A substance called “depleted uranium” is denser than lead and can penetrate metals more effectively — so it’s now being used in bombs and bullets. But it might affect human health and the environment long after a conflict is over.
Depleted uranium shells left from US air strikes on Sarajevo. (c) AP/Hidajet delic. Photo courtesy of Nature.
In recent years, several military forces have begun to use a new material — called “depleted uranium” — to make bombs and bullets.
It’s slightly radioactive — and toxic to people and animals in large doses. Pekka Haavisto is chairman of the U.N.’s Post Conflict Assessment Unit. His job is to look at the environmental impact of human conflicts — such as this year’s war in Iraq.
Pekka Haavisto: And in Iraq I am concerned in two parts of the issue — the first is the depleted uranium already used during the first Gulf War in 1991. There has never been a proper assessment in Iraq on this issue. … And secondly, we have confirmation from the military sources, from the U.K. and U.S., that also during the latest conflict, this type of ammunition was used.
Haavisto is concerned that depleted uranium in Iraq might find its way into the air or drinking water.
Pekka Haavisto: … usually if you ask what would be done in the U.S. or in any European country if you had this type of contamination around, the answer always would be: ‘It should be cleaned up.’ And I can not see any reason why in a post conflict country like Iraq … this shouldn’t be done in the same way.
Depleted uranium is 1.7 times as dense as lead. Like lead, it’s a heavy metal and can be dangerous in large amounts. It’s also slightly radioactive. Depleted uranium is a byproduct of enriching uranium to generate nuclear power.
In March of 2003, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report based on field studies in Bosnia and Herzegovina in October 2002. The group found that depleted uranium from conflicts in 1994 and 1995 had contaminated drinking water in at least one area. According to the announcement, “The recorded contamination levels, however, are very low and do not present immediate radioactive or toxic risks for the environment or human health.” But, the team recommended that drinking water at this site and other nearby sites be tested regularly for several years. That’s because DU corrodes over a period of time and leaches into the soil. So contamination levels may increase over time. This report records the first known instance of DU contamination of groundwater. (See press release: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/17471/depleted_uranium_bosnia.pdf?sequence=1&%3BisAllowed=)
The mission of Pekka Haavisto — chairman of the Post Conflict Assessment Unit — is to evaluate the state of the environment in places that have experienced armed conflict. Haavisto worked with scientists who measured levels of depleted uranium contamination in the Balkans in the 1990s. He’s also a former environment minister of his native Finland.
Excerpts from an interview with Pekka Haavisto:
-Is there evidence that depleted uranium was used in the most recent Iraq war? Are you concerned about the effects of DU on health and the environment?
[26:00] Yes, depleted uranium is something we have been working [on] earlier in the Balkans and we have also established quite wide cooperation on this with different scientific institutions including some U.S. military institutions including he Russians and others. Because of course UNEP is not the stronghold of this kind of military information. But we have collected a lot of data and we have established a good network of scientists on this issue. [26:30] And in Iraq I am concerned in two parts of the issue — the first is the depleted uranium already used during the first Gulf War in 1991. There has never been a proper assessment in Iraq on this issue. And I’m a little bit concerned that there may still be some loose contamination in some of the parts of the country, especially around Basra and so on. It’s always unnecessary to put people on this type of risk.
And secondly, we have confirmation from the military sources, from the U.S. and U.K., that also during the latest conflict, this kind of ammunition was used. And our recommendation is that you should always take care of these sites where it has been used. You should warn the local population, especially the children not to enter there and not to pick any contaminated materials. And you should make the proper clean up if these sites are located in the vicinity of habitation and people are living closely around. And I think this is the work that should also be done in Iraq.
-What are the health risks with depleted uranium?
[28:20] Depleted uranium actually has two effects — it’s a toxic material like any heavy metal and then its slightly radioactive. And our findings in the Balkans — in Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia — they concluded that when you have this kind of heavy metal in the soil, it can actually, the particles can penetrate through the soil during time and with the water and they can touch the ground water. So for example, in the area near Sarajevo and H???, we found some wells that were contaminated with depleted uranium particles. And we also found that even after 8 years, if you have loose materials on the ground, they corrode very rapidly, this depleted uranium leaches, this corroded dust can be spread by the wind — and again we could measure both in Montenegro and in Bosnian this kind of depleted uranium dust in the air near the areas that had been targeted and it gave an indication that when the clean up has not been taken place, this dust can be spread around and of course it’s very low level, both the toxicity and the radioactivity, [29:40] but usually if you ask what would be done in the U.S or in any European country if you had this type of contamination around, the answer always would be: ‘It should be cleaned up.’ And I can not see any reason why in a post conflict country like Iraq or in a post conflict region like in the Balkans this shouldn’t be done in the same way.
[30:15] I’m not a scientist as such. And when we went to Kosovo, of course we had a big group of different radiological scientists and scientists working with the topological issues and others and we measured these issues. It was very interesting to see the reactions of the scientists. I said, ‘Okay, we have this and this level of contamination — what do you recommend?’ And then there were scientists and they said, ‘Well, this is Kosovo anyhow and they have so many other problems with the air pollution and this and that and water pollution that this is only peanuts compared with all these other pollutants.’ And then there were scientists who said, ‘Well if this happened in Switzerland or Sweden or in the U.S. or wherever we should immediately clean it up.’ And I could actually see that it wasn’t the science that was giving the answer, but it’s your attitude. Do you think that people in the post conflict areas, they are somehow harder people and they can take more burdens and they should take more burdens with the issues that can be cleaned up? Or do you think that they are human beings like us and whatever you can avoid, you should avoid and whatever pollution. And this is my philosophy that even in post conflict areas, you should do whatever you can. You can’t always do it 100 percent. But you should do whatever you can to avoid any unnecessary risk to human health or the environment. And I think our feedback has been that people appreciate this kind of attitude. They think that they are human beings like us and after the conflict they should also be protected like we are protected in our own countries.
[32:05] We are not speaking about a huge, huge project. … it can be done usually in a couple of days with the proper equipment. You don’t have to dramaticize it. This is the kind of straightforward thing that you can do in these countries. People don’t have to move away or anything like that. You can do it easily.
-How are clean ups done?
[32:45] The clean up actually is done — we are talking about this kind of ammunition that was used in the Balkans — they are these 300 gram penetrators. And if they are 10 centimeters deep or more close to the soil, they can be easily covered by radioactive measuring equipment and they can be picked up and they can be put into sand barrels and these sand barrels can be stored properly and then you don’t have the problem anymore. The sites where this has been used have been pretty limited — they are 100 by 100 meters or whatever so you can always see what’s the target and see where material was used. And then you make the clean up. It can be done. It’s nothing more complicated than mine clearance or something like that.