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Kerr Magee had applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to call their waste an "experimental fertilizer" and just spread it over the top of the land.
August 22, 2007 12:59 AM   Subscribe

Depleted uranium is now understood to have many medical consequences unique to its modern application as munitions, due to its incendiary, aerosolizing behavior when pulverized. (Rosalie Bertell explains, youtube) It has become a leading candidate for the cause of Gulf War syndrome, and was associated with massive increases in cancer and birth defects in Basra. The EU has called for a moratorium on its use four times, and WHO is deeply concerned with its consequences, but the USA (with Canadian complicity) and Russia continue to use it in Iraq and elsewhere. (prev: 1 2 3 4 5)
posted by mek (52 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
To understand DU you must understand the motivations behind it; producing 1kg of enriched uranium also produces 10.8kg of depleted uranium: before an application for DU was found, it was a waste material, and over 500 000 tons had piled up before it entered military use in 1973. DU-as-munitions is now so prevalent that those massive stockpiles have not shrank in the slightest, but actual information about its prevalence or production is unavailable. Every ton that was produced but is not currently in storage was "disposed" of... and thanks to the Iraq war, business is booming. But don't worry, according to the DoD there is "little risk," and hey, at least Kucinich cares.
posted by mek at 12:59 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Did you actually read the WHO page you linked to? They're not "deeply concerned". In fact, what that page says is that DU is not very toxic and not much of a hazard. And it isn't.

"To understand DU you must understand the motivations behind it"... which have nothing whatever to do with the fact that there was a lot of it lying around.

The reason that penetrators for APFSDS rounds are made of uranium is that it is self-sharpening. If you use tungsten, then as the penetrator pierces armor, it becomes blunt and the tip spreads, which decreases its ability to continue penetrating armor. (Especially if it's Chobham armor.)

A uranium penetrator burns off the tip as it penetrates, which means it remains sharp and will penetrate further. That makes the sabot round much more effective at getting all the way through the armor, and destroying an enemy armored vehicle. Which is what you're trying to accomplish when you shoot at it.

They would have used uranium for this even if there hadn't been mountains of DU lying around unneeded; it's the best solution to the problem.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:11 AM on August 22, 2007


Yes, I suppose we're fortunate they only use DU, as natural uranium would be massively more radioactive. You can't discuss "the toxicity of DU" in a vacuum; as the WHO fact sheet points out, common and studied uranium contaminations are from drinking water or food, where only 2% is absorbed by the body; in cases of inhalation, this jumps to 20%. You state yourself that uranium bullets "burns off the tip as it penetrates," which makes it obvious that substantial amounts of uranium vaporize whenever DU rounds are used. Ignited uranium not only vaporizes, but it forms a microscopic ceramic dust which will stay vaporized indefinitely; consequently traditional analyses of uranium toxicity simply do not apply. Bertell describes precisely why vaporized DU can be exponentially more toxic.
posted by mek at 1:36 AM on August 22, 2007


Wait. Are people arguing over less fatal ammunition?
posted by sourwookie at 1:50 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Really. If I had mounds of something toxic lying around that I couldn't afford to dispose of, yet I could get paid to use it to kill people, I think I know what the sound fiscal descision is.

Don't hate the game, hate the player.
posted by sourwookie at 1:52 AM on August 22, 2007


Steven makes an excellent point, but misses one other consideration:

Not only does DU's self-whetting behavior increase penetration, but it's inherently pyrophoric nature means that once it *does* penetrate into an enemy vehicle, it essentially ignites a fireball within it.

It's vicious, horrible, stuff - precisely because it is so perfectly effective and we happen to have incredible amounts of it just lying around as a byproduct of nuclear power.

As regards health considerations I suspect that matters are not helped by the fact that the US main battle tank (the M1 Abrams) uses DU for *armor*, which also tends to vaporize in some amount when struck by an enemy weapon (regardless of whether that weapon is conventional or itself DU).
posted by Ryvar at 2:24 AM on August 22, 2007


And for those who are wondering why we use DU for armor, the answer is 'because it's the densest material we happen to have a shit-ton of just lying around'.
posted by Ryvar at 2:27 AM on August 22, 2007


it is weakly radioactive and an external radiation dose from depleted uranium is about 60% of that from the same mass of uranium with a natural isotopic ratio. Depleted uranium behaves in the body as does natural uranium.

