left-over gun shells poisoning the environment
January 7, 2001 8:01 PM   Subscribe

left-over gun shells poisoning the environment US and NATO forces left enough low-level depleted uranium shells lying around in bosnia/kosovo to cause an environmental hazard. I wrote whitehouse.gov and the d.o.d. about how important i think it is that we clean up this mess, pronto. i love using the word, pronto. this is important, and could really affect us if we don't fix it now.
posted by bliss322 (26 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Should've used "ASAP" for DOD.
posted by hobbes at 8:14 PM on January 7, 2001

I heard the report on NPR. I recall there being some noise from veteran's groups about DUB being a contributing factor to Gulf War Syndrome. What I think is most bizarre about both the NPR and the link posted here is that both concentrated their attention exclusively on the soldiers. If the ordinance is strewn throughout villages, why are there no reports about what it's doing to the citizens? The link here says that children play with it and villagers collect it as souveneirs. Shouldn't they be dropping dead quicker than the soldiers (who, due to tour of duty requirements, probably each spend less than a year in action, whereas the citizens have lived there since the shelling)? Has there been any report about the Kosovars?
posted by norm at 9:08 PM on January 7, 2001

Er, souvenir. Whoops.
posted by norm at 9:11 PM on January 7, 2001

Sorry, we only care about our boys.
posted by lagado at 10:09 PM on January 7, 2001


In London, construction crews occasionally unearth an unexploded bomb left over from the Blitz. They're still live and still deadly, and they have to call in the Royal Engineers to dispose of them, which is just as dangerous today as it was in 1940.

Sometimes they're found by people who don't know what they are and they get set off. I've read that a few people a year are killed that way. There are probably thousands left in London which haven't yet been found; they'll be getting unearthed for the next century.

The French army engineers are still combing certain battlefields left over from WWI, meter by meter, finding unexploded artillery rounds. This is particularly dangerous because some of them contain poison gas which is still deadly. At the rate they're going, it will be many more decades before they've finished.

Occasionally a farmer in France plows a field and is hurt or killed when his plow cracks opens a shell loaded with mustard gas. Mustard gas doesn't degrade; those shells are just as deadly now as they were when they were originally fired during the Great War.

Going further back, in some areas of Virginia they still occasionally find live mortar rounds left over from the Civil War. Cannon then fired round-shot which isn't dangerous once it stops moving, but mortars fired shells loaded with black powder and musket balls, and some of those are still live and still capable of going off if not treated with respect.

"Clean up the battlefield" is one of those things which is easy to demand but not easy to accomplish.

As the sage says, "Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it himself."

There's a rather famous cartoon penned by Bill Mauldin for "Stars and Stripes" during WWII which has a British tommy talking to a couple of American dog-faces (Willie and Joe), and the tommy says "I say, you fellows certainly do leave an untidy battlefield." It is the nature of war that there is always a great deal of clutter left over afterwards and that some of that clutter is deadly. Sometimes it's not that easy to clean up. The French army engineers have to clean up a stripe a few miles wide extending all the way from the ocean to the Swiss border; it's no wonder it's taking them so long.

By the way, the rounds used in Kosovo were DUP, Depleted Uranium Projectiles. What that means is that they are pure U-238. It's a byproduct of nuclear weapons production and fuel production for nuclear power plants, because U-235 (0.6% of naturally occurring Uranium) is the valuable isotope which can fission. U-238 (99.4%) is not fissionable; it's an extremely low level Alpha source. Pure U-238 is referred to as "depleted Uranium" (DU) because the valuable part is gone.

It is, in fact, completely safe to hold a piece of DU in your hand. It would be safe to make a necklace out of it and wear it for a year. It has a half life of over 4 billion years; it just isn't very active, and in any case Alpha radiation can't penetrate your skin. Pound for pound, you are more radioactive than DU is, because of the presence of Potassium-40 which generates both beta and gamma radiation which are easily capable of penetrating your skin (or someone else's skin).

If you hold a piece of DU in your hand, you'll be getting more radiation from cosmic rays than from the DU. You'll also be getting more radiation from the guy standing next to you. DU is nearly inert.

