A Decade On and Depleted Uranium Contamination Still Blights Iraq

To mark the 10th anniversary of the 2003 invasion, a new report has highlighted continuing uncertainties over the impact and legacy of the use of 400 tonnes of depleted uranium (DU) weapons in Iraq. The report reveals the extent of DU’s use in civilian areas for the first time.

In a State of Uncertainty published by Dutch peace organisation IKV Pax Christi, has sought to do what the US has so far refused to do – reveal how widely the weapons were used in Iraq, and in what circumstances. It also analyses the costs and technical burdens associated with DU use, arguing that a decade on, many contamination problems remain unresolved – leaving civilians at risk of chronic DU exposure.

States argue that the use of controversial DU munitions is justified against armoured vehicles, yet In a State of Uncertainty documents their use against a wider range of targets in 2003, with attacks often taking place within civilian areas, leaving residents at risk from contamination. This resulted from both the US’s use of DU in medium calibre ammunition for aircraft and armoured fighting vehicles, and the frequency of urban combat operations in 2003.

The report also finds that the Iraqi government has struggled with the cost and technical challenges posed by the legacy of contamination, a situation compounded by the US’s refusal to release targeting data. The Iraqi government acknowledges that there are more than 300 sites with known contamination, based on the limited data available, with new sites regularly discovered. Clean-up of sites typically costs around US$150,000, but varies considerably depending on the setting, extent and level of contamination.

Afri has been campaigning to ban the use of depleted uranium weapons for years. At our instigation a bill to this effect was introduced by Dan Boyle in 2009. The bill made its way through the Seanad with all-party support before the collapse of the Fianna Fáil / Green party government in 2011. Afri are currently campaigning to have this bill resurrected and the process of enacting it into law revived.

Afri recently commissioned a short film by award-winning film maker Dearbhla Glynn on this subject. To view this film: http://www.afri.ie/news-and-events/ban-depleted-uranium-film/

Health concerns

Reports collected by the International Committee of the Red Cross reveal that tribal leaders in southern Iraq highlighted DU contamination as a primary health concern, with fear of DU exposure widespread in Iraq. Iraqis commonly associate increased incidence rates of cancers, congenital birth malformations and other diseases with DU, resulting in significant levels of anxiety. Prompted by numerous media reports of a health crisis in Fallujah, linked by researchers to the toxic legacy of military activities, a major review of birth defect rates in six Iraqi provinces by the World Health Organisation and Iraqi Ministry of Health is to be published soon.

In a State of Uncertainty documents the enormous problem still posed by the poorly regulated storage and trade in military scrap metal. Deregulation of the scrap trade under the Coalition Provisional Authority resulted in casual scrap metal collectors being needlessly exposed to DU, and to the export of contaminated scrap to neighbouring countries. Scrap metal collectors continue to remain at risk of exposure, as do those who live near dozens of uncontrolled scrap sites. The Iraqi government has requested international assistance in analysing and managing contaminated military scrap.

The United Nations General Assembly has twice called for greater transparency over DU weapons use, most recently in December 2012, where 155 states voted in favour. The US, UK, France and Israel were the only four states which opposed the text, which also accepted the potential risks from DU use and called for a precautionary approach to their post-conflict management.

Throughout, it is clear that for states recovering from conflict, effectively managing DU contamination to standards even approaching those in the states that employ the weapons poses significant challenges. IKV Pax Christi argues that the implications for the wider acceptability of DU munitions are clear.

Notes for Editors

The report In a State of Uncertainty can be downloaded from: www.ikvpaxchristi.nl/media/files/in-a-state-of-uncertainty.pdf

For information and interviews, please contact Wim Zwijnenburg (author): zwijnenburg@ikvpaxchristi.nl Tel: 0031 648981832

About IKV Pax Christi
IKV Pax Christi is a Dutch civil society organisation that works with its partners for peace, reconciliation and justice worldwide. We support local peace efforts in conflict areas. We build bridges, nurture mutual understanding and improve disrupted relations between groups. Our aim is to prevent conflict and to build a peaceful, democratic and just society.

About the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW)
ICBUW is a global civil society network with members in 30 countries that undertakes research and advocacy on depleted uranium weapons. ICBUW argues that the uncontrolled dispersal of DU during conflict runs counter to radiation protection norms, poses a risk to civilians and creates an unwelcome burden on states recovering from conflict. ICBUW argues that a precautionary approach to DU would preclude its use, for more on ICBUW and DU please visit www.icbuw.org or download the report Precaution in Practice: http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/docs/195.pdf

Depleted uranium (DU)
A by-product of uranium enrichment, DU has been employed in anti-armour kinetic energy ammunition since the Cold War. Dense, pyrophoric, and provided at low cost to arms manufacturers, DU has been lauded by those states that employ it as a highly effective and militarily necessary material.

As intermediate level radioactive waste, DU is subject to a range of domestic environmental, security and health and safety regulations in those same states.  Its uncontrolled release during conflicts has the potential to create significant hotspots of contamination and generate large quantities of contaminated wreckage. A radioactive and chemically toxic heavy metal, particulate matter generated in the high temperature metal fires from DU impacts presents an inhalational hazard to civilians. DU is genotoxic (can damage DNA) and, as with other alpha radiation emitters, has been classified as a Class I Human Carcinogen by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer when internalised. Civilians living and working around hotspots or in the scrap metal trade may face chronic exposure to DU residues with a long term health impact. DU has been shown to be able to migrate into drinking water sources, although considerable uncertainties remain over its environmental behaviour under different climatic and soil conditions.

The environmental monitoring and remediation of DU contaminated sites places a technical and financial burden on states recovering from conflict and it is thought that the suspected or actual presence of contamination has a profound psychological effect on civilians.

UN resolution
2012 UN General Assembly resolution calling for a precautionary approach to depleted uranium weapons http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/unga-2012-vote

World Health Organisation
WHO and Iraqi Ministry of Health report into rates of congenital malformations in Iraq, FAQ.

Published by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *