Desktop version

Home arrow Health

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Depleted-Uranium Weapons

In the 1970s depleted uranium (DU) started being secretly experimented in weapons, and some years later it was actively used.

U ranium is a metal belonging to the actinide series of the periodic table with 92 protons and as many electrons, of which 6 are valence electrons. All its isotopes are unstable, and for that reason, uranium is weakly radioactive.

Isotope U238 with its 146 neutrons is by far the most common in nature, accounting for about 99.3% of the whole quantity. Isotope U235 (143 neutrons) accounts for almost all the rest, since the other isotopes (only U234 among them is natural, while the others, 232, 233 and 236, are produced artificially in breeder reactors from U235 and thorium) are extremely rare.

Both industry (nuclear plants) and war (nuclear bombs) exploit the unique properties of U235, it being the only fissile isotope of a natural element, that is, capable of sustaininga nuclear chain reaction with neutrons at any energy. For that reason, U235 is extracted from the whole mass of natural uranium, which, because of that, at the end of the process is ‘depleted’, while the uranium meant to be used for industrial or military applications to which U235 is added is ‘enriched’ in its isotope. It should be specified that the civil use of uranium requires a much lower enrichment than that required for the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

What is left from the process of depletion and the comparatively very small amount of DU produced by recycling nuclear fuel has a much lower value and is used, also combined with titanium, sandwiched between two sheets of steel in tank amour plates, to make shielding of industrial radiography cameras, as counterbalance weights in aircraft wings, as ballast in boats, as a counterweight in elevators, as a chemical catalyst, to colour glass, to make ceramic glaze and, until not a very long time ago, even in dentistry to give false teeth a more ‘natural’ look [1,2].

But uranium - in this case, technically speaking, depleted or whole makes no difference - has some characteristics which make it fit to be used in projectiles. First of all, being a waste, it is relatively inexpensive, then it is heavy (its density is about 19.1 g/cm3), non-brittle (unlike, for example, tungsten, another metal used in armaments) and an excellent penetrator because at the condition of impact with the target it is ‘self-sharpening’ (adiabatic shear). The most relevant feature as to pollution, though, is its being pyrophoric, that is, liable to ignite spontaneously on exposure to air, when thinly sliced or reduced to powder. A relatively small volume of uranium inserted in a shell can produce a temperature exceeding 3000°C at the target hit, a temperature and an amount of heat high enough to have much of what has been struck evaporate. As happens in waste incinerators, and a fortiori because of the more extreme conditions, much of the matter is reduced to small molecules or, much more often, to atoms which are thrown away from the impact spot and, reaching quickly a colder environment, recombine into solid particles whose composition is totally random.

The presence of uranium - though, of course, present in the phenomenon - is extremely rare in the particles generated or, in fact, is absent at all because of its very small amount as compared with the rest of the materials and because of its heavy weight, a feature which makes it fall quickly and after a comparatively short trip and stay in the air. As a matter of fact, uranium particles can be found only in the immediate surroundings of the explosion, as can be seen from the US document ‘Air Force Exploratory Development Project 06CD0101’ about experiments with DU projectiles which were carried out between October 1977 and October 1978 at the military base of Eglin (Florida). That document is particularly interesting because it makes clear that the military scientists who worked on the project, though lacking direct experience on humans, had already understood what the danger is with regards to health when such an armament is used.

Like any micro- and, especially, nanoparticles, those produced by DU explosions stay for some time suspended in the air, fall to the ground, are often lifted again by the wind and move in the atmosphere also along considerable distances while their concentration obviously decreases. But concentration close to the impact spot, also because of the occasional frequency of the explosion in a relatively small territory, is often particularly high, and soldiers, Red Cross and humanitarian workers and, in general, people present there inhale great quantities of those pollutants besides ingesting them with food.

Conditions, particularly due to the small size of the particles, are such that the typical pathological situations induced by fine and ultrafine particles are established quickly. In fact, a particularly high number of soldiers deployed in territories where war was being, or had been, waged are repatriated ill or become ill soon after. Local people, who are supposed to be at least as ill as soldiers, are very hard to control because of the unfavourable conditions they live in, and most of the information which leaks comes from journalists or personnel of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) active in those areas. Nothing properly collected and sorted, and in particular, nothing reliable comes from official data.

