Although the United States and its allies call their newest weapons conventional, which means non-nuclear, the truth is more complicated. Scientists I interviewed here in the United States, and in Canada, Europe, and Lebanon describe this latest generation of weapons as radioactive and chemically poisonous. While not nuclear, they leave high levels of radioactive uranium in their wake. And it’s now documented that cancer and birth defects associated with exposure to radiation have soared in countries where the United States and its allies have waged wars since the early 1990s.
For example, in 2004, the World Health Organization found that Iraq—which the United States invaded in 1991 (Desert Storm) and 2003 (Operation Iraqi Freedom)—had the world’s highest rates of lymphoma and leukemia: 407 lymphoma and 325 leukemia cases for every 100,000 people. Afghanistan, invaded in 2001 (Operation Enduring Freedom), placed second, with 247 lymphoma and 236 leukemia cases. To compare, the WHO reported that Turkey had 100 lymphoma and 140 leukemia cases for every 100,000 people, while the United States recorded 78 and 62.
Causality is hard to determine, but one thing is certain. The United States and its partners have continually blasted Afghanistan and Iraq with the latest bombs, missiles, and other munitions—many of which happen to be made from uranium and other metals such as plutonium, the most lethal of all. And the bombs are still dropping (think Mosul).
Last April, The Washington Spectator published “Irradiated Iraq: The Nuclear Nightmare We Left Behind,” which described the health effects, including horrendous birth defects, resulting from the U.S. military’s use of weapons made with depleted uranium (DU). When the United States re-invaded Iraq in 2003, a new generation of weapons was used, some made with un-depleted and slightly enriched uranium. Not surprisingly, rates of illness soared again.
Soon after the article appeared—which also described adverse health effects among U.S. veterans—critics claimed its sources were “charlatans” who didn’t know their science.
Perhaps the most vocal critic was Otto Raabe, a professor of veterinary molecular biosciences and environmental engineering at University of California, Davis, who wrote, “There is…no…evidence demonstrating the use of natural, non-depleted or slightly enriched uranium in regular U.S. combat use.”
Dr. Raabe is a scientist who for decades has denied the risks of low-dose exposure to radiation, while doggedly defending the nuclear power industry. His arguments are not exactly embraced by the scientific community.
His “core position,” wrote Dr. David Brenner, a professor of radiation oncology at Columbia University, is “his assertion that the addition of a few additional [DNA] alterations by low dose irradiation may not contribute to any meaningful increase in cancer risk. I know of no evidence to support this statement, and Professor Raabe does not provide any.”
On one occasion, Raabe ventured beyond his academic discipline to argue that it’s not certain that the HIV virus causes AIDS, a position a virologist who perfected one of the earliest AIDS assays described to us as “absurd and unscientific.”
Jack Cohen-Joppa, who publishes Nuclear Resister, inexplicably departed from his publication’s editorial position to repeat Raabe’s attack on the Spectator article word for word and ask: “What is your….evidence any of these weapons contained ANY type of uranium in regular combat use?”
First, regarding depleted uranium. Paul Zimmerman, in A Primer in the Art of Deception, writes that DU proponents never tire of saying it is “40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium.” Also, that “uranium appears in nature…humans are constantly exposed to it…and they show no ill effects.” This argument, Zimmerman says, “is hokum.”
He insists the issue is how one defines natural uranium. What the military describes as natural uranium is not the uranium that naturally occurs in rocks and soil—where there are only two to three grams of uranium in one metric ton—but the end product of a process that involves crushing rocks and soil, then cleaning and concentrating the uranium that naturally occurs there into yellowcake, which is further processed into 100 percent pure uranium, or “ natural uranium.”
To produce DU, this pure natural uranium is stripped of uranium-235, which is used to make nuclear weapons and nuclear reactor fuel. What remains is the depleted natural uranium the U.S. military and others use in their arsenals.
Sounding the alarm in 2000, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, a cancer research scientist and consultant to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (she died in 2012), wrote: “DU is some thousand times more radioactive than the uranium found in soil and rock.”
Further, military officials insist that U.S. forces use DU only in bullets—not in guided bombs and missiles. This too is false. The U.S. Air Force acknowledged it fired munitions made with DU from A-10 fighter jets (called Warthogs) in the Balkans from 1992-1996. Also, U.S. military officials have said there is “a percentage of DU rounds” in “sea-skimming missiles” carried on U.S. warships.
Regardless of whether the bombs, bullets, or missiles are made with depleted, un-depleted, or slightly enriched uranium, they are all radioactive.
