Global Policy Forum

Iraq Mess Is Literally Making People Sick


By Judy Leurquin*

April 10, 2006

Of the more than 670,000 troops deployed to the Gulf in 1991, about one-third of them now receive disability compensation. Remember your mother's warning, "If you can't clean up after yourself, don't make the mess"? Didn't we subject our children to that mantra? But what was and is a continuing motif running through the theater of family life has not apparently carried over into the theater of modern warfare.

Take Iraq, for example. During the 1991 Gulf War our military attacked Iraq and its people with over 350 tons of depleted uranium (DU). During the current war and occupation we've fired 2,200-plus tons on people and cities all over Iraq. A byproduct of uranium enrichment, DU remains radioactive for 4.5 billion years. We have turned the cradle of civilization into a toxic wasteland.

DU is cheap. Nuclear power plants are glad to have arms manufacturers take this radioactive waste material off their hands. DU is effective, 1.7 times denser than lead. It's pyrophoric, burning everything it hits into a charred crisp. When DU weapons strike targets, a fine aerosol of uranium oxide is formed, which can be inhaled. Inhaled particles can cause serious damage, especially the insoluble particles that can remain in the body a long time. DU is an alpha emitter that wreaks havoc on DNA, RNA, proteins and enzymes. Over time, mutations form and cancers develop. Children have been born with birth defects. DU has been found in all parts of the body.

Initial symptoms of DU contamination may include severe headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, night sweats, fever, poor appetite, joint pain, gastrointestinal problems, rashes and oozing lesions. Later on more serious conditions develop, including cognitive difficulties, memory loss, mood swings, neuropathies, blood disorders, menstrual problems, burning semen, increased pain and greater immobility. Death by DU poisoning can be slow and agonizing.

Of the more than 670,000 troops deployed to the Gulf in 1991, about one-third of them now receive disability compensation. According to Doug Rokke, former Army physicist and director of DU cleanup following the first gulf war, more than 11,000 have died since that war ended. (The ground war, which lasted only 100 hours, claimed 179 lives, most from friendly fire.)

Gulf War I troops were exposed to a plethora of harmful substances. There were untested vaccinations, unproven prophylactic medications, potent insect repellents, carcinogen-laden cleaning products, oil fires, sarin gas, and depleted uranium. While most doctors and scientists agree that the unexplained illnesses, which they labeled Gulf War Syndrome, are likely due to a synergistic effect of all of the toxic exposures, some argue that DU caused most of the problems.

Many Gulf War I veterans have described the difficulty they had accessing health and compensation benefits because they could not prove their symptoms were war-related. Sick veterans were often misdiagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which would guarantee some benefits but did not offer the correct treatment. It's happening all over again with this war and occupation. More Iraqis are sick. The numbers of Iraqi children born with birth defects are way up. Iraqis will continue to suffer even more egregiously because they are continuously exposed to DU and other hazards.

U.S. war casualty statistics include only the dead and wounded. It is difficult to obtain information about the troops who become sick during deployment. Some U.S. troops who are sick and have tested positive for DU contamination reported difficulties getting proper medical help. A number of children have been born with birth defects. Returning troops are not regularly tested for DU contamination. Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to deny that depleted uranium causes severe illnesses.

What I have observed is that doctors, scientists and others who parrot the Pentagon's spin usually are people with government jobs. They have perks. Other skeptics throw out signals that they are intimidated and don't want to "make waves." But speaking truth to power has its costs, as Doug Rokke found out. Now sick from DU poisoning himself, he laments that when experts (like himself) speak out on the dangers of DU, they become "persona non grata."

Efforts are under way throughout the world to ban the use of depleted uranium. You can find out more about depleted uranium by contacting Health Writers at 238-5740 or 241-5537.

About the Author: Judy Leurquin of Madison is a retired psych nurse and member of the Health Writers collective.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Indiscriminate and Especially Injurious Weapons
More Information on the Humanitarian Consequences of the War
More Information on the Military Consequences of the War in Iraq


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