Personally I wouldn't want anything that 2/3rds as radioactive as normal Uranium in my lungs, or even just lying around unshielded in any quantity. Oh yeah, and also, not only is it radioactive, but it's naturally toxic apart from that as well. You can add to all that the fact that this stuff bioaccumulates, so basically, it's fucking evil over an extended period of time.

This is basically the nuclear apocalypse version of passive smoking as far as I can tell. The health implications of being around any significant quantity of DU are numerous.

Cleanup of expended rounds is going to be near impossible as well so we are contaminating vast areas with low levels of radiation.

In what way is this acceptable?
posted by public at 2:29 AM on August 22, 2007


Does the US use DU ammunition when practicing in the US?
posted by sien at 2:54 AM on August 22, 2007


At last - WMDs have been found in Iraq!
posted by sien at 3:08 AM on August 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


In what way is this acceptable?

In the way that radiation and heavy metal levels too low to produce immediate detrimental effects are typically selectively effective against organisms further towards the top of the food chain and with lifespans measured in decades, eg humans (in terms of quality-of-life reduction).
posted by Tzarius at 3:14 AM on August 22, 2007


...at least Kucinich cares.

He has demonstrated this fact time and again. Sadly, this very fact makes him unelectable [hot wife or no]. I find this deeply troubling.
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:38 AM on August 22, 2007


A lot of the world also opposed the extensive use of mines but that has not made the US rethink their use. I wondered though whey flame throwers seem suddenly unfashionable. They were sure pretty in films.
posted by Postroad at 4:35 AM on August 22, 2007


Everyone who thinks that depleted uranium is as safe as houses, please step forward. Now, close your eyes and stick out your tongue ...
posted by adipocere at 5:31 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


which have nothing whatever to do with the fact that there was a lot of it lying around.

That's almost unbelievably naive.
posted by mediareport at 5:44 AM on August 22, 2007


I wondered though why flame throwers seem suddenly unfashionable.
Probably because using a flamethrower requires you to be within relative close proximity to your target. It doesn't kill outright, either. You have to experience the sight, sounds and smell of another human burning to death, knowing that you did that to them.
Psychologically, it's a problematic weapon.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:25 AM on August 22, 2007


sien I don't know the answer to this, but I did have (and have lost.... curse you disks!!) a short training vid from the US army regarding the hazards of DU on the battlefield.

Let's just say that when an Abrams with DU armour gets taken out, there is radiological threat enough that specifically equipped recovery teams are used.

Of course, it's harmless to non-Americans.
posted by pompomtom at 6:37 AM on August 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


Depleted uranium makes warfare even more disgusting and abhorrent, and warzones even more permanently hellish.

Go team!
posted by Drexen at 7:02 AM on August 22, 2007


Steven says DU is self sharpening.
Ryvar says it's incendiary.
I thought it was because it has twice the density of lead and as a result given a certain diameter and length can deliver twice the kinetic energy.

Probably all are true.
posted by jouke at 7:14 AM on August 22, 2007


To understand DU you must understand the motivations behind it

It's cheaper and more effective than tungsten? Hell, I bet that if you asked the beakers who design the stuff, they'd rather use iridium penetrators. Except that it seems to cost about $16000/kg.

Would people really be happy if they switched to tungsten penetrators, swapping one toxic heavy metal for another?

If you really don't like depleted uranium, go and invent better ways to kill armored vehicles. Then nobody will want the stuff (except as armor).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:41 AM on August 22, 2007


To understand DU you must understand the motivations behind it; producing 1kg of enriched uranium also produces 10.8kg of depleted uranium

This is true, but a bit confusing. Depleted uranium is what is left after about half of the the really radioactive U235 is taken out of naturally occurring uranium. Uranium occurs in a few isotopes that are more or less radioactive. U235 is less than 1%, but this is highly radioactive, much more useful for fuel and nuke weapons. When people talk about uranium enrichment, they are talking about separating the U235 from the other less radioactive (but still very radioactive) other isotopes, like U238 and U234. Because the ratio is something like 99.2% U238, 0.7% U235, and 0.0X% U234, you need a lot of ore to get a useful quantity of U235 for a bomb or power plant.

But the point about DU is that it is actually less radioactive than the same amount of natural uranium, because the DU has most of the U235 taken out (that's what makes it depleted).

The primary reason that DU is toxic is not because it is radioactive (it is, but lots of things are radioactive that you'd never expect would be, like granite, and cigarettes - its less radioactive than what people used to put into glass to make it a pretty yellow). DU is toxic because it corrodes in water to produce uranium salts that are very chemically toxic. The chemical hazard posed by U-salts is far greater than the radioactivity hazard. These salts build up in the liver and kidneys, and lead to mass organ failure. This should explain why studies show that DU doesn't seem to cause cancer (because the study is of radiologically induced caner) but other studies who people dying from DU exposure (because they get the salt).

Fun facts about uranium - it is found in very very low levels in all rock and water on our little planet. There used to be so much uranium with high U235 in the ground earlier in the planet's history (about a billion years ago) that it would go critical under its own weight, and produce an in-ground nuclear reactor.

Uranium is naturally made in a supernova explosion, so all of the uranium on earth was born in a star that exploded long before our sun and our planet were born.

Uranium decay, along with decay of thorium and radioactive potassium-40, deep in the earth's mantle generate enough heat to keep the core of our humble planet liquid, and spinning. This spinning gives us our magnetic field, which protects us from being incinerated by high energy particles from our sun, other stars, and other galaxies.

Next time you see some uranium, say "Thanks, uranium, for keeping me and my planet alive all these billions of years."
posted by Pastabagel at 8:09 AM on August 22, 2007 [11 favorites]


Well, not being on consistent speaking terms with uranium (though I did cheerily wave at some glowing stuff while touring Oak Ridge), I'd rather say, Thank you, Pastabagel. That's interesting stuff about the natural reactors, and totally unknown to me.
posted by Haruspex at 8:21 AM on August 22, 2007


those fucking canadians.
posted by shmegegge at 8:33 AM on August 22, 2007


ROU:

Would people really be happy if they switched to tungsten penetrators,

Yes, people would be happy.

swapping one toxic heavy metal for another?

No. Tungsten metal is generally considered to be non-toxic (though "toxic" is of course, a relative term), and as such is encouraged and approved by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a non-toxic ammunition that is far preferable to lead ammo, and I think the US Fish and Wildlife Service considers lead ammo to be far preferable to DU :-)

Tungsten is used everywhere. You vapourize it when you blow a bulb. You grind it into dust in the air when you use your dremel. Try to buy some DU - it's typically restricted "for our own good", even the tiniest fleck of a shaving is quite hard to obtain (without theft) in the USA (though you can pick it up off the ground in Iraq :) Apples and oranges.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:38 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


even the tiniest fleck of a shaving is quite hard to obtain (without theft) in the USA (though you can pick it up off the ground in Iraq)

Is it just me, or is there a profitable business in here somewhere, selling to collectors? :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 8:42 AM on August 22, 2007


Is it just me, or is there a profitable business in here somewhere, selling to collectors? :-)

It appears I'm a few years out of date. The market now delivers :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 8:45 AM on August 22, 2007


No. Tungsten metal is generally considered to be non-toxic (though "toxic" is of course, a relative term)

Well, fuck me. The last time I looked, which was a while ago, the first thing I found seemed to say that tungsten was toxic. Who would think that there would be information on the net that's incorrect?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:53 AM on August 22, 2007


We might all be content to laugh this off as yet another horrible way for all those people killing each other over there to kill each other, but there is a key difference. When DU burns, which as Steven points out, is apparently a marketing feature, it vaporizes and then recondenses into hollow, lighter than air spheres which then float and disperse themselves about the atmosphere. Apparently they look like Christmas tree ornaments under a microscope. So, the threat is not contained to any particular war zone hell hole, but wafts freely about the planet.

And yes, Sien, I heard a story on the radio of a military base in Washington state which was sent DU hand gun rounds for use in target practice. The base was not informed, and only happened to catch on when they somehow noticed the shipment was radioactive.
posted by kaspen at 9:02 AM on August 22, 2007


Harlequin, you're not too late for all Uranium stocks. There are some gambles (penny stocks are for gamble cash only...) which always have the possibility to change your zip code one day.
posted by aletheia at 9:08 AM on August 22, 2007


vaporized DU can be exponentially more toxic...