There's really only one scenario where DU might conceivably be dangerous. Uranium is, among all its other characteristics, a pyrophore. It was used in solid projectiles fired at armored vehicles because it's dense and hard, but if it penetrates it strikes sparks and actually can burn. As a result, it leaves behind powdered Uranium oxide. If you breath that in and it gets lodged in your lungs, there's a low chance that eventually (20 years?) it might give you lung cancer.

But if it's outside your body it can't harm you because your body has an outer layer of dead skin cells (which constantly slough off and are replaced) which is sufficient to stop Alpha radiation. Since the cells are already dead, they can't be harmed by it, and Alpha can penetrate beyond them. (Besides which, DU doesn't generate very much Alpha radiation anyway because its half-life is so long.)

So if you can see DU then it isn't a hazard. I'd love to have a piece of it.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:11 PM on January 7, 2001

There's a typo in my second to last paragraph.

Alpha radiation cannot penetrate beyond the layer of dead skin cells. That's why it's safe to hold.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:15 PM on January 7, 2001

Steven knows everything. What is the logic behind using this material as a bullet. Harmless to hold, but deadly once it pierces your body?
posted by thirteen at 10:22 PM on January 7, 2001

The logic behind using it in bullets is that it's very dense and pierces armor.
posted by kindall at 10:30 PM on January 7, 2001

The purpose of using it is as an anti-tank round. Modern armor, known as "Chobham armor", is made of alternating layers of plastic, ceramic and steel. Traditional HEAT (High explosive Anti-tank) rounds use shaped charges to form a needle of high pressure gas to penetrate armor. Against solid steel it goes right through. But not against Chobham armor: each layer spreads that gas further, and so it dissipates and doesn't penetrate. Chobham armor also stops HESH rounds, but that's too difficult to explain and the details don't matter.

As a result, they've returned to using solid projectiles, and you want that projectile to be as dense and as hard as possible. DU fits the bill nicely. Some DUP's were fired from aircraft at Serbian armor on the ground and that's what we're talking about in Kosovo.

In the Gulf War, it was also fired by allied tanks in APDS rounds, which stands for "Armor piercing, Discarded sabot". The shell is fired out of a tank gun, and then most of it falls away (the sabot, pronounced "sab-OH") leaving behind a long, thin, pointed pencil of DU with tiny fins on the back. This will penetrate almost all armor in use today. The fact that DU is a pyrophore is an added bonus; once inside the tank it strikes sparks and can set off the ordnance inside, making the tank blow up. But if it doesn't do that, it will ricochet inside and kill the crew. (Weapons aren't pretty.)

It's not used for machine gun bullets or rifle rounds; steel-jacketed lead works perfectly well for that and costs a lot less.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:45 PM on January 7, 2001

A dense, radioactive bullet isn't potentially harmful to people or the environment. I'm not sure if I believe that.

“DU is both chemotoxic and radiotoxic. Its
chemotoxicity lies in the fact that uranium behaves very
much like lead and other heavy metals, but is treated by
the body like calcium. Large doses can result in heavy
metal poisoning, especially if the uranium is in soluble
form. In lower doses extended over long periods of time,
uranium, like lead, will damage kidneys or, if inhaled, the
lungs. Like lead, uranium becomes permanently deposited
in bone tissue. It also acts like other elements, but with
harmful effects.

Indeed, the chemical effects of DU exposure may
predominate over the radiation effects. But this does not
mean that DU is not radioactive or that its radioactivity is
not harmful.

Radioactivity can be transmitted into the human
body in several ways beyond direct exposure. Among those
ways are inhalation and ingestion. Both of these paths are
open to DU contamination.

A recent EA performed by the DOE for an Army
research laboratory discusses these contamination

The release mechanism causing potential
contamination is migration of the uranium and
radioactive decay products through the soil into the
surface and ground waters, and also potentially the
biota system. Migration can occur through the
atmospheric (airborne) pathway for inhalation or
liquid (surface or groundwater) pathway for
ingestion.. .

Fragments and particles . . . left in the soils
will eventually corrode and can be mobilized into soil
if the particles are carried down by rainwater.

Corrosion rates are determined by the length of
exposure, temperature, moisture and precipitation,
surface area exposed, and soil chemistry.

