably has deleterious health effects, granted - causation and response are still under debate, both scientifically and politically. But much of the so-called" expose literature that seems to abound plays fast and loose with what those really in the know would call observable facts. In the rush to create converts, some don't make a distinction between what is known or only surmised.

You should question everything, including the arguments you find most seductive.
posted by Pressed Rat at 7:50 PM on April 6, 2004


I'll be more likely to give consideration to hawks' "justification" of this once they agree to have a fine DU powder sprinkled into their household ventilation system for a decade or so.

Or even better, let's let them go live in a country whose infrastructure is shattered, where water and electricity cannot be depended on, where the acquisition of food is in and of itself a challenge, and then sprinkle the stuff on their wheaties for a decade or so, so as to investigate 'causation and response' at our leisure.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:03 PM on April 6, 2004


inhaling any kind of poison, whether it's heavy metals or radioactivity, is a sure-fire way to fuck you up real good.

Word.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:14 PM on April 6, 2004


"I'll be more likely to give consideration to hawks' "justification" of this once they agree to have a fine DU powder sprinkled into their household ventilation system for a decade or so."

And I'll be more likely to take the people who are so dead set against this war more seriously when they agree to let the secret police come rape and torture their daughter, sisters and wives.

War is bad, bad things happen... risks happen. But DU shells are far and away the most effective tool for doing the job... and thus life goes on.
posted by soulhuntre at 11:17 PM on April 6, 2004


I remember reading that depleted uranium is actually used a radiation shield (more effective than lead) in several different applications. If you sat inside a DU house your body would actually recieve less radiation than when standing outside.
posted by BackwardsHatClub at 11:19 PM on April 6, 2004


ROU_Xenophobe does a good job in his posts of debunking a lot of the junk science that infects the rhetoric in this debate

On the other hand, don't go thinking I'm particularly defending the stuff. DU penetrator rods are used to kill human beings and destroy human property, so they're pretty fucking far from all right to start with, even before they start being poisonous.

My beef is with the implicit "... and then things would be better!" from people being hysterical about DU slugs; that's just a way to get yourself manipulated. If you're complaining about DU slugs giving off radiation that makes baby Jesus cry, all I have to do is switch to tungsten penetrators (at apparently rather a hefty expense), and Bob's your uncle. Of course, essentially all of the toxicity problems will remain, since AFAIK tungsten is as skanky a heavy metal as DU.

If you really don't like the stuff, campaign for peace or something so it doesn't get used. Or campaign to have armor banned from the battlefield so there's no real use for the stuff. Good luck in both cases.

Or go and invent a new weapons system that kills tanks dead but doesn't have the long-term toxicity problems.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:09 AM on April 7, 2004


I think the point is rather more "But DU shells are far and away the most effective tool for doing the job... and thus death goes on."

Toxic dust, the Breakfast of Champions!
posted by five fresh fish at 12:34 AM on April 7, 2004


Don't be pulled in by the screaming radiation heebee-jeebies; even regular-old-bullet lead is also a toxic metal with environmental effects of its own.
posted by monkey.pie.baker at 1:28 AM on April 7, 2004



Unfortunately, a cursory glance evinces loss of all credibility through statement in the good admiral's presentation that, "Cancer is initiated with one alpha particle..." Bullshit.


Fortunately, a microscopic examination evinces the opportunity to demonstrate the good admiral's prescience that plenty of cancerous Bullshit can be initiated with by the bleating of one bloodlusting alpha dog killer wannabe.

The Nagasaki bomb was of the "Fat Man" design, which used plutonium, not uranium.

The Nagasaki bomb was of the "Fat Man" design, which used plutonium, not uranium blades in it's frog blenders.

If I understand the Dissident Voice writeup by Nichols, the admiral's thesis bases its calculation on "the number of radioactive atoms" in the DU versus that in the bomb, which seems odd, as they are two different materials chemically & radiologically (& thus toxicologically) - plus such an analysis woulfd seemingly ignore the effect of ionizing radiation emitted by the blast & the formation of fission activation products, which would make the bomb, pound for pound, more of a concern radiologically.

If I make strenuous attempts to overlook the obvious in the Dissident Voice writeup by Nichols, the admirals's thesis bases its calculation on "the number of death-dealing poisonous atoms in the "Now Available Without Prescription" product versus those in the "By Presidential Order Only" product, which seems odd, as they are two different lethal poisons chemically & radiologically (& thus destroy living tissue differently) would seemingly ignore the effect of ionizing radiation emitted by the blast (hey, what floating irradiated chunk of formerly living brain cell would'nt give a fuck about thanking god for those ionizing effects which will make the area more of a concern radiologically?)

Half-assed fear-mongering hysteria like this does nothing to further meaningful discourse on the issue.

Dumb-assed death-mongering promotion like this does nothing but keep professional serial killer wannabes worshipped by thier fanboys.
posted by quonsar at 1:43 AM on April 7, 2004


even regular-old-bullet lead is also a toxic metal with environmental effects of its own.

Particular when its quantity is measured in kilotons, I'd think.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:49 AM on April 7, 2004


Europe has already seen DU fallout... from a different war:
The village of Bratunac provides, I'd say, a strong argument about the toxicity of DU...
posted by talos at 2:33 AM on April 7, 2004


...even regular-old-bullet lead is also a toxic metal with environmental effects of its own.

Enough so that in Canada, at least, lead bird-shot has been replaced with bismuth shot. Likewise, lead-weighted lures are now weighted with bismuth.

Ducks are more important than humans, though.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:33 AM on April 7, 2004


You can argue about what is known or presumed about the health effects of DU (on a rational basis), or about the politics of deploying same (on any basis you choose, rational or otherwise). They are separate questions, albeit interconnected, obviously. Analysis of the former, presumably, should be made on the basis of what we can dispassionately determine are the facts, real or supposed, not breast-beating declarations of principle or position.

And quonsar, sorry you can't seem to make the forensic distinction - but thanks, though, for the erudite rejoinder - your reputation seems well-earned.
posted by Pressed Rat at 9:34 AM on April 7, 2004


Toxicological Profile for Uranium.
posted by kablam at 6:03 PM on April 7, 2004


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