Moreover, the bombs, missiles, and bullets used today contain un-depleted and slightly enriched uranium—which the military also denies. But scientists from Canada, the United States, and U.K. have confirmed it. First, they used different tools to calculate radiation levels and their sources in various war zones. Tedd Weyman, deputy director of the Uranium Medical Research Centre (UMRC) office in Canada, conducted field surveys in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Balkans, using an Exploranium GR-135 Plus Indentifier and a ASM-990 Advanced Survey Meter—both of which recorded serious spikes in radiation.
Then, since Weyman and others suspected the increases were caused by radioactive uranium oxide dust, they collected soil, water, and dust samples, along with urine samples from troops and civilians in Iraq, Kosovo (which NATO bombed in the 1990s), Afghanistan, and Lebanon (which Israel bombed in 2006). The samples were tested in high-tech laboratories in England, Wales, and Germany. To ensure the results were correct, samples were re-tested several times at different labs.
Results showed the samples did contain higher-than-normal levels of un-depleted uranium, along with slightly enriched uranium.
More startling, some samples contained uranium-236 (U-236), the man-made element in nuclear-reactor waste, which is, of course, radioactive, and proves the uranium is not that which occurs in nature. Even more shocking, some showed trace amounts of plutonium, which is more radioactive than DU or U-236 because it emits alpha particles more rapidly than the other elements (these cause cells and chromosomes to mutate).
Weyman explained that when nuclear power plants produce electricity and process nuclear fuel, they can’t avoid making plutonium, since “it’s part of the nuclear waste. We call it a dirty mix.” And weapons producers use the DU from nuclear waste stockpiles—a standard procedure that costs the manufacturers very little. Thus the munitions they produce are inevitably contaminated with plutonium and U-236.
Although the military denies this, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) confirmed it in a 2000 report, which said the entire supply of DU, uranium-alloyed, and high explosive weapons is “adulterated with highly-radioactive nuclear reactor waste.” (Emphasis added.)
Then in 2010, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report said that weapons made with DU have small amounts of other radioactive elements, such as “americium and plutonium, as well as U-236—taken from nuclear reactor waste.”
However, Weyman argues that regardless of whether the bombs, bullets, or missiles are made with depleted, un-depleted, or slightly enriched uranium, they are all radioactive, having severe health effects.
Here are some of the researchers’ test results.
In 2002, a UMRC team collected urine samples from very ill men in Bibi Mahro, an eastern Afghanistan town. The NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory of the British Geological Survey tested the samples and found “exceedingly high levels of natural uranium (the processed product) up to 200 times higher than normal.” Dr. Asaf Durakovic, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, the V.A. former Chief of Nuclear Medicine, and lead author of a 2007 UMRC report on the topic, says the men breathed “contaminated dust” or were exposed to “high levels of uranium in the soil or drinking water” after the U.S. bombings. He adds that while water and soil in some countries have high uranium levels because of uranium mining and processing, this was “not the case in Bibi Mahro.”
The UMRC also took soil from bomb craters at Tora Bora (the mountainous area in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden eluded U.S. capture) after U.S. forces bombed it in December 2001. The UMRC also collected urine samples from civilians living adjacent to and downwind of the craters. The J.W. Goethe University laboratory in Germany tested the samples and found high levels of U-236 and un-depleted uranium.
In 2003, the UMRC took urine samples from nine American troops who served in Samawah (a city south of Baghdad), soon after the U.S. invasion. The Goethe lab used mass spectrometry equipment to test the samples and found that five of the nine had more un-depleted uranium in their urine than those not exposed to the uranium oxide dust, and four were contaminated by DU. The results were published in UMRC reports, one focused on “US Military Personnel Deployed at Samawah, Iraq, During Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
Weyman, who led the UMRC field team, said they also collected urine from 15 sick civilians who were in the vicinity of bombings or tank battles in Baghdad and Basra. Results published by the Goethe Lab in 2004 showed DU and higher-than-normal concentrations of un-depleted uranium. According to Weyman other soil and water samples showed “detectable levels of U-236.”
“The worst contamination is in the troops’ clothing—particularly those made of synthetic materials, which attract, hold and concentrate the dust. Even when you wash them, they’re still contaminated,” he says.
In 2010, British physical chemist Chris Busby took hair samples from parents of children with birth defects in Fallujah and sent them to the Micro-Trace Minerals Laboratory in Hersbruck, Germany (which also conducts tests for the German government). Dr. Eleanore Blaurock-Busch, the lab director, said the samples showed “a statistically significant presence of enriched uranium.” She told me “to validate our results, I sent some of the samples to the nearby University of Regensburg laboratory, which confirmed my findings.”
Weyman says the hair contamination “is not due to inhaling uranium oxide dust, but rather from direct environmental exposure”—to the micro-particles of uranium that cover the war zones (bodies of water, fields, and cities) and are absorbed through the skin, eaten, or drunk.