The health implications of being around any significant quantity of DU are numerous...

DU is toxic because it corrodes in water to produce uranium salts that are very chemically toxic...


You son of a bitch.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 9:19 AM on August 22, 2007


See, in the movies, you get all these cool types of alternative ammo - glass-encapsulated UV-emitting liquids for the vampires and silver-nitrate for the werewolves, silver bullets, individually ornately carved bullets for that Special Someone in your life, all that good stuff.

In real life, what special bullets do we get? Depleted friggin uranium.

Your reality sucks.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:21 AM on August 22, 2007


The last time I looked, which was a while ago, the first thing I found seemed to say that tungsten was toxic.

That's because tungsten can become part of an enzyme that has has a biological effect. In addition, there was a cluster of leukemia patients who all shared elevated tungsten levels, but no study has shown a causal relationship between tungsten and any cancer.

General note: we should be careful not to be sloppy when talking about these things. Tungsten or uranium can have very different properties in their elemental form, when compared to their naturally occurring ores, or their industrial uses.

The tungsten in drills is W2C, or tungsten carbide, not plain tungsten. W2C is a chemical compound whose properties are different from elemental tungsten. It is significantly harder, has a lower melting point, but paradoxically a higher boiling point. Tungsten carbide is also hypoallergenic.

That compound containing an element are very different from the element itself should not be surprising. Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are very very different compounds, even though they both only contain carbon and oxygen, and each is very different than carbon and oxygen separately. For that matter, oxygen is not always the same. You breathe O2 to live, but O3 in your blood will turn cholesterol into plaque.

Hydrogen and oxygen are gases that burn or explode when lit with a match. Combine hydrogen and oxygen into H2O and you get a liquid that not only doesn't burn but will put out the match. And living cells are filled with water. But add a bit more O to the H and you get peroxide, which kills cells and bleaches tissue.

So it's important when talking about something like tungsten or uranium to specify the compound in question.

And that doesn't even scratch the surface. Metals have alloys that aren't compounds, but which have different properties. Steel is 99% iron with a tiny bit of carbon mixed in, but it is not an iron-carbon compound. And steel is different from iron. There are isotopes (U235 vs U238) with dramatically different behavior (potassium-39 is everywhere and a vital electrolyte in your body, potassium-40 is radioactive and in large quantities will kill you), and there are crystal structures (graphite vs. diamond, but both are just carbon atoms), all of which change the properties of the material considerably.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:35 AM on August 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


Just to clarify my comment above, potassium-40 is everywhere too. It's about 1% of naturally occurring potassium. It is the primary reason the normal human body registers as ever so slightly radioactive. A huge bad of potassium salt will freak out a Geiger counter. But isolate decent amount of K-40 and put in on your steak and have yourself a problem.

Also, you never see potassium by itself, in it's elemental, metal form. Because if you put potassium metal in water, the metal spontaneously ignites, sparks and burns. I don't know which this makes weirder, potassium or water. Potassium metal is usually shipped in jars full of kerosene.

I'll shut up now.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:44 AM on August 22, 2007


Thanks for this real eye opener. As a Canadian I knew that we didn't use DU munitions ourselves, but it never dawned on me that Canadian DU (and uranium) could be used by other countries, let alone that we'd already taken this into consideration and that it is supposed to be illegal.

I'll definitely be writing to my MP about this.
posted by furtive at 10:26 AM on August 22, 2007


They would have used uranium for this even if there hadn't been mountains of DU lying around unneeded; it's the best solution to the problem.

That's exactly what I tried telling Charlie while I was spraying Agent Orange all over his garden.
posted by furtive at 10:58 AM on August 22, 2007


a military base in Washington state which was sent DU hand gun rounds for use in target practice.

Must have had one hell of a backstop at that range...
posted by quin at 1:05 PM on August 22, 2007


There used to be a Norwegian chemistry professor who maintained a website about DU and why it couldn't possibly be as harmful as people were claiming. The WHO page seems to back this up. Or are we just going off the rails and believing everything we read on all sorts of 1997-design colored text webpages?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:49 PM on August 22, 2007


Yes, I suppose we're fortunate they only use DU, as natural uranium would be massively more radioactive.

If by "massively more" you mean about 30% less.

As an aside, landmines aren't a problem for countries like the US, because the current mine systems self destruct after a short period of time. The problem is places like Angola, where they mine everything with old tech mines, don't clean up afterwards and don't keep records of what they've mined.
posted by electroboy at 2:08 PM on August 22, 2007


Just to follow up my last comment, there are lots of reasons to be skeptical here. Many of the links in the OP cite a "Dr. Rosalie Bertell", who is explained to be a "epdidemiologist" and a "Ph.D in biometrics", and also a nun, who seems to have little actual scientific background valid for evaluating the effects of DU.

She has, however, written several books on radioactivity, and in this interview, she states several interesting views, such as:
``It's the military who have messed up our weather and ozone,' she maintains. ``They blamed it on Mt. Pinatubo and now El Nino. Where did that come from all of a sudden? Everybody repeats El Nino and accepts it. It's public relations: not scientific data.'
And also, on the topic of obesity:
``It's not just junk food. It's well-known that radioactive iodine in North American's atmosphere slows down the thyroid gland and that contributes to (being) overweight.'
She's also opposed to mammography and other medical uses of X-rays.

This is pretty classic crackpot stuff, people. And at least 5 of the links in the OP are directly to her stuff. The WHO link provides no corroboration of the DU risk. The Wikipedia article linked has also been subject of arbitration and subsequent banning of DU danger proponents from editing the article, after unscientific views have been added.

Where's the science? Where's the usual Metafilter skepticism?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:09 PM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Also, the EU call for a ban on DU penetrators is within the context of a ban on incendiary weapons, which also includes white phosphorous. In other words, they think DU weapons are inhumane because they burst into flame when inside an armored vehicle (I tend to agree), and say nothing on any toxicity or radioactive exposure risks.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:14 PM on August 22, 2007


Yes, I suppose we're fortunate they only use DU, as natural uranium would be massively more radioactive.

If by "massively more" you mean about 30% less.


The link states "Uranium-238 becomes DU, which is 0.7 times as radioactive as natural uranium", I believe you misread either what I said, or what it said, as you've got it backwards.
posted by mek at 2:57 PM on August 22, 2007


Where's the science? Where's the usual Metafilter skepticism?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:09 PM on August 22 [+] [!]


This is mostly why I posted it here. It's extremely hard to find the opposing viewpoint re: DU on the internet, but there's a ton of anti-DU activism. I'd like to hear both sides of the story, but there isn't a ton of research out there, and most proponents are with the military.
posted by mek at 3:00 PM on August 22, 2007


Yes, I suppose we're fortunate they only use DU, as natural uranium would be massively more radioactive.

If by "massively more" you mean about 30% less.


You read your link wrong. It reads, "DU, which is 0.7 times as radioactive as natural uranium". In other words DU is 70% as radioactive as natural uranium. Which means that natural uranium is 42% more radioactive than DU, according to the numbers on that site. 42% is "massively more radioactive" in my book.

This makes sense of course, as depleted uranium is simply natural uranium "depleted" of the most radioactive isotope in it.

Where's the science? Where's the usual Metafilter skepticism?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:09 PM on August 22


I tried to be pretty scientific in my comment above. Again, the radioactivity of DU isn't the problem, its the chemical toxicity.

The WHO link states clearly that DU acts in the body the same as natural uranium. In this case, "all natural" doesn't mean healthier. The comments in the WHO link relating to DU dispersal and contamination in Kosovo bombing sites is limited because, as the WHO says:
Over the days and years following such an event, the contamination normally becomes dispersed into the wider natural environment by wind and rain. People living or working in affected areas may inhale contaminated dusts or consume contaminated food and drinking water.
Uranium is taken up by plants and seeps into the soil and groundwater. It comes out of the air when it rains and seeps into the ground. This is great if the DU is dispersed in Kosovo, where the average annual rainfall is between 700mm and 1000mm. By all googled accounts, and where at most 10 tons of DU were used in the Balkans war.