When DU burns, which it does on impact, it creates
uranium dioxide, a highly toxic agent that spreads in a
dust form. A study conducted by Los Alamos National
Laboratories on the aerosolization of DU in explosive
experiments concluded that approximately 10% of the DU
used in the tests vaporized into a cloud or plume. This
plume of DU comes back down to the ground over a wide
area and becomes part of the environment. [91]

Other test data on DU aerosolization, from the
Terminal Effects Research and Analysis (TERA) Group at
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMIMT)
(see case study on TERA, Appendix 1, page 75), show that
60% of the aerosol produced when DU penetrators hit tank
armor is less than five microns, less than the 10 microns
considered as a respirable size, with the result that they
can become permanently trapped in the lungs. The data
also found that a major mode of dispersal of contaminants
is by the wind, and hence, uncontrolled. [92] ”
Uranium Battlefields Home & Abroad: Depleted Uranium Use by the U.S. Department of Defense

Which is why Bosnia would prefer the US militay to clean up it's toxic mess.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 11:14 PM on January 7, 2001 [1 favorite]

"I'll take "Things I Wish Didn't Exist" for $1000, Alex"
posted by Optamystic at 11:14 PM on January 7, 2001

I stand partially corrected. I can believe that DU is potentially chemically toxic, given the right circumstances (ionization and ingestion). I don't believe that in metallic form (unburned) that it represents a either a chemical hazard or a radiation hazard. Your own reference contains a section on civilian uses of DU, which contains this interesting fact:

"DU metal is used in numerous types of medical and industrial radiography equipment to shield the users and patients from high levels of radiation. Because of its high density, DU metal is more effective than lead for absorbing penetrating radiation." Seems strange that something which is itself radioactive would be used for radiation shielding, doesn't it? (But it actually makes sense because it's only just barely radioactive in its own right, and not in any form which is dangerous externally.)

In the meantime, the real point I was trying to make is that "cleaning up a battlefield" is easier said than done.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:36 PM on January 7, 2001

If we pull out of NATO and the UN, I imagine we won't be leaving many of these shells anywhere. That sounds mighty fine to me.
posted by thirteen at 12:50 AM on January 8, 2001

That last post was in response to this BTW
Which is why Bosnia would prefer the US military to clean up it's toxic mess
Like Steven said, how do you get the toothpaste back in the tube? It seems like clearing landmines would be a cinch by comparison.
posted by thirteen at 12:54 AM on January 8, 2001

the real point I was trying to make is that "cleaning up a battlefield" is easier said than done

i completely agree; cleaning up is easier said than done. however, not saying anything only helps to insure that it doesn't get cleaned up, that's the inherent priviledge and responsibility with democracy. also, whereas left-over mortar shells and even land-mines harm only those individuals unlucky enough to set them off, dangerous radiation levels can harm future generations through birth defects and agricultural contamination, the latter of which could easily slip into our food supply.
posted by bliss322 at 4:12 AM on January 8, 2001

Bliss, if you're concerned about residual radiation, then you better go to Japan and convince them to evacuate Hiroshima. They rebuilt a city at a location where a real honest-to-Jeffrey nuke went off, right over the top of all the fallout.

Yes, it's our privilege to speak up. But while staying silent does no good, sometimes speaking up does no good either. This is such a case. (Indeed, speaking up when it does no good can harm us, because it might cause us to be ignored when speaking up really could do some good.)

Even if the USGov wanted to do what you want, there's really no way. You're going to take an area as big as Kosovo and go through the entire thing on foot with Geiger counters cleaning up every one of thousands of tiny radioactive hotspots? You better send in the Engineers with mine detectors first, or you're going to lose a lot of soldiers carrying Geiger counters. How many decades do you want them to be at it? That was the point of my description of France. 80 years on and they're still not done. I suspect the surface areas involved are in the same ballpark, if Kosovo isn't even bigger.

And let's be clear that whatever else it might do, DU can't cause "dangerous radiation levels". It's only just the faintest bit radioactive; it's barely on-scale in that regard. It's certainly far less than the residents of Hiroshima live with.

I think it's important to save our citizen-outrage for cases where it's really possible for it to make a difference.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:10 AM on January 8, 2001

If the ordinance is strewn throughout villages, why are there no reports about what it's doing to the citizens?

Obviously, the mutated Iraqi babies haven't been making it onto "Entertainment Tonight" recently.
posted by holgate at 7:12 AM on January 8, 2001

I seem to recall that we discussed Iraqi propagandistic lies about the harm being done to their children in another thread. Could we perhaps leave it out of this one?

DU in Iraq was used in unpopulated areas, by the way; everything that hit Baghdad was conventional explosives (Tomahawks and smart bombs).

But a lot of DU was used in Kuwait, especially on the notorious "Highway of Death" by strafing A-10's, and on the Saudi border by Allied tanks. Are the Kuwaitis also having lots of "mutated babies"? (Sheesh.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:29 AM on January 8, 2001

Lots missing from that story. Most notably, whether the incidence of leukemia mentioned is higher than would be expected for that many young men in any statistical fashion, and what the actual radiation levels were. Given the lack of facts to back up the assertions, it reads like propaganda to me. Hopefully the final UN report will actually contain some facts; until then, judging this a Grave Danger to be Viewed With Horror is premature.

And as far as the original post goes -- "this could really affect us" only if we're planning to visit Bosnia/Kosovo, which I'm not, personally. I don't think those DU munitions are going to affect me at all.
posted by ffmike at 8:36 AM on January 8, 2001

"World Health Organization Doubts Depleted Uranium Gave Troops Leukemia"

"World Health Organization experts said on Monday they doubted that depleted uranium (DU) weapons used by NATO in the Balkans over the past decade had caused blood cancer among troops from alliance countries."

"'Based on our studies, and the evidence we have, it is unlikely that soldiers in Kosovo ran a high risk of contracting leukemia from exposure to radiation from depleted uranium,' WHO specialist Michael Repacholi told a news conference."

WHO is not exactly what you'd call a partisan agency.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:03 AM on January 8, 2001

“But they warned that children playing in former conflict areas where the weapons had exploded could be at risk and recommended that soldiers who had taken home DU shell parts as souvenirs should dispose of them promptly.”


“Detailed surveys are needed to determine the numbers of soldiers exposed, the amount of DU used, how much exists on the surface, how much is buried in the ground....before better conclusions can be made,'' it declared.”

There's no problem. Oh, wait. There might be a problem.

Perhaps the NATO should take at least partial responsibility for depositing massive amounts of dangerous materials in foreign soil.

(I so love IHT's site.)
posted by capt.crackpipe at 9:21 AM on January 8, 2001

FYI, the amount of energy that a projectile has is 1/2mv^2. If they can't increase the velocity of a projectile (air resistance), which is the biggest gain in energy, keeping it at the same velocity but increasing the mass is the next best thing. Uranium is only about 20% denser than lead, but every little bit counts, I suppose.

posted by plinth at 11:14 AM on January 8, 2001

The point is not just that DU is dense, but also that it's very hard. Lead really couldn't be used this way because it's too soft. Lead inside a jacket of something stronger is problematic.

Basically, the strength is more important than the density, so if they have to trade off one or the other, they'll trade off density. They're already planning to switch to titanium, which is not as dense but at least as hard.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:53 PM on January 8, 2001

The Christian Science Monitor had an excellent report on DU last fall.

DU has always struck me as an unholy union between the nuclear and defense industries. "What the hell are we gonna do with all this useless U-238? You guys want it? Makes for great ordnance!" "Hey, why not? We're killing people anyway; why not kill a few more at a fraction of the price?"

Yeah, yeah...I know. War is ugly, dirty, messy. But things like DU and landmines and UXBs are examples of short-sightedness. They work at the time, but no one wants to ponder what happens when the fighting's done and we're supposed to get with this, y'know, peace stuff.
posted by RakDaddy at 3:46 PM on January 8, 2001

RakDaddy, I think that battlefield commanders are rather taken to the short view. This battle today ... this hill ... this meter.
posted by dhartung at 9:22 PM on January 8, 2001

Apparently DU is not a problem just in Kosovo, Bosnia and Iraq... according to this there is substantial evidence of its detrimental effect near civilian industrial sites.
Add to that the fact that 19 European servicemen have died after tours in the Balkans and, according to the BBC, 9 more are ill with leukemia (plus 1 Greek soldier not mentioned) and, statistically speaking, one has certainly evidence enough that something is making these soldiers ill...
As someone who might be affected by DU's toxicity (I agree that the radiochemical hazard is probably minimal) here in Greece (through rivers flowing from Yugoslavia to Greece) and who has friends living in Yugoslavia, I can only view this as a war-crime...
posted by talos at 5:20 AM on January 9, 2001

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