A Modern Plague: 'The Human Cost of Uranium Weapons' Photo exhibition in the European Parliament, 14th to 16th May 2007
Els Van Weert (Dutch Green/EFA MEP)- Brussels, May 2007.
Together with the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW – www.bandepleteduranium.org) and British MEP Dr Caroline Lucas, I organised an exhibition and conference about the use of weapons containing depleted uranium (DU).
Women in Iraq are scared to get pregnant, because their children may be born with congenital malformations or may subsequently develop childhood leukaemia; a rare form of cancer in the developed West. Children with bumpy skulls and swollen necks and bellies gazed out from the photographs by the Japanese photographer Naomi Toyoda, who exhibited his work in the European Parliament earlier this month.
We saw photos of babies with crooked legs, and pictures of hospitalised older children in their deathbeds, sometimes smiling, in spite of all. Another photo showed the special graveyard for children in the southern town of Basra: a vast plain with cheap small tombstones. Elsewhere a man was sitting on the ruins of his house, his face etched in despair, another victim of ‘collateral damage’. In a busy street nearby lay the remains of a tank destroyed by DU, its hulk contaminated by radioactive and toxic dust; passers-by brush past it and children play in and on it.
The 2003 war in Iraq is different from traditional wars in two ways: it was played out in the midst of large civilian populations and, for the second time in Iraq’s history, DU nuclear waste was used as a weapon. Following the 1991 and 2003 invasions, 70% of Iraq is contaminated with uranium dust. It is in the vegetation, rivers, groundwater, and in humans and animals. It covers roads, fields and houses. Hundreds of tonnes of nuclear waste are spread as dust over Iraq.
DU is waste from the nuclear enrichment process. It is what is left over once the isotope uranium 235 is removed for use in nuclear power plants. DU is radioactive, extremely poisonous and expensive to store – there are more than 500,000 tonnes of it worldwide. Consequently it is very cheap for arms manufacturers to buy. Its high density makes it an attractive choice for use in armour-piercing weapons.
When the penetrator dart from a DU shell hits a hard target, it ignites and burns at temperatures in excess of 30000C. These high temperatures create a cloud of soluble and insoluble uranium oxide particles, which can easily be inhaled. The soluble oxides can dissolve into the bloodstream affecting the whole body, while the insoluble particles lodge in the lungs, irradiating the lung cells before being transported to the lymph nodes and beyond.
Iraq has seen an alarming increase in the incidence rate of cancers following the 1991 Gulf War. Military personnel have also been affected, with many suffering a wide range of symptoms relating to their exposure to DU. Other personnel have fathered deformed children. This happened to Gerard Matthew, a US Iraq veteran, who suffered from incredible migraines and dozens of other symptoms. His little daughter Victoria, who was conceived while he was on leave, is missing three fingers on her hand. Gerard himself is ill, but was nevertheless in the Parliament to tell his story.
In the meantime there are many Gerards! Military reports mention genetic defects in the chromosomes of veterans who served in the Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo. As bearers of DU contamination they are permanently exposed to the radioactive and toxic effects of DU, which destroys their tissues and threatens the health of their offspring. There are more veterans with misshapen children. But until recently, the military authorities disregarded the concerns of activists and scientists and did not even warn their own personnel. Maybe Iraq is too dangerous a place for Prince Harry because of DU.
The American toxicologist Dr. Thomas Fasy, and his colleagues in the UK, have been investigating DU contamination for years and are capable of identifying the precise isotopic footprint of DU, even many years after exposure. The connection between contamination and syndrome can be determined exactly.
That is why it was good that apart from Naomi and Gerard, the President of EUROMIL, Europe's largest military trade union, Emmanuel Jacob, also came to the EP. He is against the use of DU because it endangers both civilians and his own personnel. Many European countries allow military personnel to organise in trade unions, however this is not the case in the UK and the US. Meanwhile it is suspected that US A10 Warthog aircraft continue to use DU in Afghanistan exposing civilians and NATO troops to further contamination.
In addition to the four DU specialists from Japan and the USA, Dr. Jawad Al-Ali from Iraq also came to Brussels. Dr. Al-Ali is the director of the Cancer Centre at Basra Teaching Hospital. Since the first Gulf War in 1991, he has studied the effects of DU contamination.
He is fighting daily against death in a sectarian conflict, and the short supply of medicines and basic equipment. He may even be contaminated himself, in both his kidneys. To get a visa he had to travel to Jordan where he was interrogated for five hours by the secret service about the aim of his trip. Any Iraqi doctors and researchers who stay in their country are suspect, as their testimonies do not please the military and political powers. Like mopping at an open tap, doctors like Dr Ali continue to battle against overwhelming odds to care for their patients. The world needs people like Dr. Al-Ali, and he has been decorated on various occasions.
As co-host of this conference, I gave a statement to Belgian TV in which I welcomed and respected Belgium’s decision to ban uranium weapons. The Greens, who co-financed this exhibition and conference appealed to other countries to follow in Belgium’s footsteps.
The half-life of DU is 4,5 billion years. It is a criminal act that parts of the world: Iraq, Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo and perhaps Afghanistan, have been rendered uninhabitable for centuries, and that little information has been provided to the civilian population and military personnel about the dangers of DU weapons. Even now, the trade in contaminated scrap metal from Iraq to Jordan and Syria threatens to spread the contamination beyond Iraq’s borders, just as the regular sandstorms do.The following Green MEP's, and a substantial contribution of the Green Party, made this exhibition and conference financially possible: Margrete Auken (DK), Angelika Beer (D), Marie Anne Isler Beguin (F), Jill Evans (UK), Monica Frassoni (I), Els de Groen (NL), Rebecca Harms (D), Satu Hassi (SF), Gisela Kallenbach (D), Sepp Kusstatscher (I), Jean Lambert (UK), Caroline Lucas (UK) and Bart Staes (B).
Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels (formerly For Mother Earth) is a member of Friends of the Earth International