In 2005, the German military commissioned the Helmholtz Institute in Munich (formerly called GSK) to test penetrators—armor-piercing bullets that NATO fired from A-10 planes in Kosovo. Results showed trace amounts of plutonium. These penetrators are made of 99 percent DU and less than one percent titanium.
The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) reported it also found “traces of plutonium…and U-236” in four penetrators taken from Kosovo war sites. These were tested at the Swiss AC-Laboratory Spiez and the Swedish Radiation Protection Institute. According to UNEP: “At least part of the material…originated from the reprocessing of nuclear fuel.” However, UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer assured the public that the findings “should not cause any immediate alarm.” As it is a U.N. agency, UNEP gets much of its funding from the U.S. government—and, according to Dai Williams, an independent weapons researcher in the U.K., UNEP is unwilling to take a stand that would threaten its funding.
After Israel bombed southern Lebanon in July and August 2006, Dr. Mohammed Ali Kobeissi, a Lebanese nuclear physicist and radiation expert, measured radiation levels inside a large bomb crater in the town of Khiam. He found levels 10 times higher than outside the crater.
“When a lab does announce its results, it loses its funding or is closed.”
Kobeissi took urine samples from two civilians who were in south Beirut during or soon after the bombings. Both had slightly-enriched uranium in their urine and one also had a high level of un-depleted uranium. To confirm his findings, Kobeissi tested the urine of civilians who were not in Beirut when it was bombed, and found it was normal.
Dai Williams went to Lebanon in September and November, and collected soil, dust, water, and urine samples. He sent samples to Harwell Laboratory in the U.K. and to the School of Ocean Sciences Laboratory at the University of Wales, run by Dr. David Assinder. Harwell used inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry and Assinder used alpha spectrometry. Although their numbers differed somewhat, neither found DU; however, both found low concentrations of un-depleted uranium, along with slightly-enriched uranium.
Williams also tested an air filter from an ambulance that operated in south Beirut during the bombings. He sent parts of the filter to the same two labs, which found slightly-enriched uranium dust.
Further, in November, UNEP researchers took soil samples from inside and outside the Khiam crater (in southern Lebanon). The findings were compelling: The closer the soil sample was to the crater, the greater the concentration of un-depleted uranium. But the highest level—14 times higher than samples from the local area—was from soil inside the crater, near bomb fragments. UNEP first posted these results on its website, but later removed them and did not include them in its January 2007 report, Lebanon: Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment. Instead, it reversed itself, saying the samples showed “no evidence of DU or other radioactive material.”
Williams also took water samples from inside the crater, tested them in the U.K., and found slightly enriched uranium. UNEP took water samples and found nothing unusual. Williams says the UNEP reversal is not surprising, given its funding sources.
Decades ago, U.S. officials denied the toxicity of the Agent Orange used in Vietnam. Next, they denied use of poison gas (sarin) in Iraq, to which U.S. troops were exposed during Desert Storm. More recently, they claimed conventional munitions fired in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Lebanon were not radioactive.
Weyman says that those who could counter such arguments typically don’t. He says that laboratories which test samples and find radioactive remains from war zones won’t sound alarms—even about dramatic findings like U-236 and plutonium—because the backlash can be stunning. “When a lab does announce its results, it loses its funding or is closed. This happened to labs the UMRC used, such as the Radiogenic Isotope Laboratory at Memorial University in St. Johns, Newfoundland, which was closed and reopened with a different name, and could no longer conduct the tests. Also, Goethe University renovated its laboratory and moved its testing equipment to a new facility, where it could no longer do nuclear research on biological specimens,” he says.
Similarly, U.K. weapons researcher Dai Williams told me that after David Assinder found un-depleted and slightly enriched uranium in the Lebanese soil samples, the University of Wales permanently closed his lab. Assinder did not return my repeated calls or emails. Why? Williams says that researchers who persist are marginalized and their work is dismissed.
Weyman also says that weapons manufacturers don’t admit their products are chemically poisonous and radioactive because their contracts with the U.S. military don’t allow it. And researchers won’t discuss the issue because their work is mainly funded by governments.
Not surprisingly, those who promote nuclear energy also deny the radiation realities. For example, after The Washington Spectator’s April 2016 article, Mattias Lantz, a Swedish nuclear physics researcher, wrote that Chris Busby (one of the story’s sources) was biased. However, Lantz runs a website called Nuclear Power? Yes Please. supported by Sweden’s nuclear power industry.
Liability issues keep the DOD and allies from coming clean. And, lacking aggressive advocacy from international organizations and veterans groups, soaring rates of leukemia and lymphoma in Iraq and Afghanistan will become the new norm—and not only there, but in Syria and Yemen. The silence about the toll on human life is stunning.
Barbara Koeppel is a Washington D.C.-based investigative reporter.