In Iraq, much of which is hardpacked sand desert, the average annual rainfall is about 100mm in the desert, or 1/7th the rainfall of Kosovo. And in the first gulf war the US dropped 300 tons of DU. There are few plants and animals in the desert to take up the uranium particles.

In other words, that 300 tons of depleted uranium that was probably aerosolized is still there from the first war 15 years ago. It doesn't get burned up or disappear. It just piles up.

According to OSHA, the toxic level for uranium is 0.25 mg/m3 of air.

A single Abrams 120mm shell has about 3 kg of DU in it. If you live next door to where 3000g of uranium dust was just thrown into the air, does it really surprise you that you might breathe in more than 0.00025g of it?
posted by Pastabagel at 3:48 PM on August 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


Pastabagel: No, I wouldn't be too surprised, although I'm not sure all of a 3 kg shell would be aerosolized, it seems that would be unlikely. And if we're talking about 0.25 mg/m3, it would need to be made into extremely fine dust for it to be likely that you'd breathe in some of it, a cubic meter of air is quite a lot, and 0.25mg is very little.

But I agree, it's probable that DU can pose a risk for people who live close to sites where it's been used, especially in arid areas (although I wonder if most of it wouldn't just blow away and be very widely dispersed over 15 years), given the chemical toxicity. Note that "The dose resulting in lung cancer in the dog study, with chronic duration inhalation of the insoluble uranium oxide, was 5.1 mg per cu metre air, for 1 to 5 years, 5 day a week and 5.4 hours a day." That's quite a lot of exposure.

I don't think it's a "hidden nuclear war", "a holocaust", "the agent orange of the 90s", or any other such hysteria. It's likely to be a low-to-moderate level health risk, but I'm sure there are other things to worry more about. Like the fact that there are wars being fought in general.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:51 PM on August 22, 2007


-harlequin-: See, in the movies, you get all these cool types of alternative ammo - glass-encapsulated UV-emitting liquids for the vampires and silver-nitrate for the werewolves, silver bullets, individually ornately carved bullets for that Special Someone in your life, all that good stuff.

In real life, what special bullets do we get? Depleted friggin uranium.

Your reality sucks.


It's armor-piercing, it sharpens itself, it bursts into flames on impact, and it's poisonous. What more do you want from your bullets, a little dance?
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:55 PM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Where's the science?

Having taken my own readings of the radioactivity, and confirmed via alpha scintillator that it is, indeed, primarily alpha, and having also established that the energy of alpha emissions are orders of magnitude greater than gamma, and having likewise taken readings to determine the penetration (and lack of) of alpha particles, and having seen (though not done) microscopic imagery showing alpha particles making puree of nearby DNA, combined with the well documented causal links between genetic damage and cancer later in life, I feel quite comfortable taking the scientific position that I don't want that shit in my lungs :-)

My scientificcish hypothesis is that having a shit-ton of that stuff in my lungs will greatly enhance my chances of cancer later in life. A prediction I make to test this hypothesis is that people who have had a shit-ton of this stuff in their lungs 10-20 years ago would be more likely to have cancer today that a control group.

In unrelated news, one of the OP links mentioned:
"Hospital statistics in Basra document that cancer rates are indeed on the rise. In 1988, there were 11 cases of cancer per 100,000 people in the city. By 2001, that number had increased to 116 per 100,000, according to Dr. Jawad al-Ali, a leading Iraqi cancer specialist who teaches at the Saddam Training Hospital in Basra."
A crackpot (or an Iraqi doctor) might dismiss the obvious explanation and jump to the conclusion that the thousands of shit-tons of DU aerosoled into Iraq in 1991 might be a factor in cancer rates increasing by over a thousand percent ten years later. Of course, a more sensible mefite would conclude that the reason for a tenfold increase, is, in fact...

Actually, what are the counter-arguments? I haven't been paying attention. Do people contest the hospital records? Are the records ok, but there was an unrelated massive carcinogenic disaster? Does Basra have a massively Aging Population? Is it a case of Well Admittedly It Looks Suspicious But We Shouldn't Make Any Conclusions Until More Research Is Done? Or is it largely just an elephant in the DU living room?