In our laboratory we had a chance to analyse the biopsic and post-mortem pathological samples of about 330 soldiers, and only in one of them could we find trace of uranium in particulate form: a rarity which was expected for the reasons just explained. What we generally see are great quantities of particles, in many cases agglomerated nanoparticles whose composition is varied and whose shape is either spherical, as is typical of high-temperature generation or, particularly in the larger findings, geometrically irregular as is the case with shards of big spherical particles or particles generated at the margin of the phenomenon, which is, in areas where temperature is colder.

What happens with DU can happen with any other armament sharing similar features. Tungsten, for example, is a pyrophoric element also used in weapons with the 'advantage' of reaching a temperature around 5000°C, though it is much less popular than uranium because of both technical and economical drawbacks.

Years ago, the problem with soldiers being repatriated ill from war theaters with then unknown sets of symptoms came almost immediately to the fore, and several alleged perpetrators was indicated by various sources.

As mentioned, cocktails of drugs were usually administered to soldiers, in particular before starting to serve in the assigned territory, but each country had its own recipes, recipes which were not even the same within the same national army, and it is not sure that all soldiers had been subjected to treatment. Vaccines (of which little is known) had been blamed, a thesis which has certainly some reasons to exist, given the number and variety of vaccinations out of any control soldiers underwent in very short periods of time. Then as now, their bodies were not allowed the necessary time to recover from the collection of stimuli received. Then as now, no attention was given to the possible presence of allergy against drug components. Then as now, nobody even bothered to establish whether the subject was naturally immune against one or more diseases against which he was vaccinated, a precaution which Napoleonic doctors applied in 1805 when they introduced the smallpox vaccination in the army, but which seems to be unknown today. But also journalist, NGO staff and local people manifested the same symptoms without having been vaccinated or having taken particular medications. So, vaccines and drugs could be accepted, at most, as contributory causes facilitating the triggering of pathologies. For a short time, also chemicals sprayed on some of the tents groups of soldiers slept in were brought up, but the vast majority of sufferers had never spent a moment in those tents. Not to say of the ill civilians. When the use of DU armament was admitted after having been denied for years, uranium was also blamed as a toxic and radioactive element. Some traces were actually found in the urine of soldiers, but no radioactivity was detected in their pathological tissues. As a matter of fact, uranium is by no means a rare element, being more abundant than iodine, selenium, cadmium, silver, etc. It is roughly as common as tin and zinc, and some can be found in drinking water and in vegetables, particularly in their roots, grown in soil where it is contained (e.g. granite weathering soils) or where some polluted mineral phosphorous fertilisers are used. According to Anke et al. [3], ‘The uranium content of 116 foodstuffs and beverages varies extremely. Vegetable foods accumulate between 0.8 pg U/kg dry matter (DM) in margarine, bee honey and pearl barley, 50 pg U/kg DM in asparagus, and >100 pg U/kg DM in mixed mushrooms. As a rule, sugar-, starch- and fat-rich foodstuffs proved to be uranium-poor (fruits, seeds, flour), whereas leafy vegetables, tea and herbs can be uranium-rich. Animal foodstuffs accumulate lower uranium contents, with 0.7 pg U/kg DM in butter and 1.1-1.9 pg U/kg DM in condensed and normal cow’s milk, 1.5-3.1 pg U/kg DM in pork, beef, chicken and mutton, 3-10 pg U/kg DM in fish, and 16 pg U/kg DM in hen’s eggs.' So, finding traces of uranium in the urine is by no means surprising and is also proof that the organism, unlike what happens with particles, can eliminate it As to radioactivity and its effects, it must be noted that the technical staff working in the preparation of uranium weapons, and therefore in constant contact with that metal, never showed any signs of disease.

Particles are the only pathogen shared equally by all people who spent or spend their time in war theaters and are the only pathogen which can be found in all patients. So, all other harmful agents more or less frequently present in the territories or in the situations involving those pathologies can be regarded, at most, as contributory causes.

In conclusion, if a sort of court ruling should be issued, finding no trace of uranium but the clear traces of its activity, uranium would be, all considered, not the actual killer but the ‘guy behind’.

It may be interesting to observe that probably the most common symptom shared by all sick soldiers is chronic fatigue, a condition we find almost invariably in all patients affected by nanopathologies. Sometimes, the symptom is treated with cortisone drugs which have an effect which is that of doping in sports. Ultimately, not a cure but a palliative not to see the symptom. Other common symptoms are irritability, insomnia and the loss of primary (or short-term) memory, that is, the capacity of holding information in mind for a short period of time (e.g. to remember a telephone number which has been just communicated.) In most cases, those symptoms are attributed to post-traumatic stress, something the Mayo Clinic defines as ‘a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event-either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.'

In almost all cases, the disorder is dealt with several, often combined, types of psychotherapy, but particularly with soldiers, the treatment is usually made through anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications. Far from us the intention to criticise the usefulness of these therapies aimed at treating the shocking effects of war experience, but, though having assets of only few hundreds of cases analysed, we have had patients suffering from those symptoms which were nothing else but the result of particles later found in the brain after having triggered a cancer. It is possible that a more complete diagnosis would have allowed to implement a more appropriate and timely treatment than psychoactive drugs alone.

Itisonly natural thatthebehaviourofthemicro-and nanoparticles we deal with is the same in soldiers as in any individual. So, the nanopathologies are basically the same. The main difference lies in the speed with which these become clinically evident in soldiers, and this because of the large quantities of dust, composed especially of ultrafine particles, to which they are exposed together with very complex combinations of other toxic substances.

It can be interesting to point out that, as a rule, the soldiers sent to war zones are young and leave in health conditions comparable to those of an athlete.

Our case history of war-related illnesses counts about 330 cases divided into cases of Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, leukaemia and cancer of different parts of the body (the lung, the liver, the kidneys, the brain, the thyroid, the colon, the stomach and cases of blood disorders). As already reported, we did not find uranium in the samples analysed (except in one case, and we have no evidence that uranium came from a bomb) but found evident traces of the war-field pollution generated by high-technology weapons against specific targets (tanks, metallurgical and chemist factories, etc.) (Fig. 3.13).

(a and b) Images of two cases of soldiers affected by lymphoma, (b) Lymphoma of a soldier

Figure 3.13 (a and b) Images of two cases of soldiers affected by lymphoma, (b) Lymphoma of a soldier.

In about 330 cases of soldiers with cancer whose biopsy or autopsy findings we have analysed, lymphoma is by far the most frequent variety. In all cases, solid, inorganic and non-biodegradable micro- and nanoparticles were present in the analysed tissues as is the case here shown by electron microscopy photographs and energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS) graphs. Stainless steel (iron-chromium-nickel), titanium and tungsten are elements which are commonly found in this type of finding. It is not uncommon to find gold, an element used for war purposes, as a component.

One of the authors of this book, Dr. Gatti, had the opportunity as a member of the Italian Governmental Commissions (2004-12) on ‘Depleted Uranium and Related Diseases’ and as a member of the scientific committee on the ‘Prevention and Control of the Illnesses of the Soldiers’ (CPCM) to investigate also in an international firing range and on the people living around the military area. She had the chance to analyse the bones of a shepherd who died of leukaemia whose body was exhumed after 10 years from death (Fig. 3.14).

Bone marrow analyses of an exhumed body affected by leukaemia

Figure 3.14 Bone marrow analyses of an exhumed body affected by leukaemia. The particles shown in the electron microscopy images were found in the bone marrow remains of a corpse exhumed several years after burial. The corpse is that of a young shepherd who died of leukaemia who lived in the territory of a large military shooting range where explosive weapons are tested. As we have seen in quite a few other cases, not only soldiers but also civilians living in the area affected by pollution are ill with war-related nanopathologies. Unlike other pollutants, especially if of organic origin, which can be transformed over time after inhumation until they disappear completely, non-biodegradable, solid, inorganic particles are preserved indefinitely, and their detection can be used as a marker of a pollution condition. Calcium and phosphorus are components of the bone tissue, while elements like iron, copper and zinc are due to pollution. The spherical particle was obviously generated at high temperature.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics