BY DAVEY GARLAND
When questions were asked in the British parliament a year ago about whether depleted uranium (DU) weapons had been used in the military strikes on Afghanistan, "It is not being used at present" was defence minister Geoff Hoon's reply.
A few days earlier, Hoon had been similarly vague on the issue, assuring us that: "No British forces currently engaged in operations around Afghanistan are armed with depleted uranium ammunition. However, we do not rule out the use of depleted uranium ammunition in Afghanistan, should its penetrative capability be judged necessary in the future."
The defence minister played his cards close to his chest, no doubt having been informed that DU or other uranium weapons were being used by the United States (and no doubt British) forces to penetrate the caverns of Tora Bora and other targets (including civilian ones), especially in the vicinity of Kabul.
The refusal of the Ministry of Defence to fully admit that dangerous uranium weapons may have been used in Afghanistan and the conflicts in the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosova), when evidence shows the contrary, illustrates just how sensitive the government is to the possibility that its use, or its collusion in the use, of weapons of mass destruction may be discovered.
This is not just because thousands of innocent civilians will suffer due to radiological (and heavy metal) poisoning, but also because the government is prepared to send British troops and aid workers, possibly for a long occupation of the war zones, ill-equipped and vulnerable to contamination.
When the Afghan crisis began, many of us believed that a great amount of DU/dirty uranium would be used to achieve the US-British campaign objectives, both to penetrate the opposition's hideouts in rocky terrain and to test new weapons systems (dirty uranium or dirty DU contains radioactive contaminants, such as plutonium isotopes, derived from spent fuel from power reactors). The amount used in Afghanistan might have exceeded the several hundred tonnes of DU/dirty uranium used in the 1990-91 Gulf War and the Balkans conflicts.
A startling new report based on research in Afghanistan indicates that our worst fears have been realised. The study, produced by the Uranium Medical Research Centre (UMRC), points to the likelihood of large numbers of the population being exposed to uranium dust and debris.
Dr Asaf Durakovic, a professor of nuclear medicine and radiology and a former science adviser to the US military, who set-up the independent UMRC, has been testing US, British, and Canadian troops and civilians for DU and uranium poisoning over the past few years. His findings confirm significant amounts in the subjects' urine as much as nine years after exposure.
Two scientific study teams were sent to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the conflict in 2001-02. The first arrived in June 2002, concentrating on the Jalalabad region. The second arrived four months later, broadening the study to include the capital Kabul, which has a population of nearly 3.5 million people. The city itself contains the highest recorded number of fixed targets during Operation Enduring Freedom. For the study's purposes, the vicinity of three major bomb sites were examined.
It was predicted that signatures of depleted or enriched uranium would be found in the urine and soil samples taken during the research. The team was unprepared for the shock of its findings, which indicated in both Jalalabad and Kabul, DU was possibly causing the high levels of illness but also high concentrations of non-depleted uranium. Tests taken from a number of Jalalabad subjects showed concentrations 400% to 2000% above that for normal populations, amounts which have not been recorded in civilian studies before.
Those in Kabul who were directly exposed to US-British precision bombing showed extreme signs of contamination, consistent with uranium exposure and with some types of chemical or biological weaponry. These included pains in joints, back/kidney pain, muscle weakness, memory problems and confusion and disorientation. Many of these symptoms are found in Gulf War and Balkans veterans and civilians. Those exposed to the bombing report symptoms of flu-type illnesses, bleeding, runny noses and blood-stained mucous.
The study team itself complained of similar symptoms during their stay. Most of these symptoms last for days or months. The team also conducted a preliminary sample examination of new-born infants, discovering that at least 25% may be suffering from congenital and post-natal health problems that could be associated with uranium contamination. These include undeveloped muscles, large head in comparison to body size, skin rashes and infant lethargy. Considering that the children had access to sufficient levels of nutrition, the symptoms could not be due to malnourishment.
Durakovic and his team have searched for possible alternative causes, such as geological or industrial sources, or the likelihood of Al Qaeda having uranium reserves. But the uranium found is not consistent with the "dirty bomb" scenario proposed by the US (in which stores of radioactive materials might explain the findings), nor is it connected to DU, or an enriched uranium-type dust that has been found in Iraq and Kosova.
The only conclusion is that the allied forces are now possibly using milled uranium ore in their warheads to maximise the effectiveness and strength of their weapons, as well as to mask the uranium, hoping that it may be discounted as part of any local natural deposits.
However, marked differences between natural uranium and the uranium used in the metal fragments found in Afghanistan was uncovered with the use of an electron microscope, which revealed the presence of small ceramic particles produced by the high temperatures created on impact. This method of disguising uranium would benefit governments that are under pressure from the growing anti-DU lobby.
Repeated warnings of this possible contamination was sent to both the British and Afghan governments in April by scientific researcher Dai Williams in her report, "Mystery Metal in Afghanistan". Warning were also sent to the UN Environment Program, the World Health Organisation and Oxfam. All have ignored them and failed to conduct their own investigations.
Present information and studies stressing the growing mortality rates amongst young children, especially the new born, indicate that malnutrition and other social causes cannot be the only attributable source of this phenomenom. This is confirmed by health specialists, international observers and a few brave officials from local hospitals who are convinced that this rise in illnesses and malformation are due to uranium/DU weapons.
In October, Durakovic spoke on al Jazeera television, claiming that the amount of DU/uranium used in Afghanistan far exceeded that of past conflicts. He also warned that if the scale of the attacks in Afghanistan was matched or exceeded in a forthcoming war in Iraq, then the consequences would be of appalling proportions for both civilians and military forces alike.
This scenario has substance, if the US$393 billion defence authorisation bill that Congress approved recently is taken into account. More than US$15 million was assigned to modifying bunker busters bombs to nuclear capable, quite apart from uranium being added to conventional and bunker buster systems. Money was also invested in other weapons of mass destruction, including thermobaric and electromagnetic weapons.
The anti-war movement must oppose radiological and other weapons, as well as research and access to the source materials. Many of us have seen the heart-wrenching pictures of deformity and death in Iraq, and know of the growing cancer wards in Bosnia and Kosova, not to mention the 80,000 American, 15,000 Canadian and thousands of British, Australian, French and other troops who are suffering a painful existence from Gulf War Syndrome — plus the growing number suffering from a Balkans equivalent.
[Davey Garland is a co-ordinator of the British-based Pandora DU Research Project. Visit the Pandora web site at <http://www.pandoraproject.org>. The Durakovic report is at the UMRC web site, <http://www.umrc.net/whatsNew.asp>. Dai Williams' report, "Mystery Metal in Afghanistan", is at <http://www.eoslifework.co.uk/du2012.htm>.]
From Green Left Weekly, December 11, 2002.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.