(I'm not being snarky - I really haven't been paying attention to the DU issue, and I'm curious how the "DU fears are overblown" proponents address anecdotal evidence like Iraqi cancer rates)
posted by -harlequin- at 10:52 PM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's armor-piercing, it sharpens itself, it bursts into flames on impact, and it's poisonous. What more do you want from your bullets, a little dance?

I want them to give butterfly kisses on impact, leaving a trail of warm fuzzies as they pass harmlessly through the target's body, such that when a war breaks out, the only casualties are fear, xenophobia, and the manufacturers of prozac.

But I'd settle for a little dance, yeah.

:)
posted by -harlequin- at 11:04 PM on August 22, 2007


-harlequin-: A crackpot (or an Iraqi doctor) might dismiss the obvious explanation and jump to the conclusion that the thousands of shit-tons of DU aerosoled into Iraq in 1991 might be a factor in cancer rates increasing by over a thousand percent ten years later. Of course, a more sensible mefite would conclude that the reason for a tenfold increase, is, in fact...

The problem with that supposition is that the DU isn't the only thing that happened in the meantime. War causes all kinds of chaos - for example, oil wells were set on fire, releasing all kinds of incompletely burned hydrocarbons. All kinds of military chemicals, including lots of military-grade fuels, plastics, electronics, and paints (some of which are well known to be all kinds of toxic) burned. Infrastructure and food supplies were destroyed, causing the population to turn to inferior food supplies (some of which are potentially carcinogenic) and be afflicted with all kinds of unusual pathogens and toxins (who knows what was in the water?) A massive increase in stress occurred. Workplace safety was ignored due to wartime mobilization, exposing workers to carcinogens. Medical access was reduced. Everyone spent a lot more time outside without sunscreen.

Given such an overwhelming confluence of variables, it is incredibly hard to make an accurate assessment as to what caused that increase.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:46 PM on August 22, 2007


harlequin: while a thousand percent jump is striking, the 116 per 100,000 rate is still well below the US rate of 474 per 100,000. I'm guessing there are other factors to account for.
posted by alexei at 11:52 PM on August 22, 2007


harlequin: while a thousand percent jump is striking, the 116 per 100,000 rate is still well below the US rate of 474 per 100,000.

Yes, cancer rates do correlate strongly with life expectancies, which could muddle things significantly.
posted by mek at 12:38 AM on August 23, 2007


I'm not particularly contesting that there might be a cancer risk, should you be exposed enough. I'm wondering if exposure is big enough to be significant.

And yeah, in addition to the many possibilities Mitrovarr mentions above, and the life expectancy thing, and whatnot, there's also the factor that the doctor was working in a dictatorship that had been in a war with the US, and had convincing political reasons for trying to make the results of the US military actions in the region look as bad as possible. DU was in the news a lot, it's not unthinkable that the Iraqi propaganda machine latched on.

But still, Basra has 1.7 million people. If the cancer rate increases cited are real, and are only caused by DU, you've given 1785 more people cancer. That's certainly quite a bit, but in the first Persian Gulf War, there were 3,664 Iraqi civilian casualties and 20,000-26,000 Iraqi military casualties, to put things into perspective. So war using DU ammunition is a hell of a lot more efficient at killing people the old-fashioned way.

My point isn't that DU is harmless. As I mentioned above, it's probably a low-to-medium-level health risk, especially for people who live in the areas where it's dispersed, and get long-term exposure. I just don't think it's a "holocaust", a "hidden nuclear war", or causes Gulf War Syndrome, or is something we should be overly concerned about is going to kill us all.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:23 AM on August 23, 2007


Oops, miswrote what I said about DU vs. natural. I disagree that 42% is "massively more radioactive". Personally, I'd say moderately more, but that's just me.

A single Abrams 120mm shell has about 3 kg of DU in it. If you live next door to where 3000g of uranium dust was just thrown into the air, does it really surprise you that you might breathe in more than 0.00025g of it?

The shells don't completely vaporize on impact, as far as I know. Obviously some does, but significantly less (massively less?) than the total mass of the shell.

As for the links in the story, call me when you get some real sources and not crackpot alarmism.
posted by electroboy at 6:42 AM on August 23, 2007


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