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{Wednesday, January 15, 2003}


Enough is Enough

In a comment on one of Robert Prather's posts concerning Iraq, a person far more intelligent than I informed Robert that they had figured out who the real terrorists were. (Hint: Here's the country's name in scrambled form: AUS.) The proof? 3000 Iraqi children who die every month as a direct result of the radiation left behind by American troops who used anti-tank shells made of depleted Uranium. Unfortunately, almost every single part of that argument is wrong, in one way or another. Yet those who would decry the US as the creme de la creme of terrorist states use this argument ad nauseum. Therefore, I feel it is my duty to set aside these allegations as best I can.

To begin, it is essential to understand what exactly depleted Uranium is, and why it is used at all. In the process of enriching Uranium for use as fuel, one by-product of the enrichment step is depleted Uranium Hexaflouride (dUF6). Through a re-conversion process, the dUF6 is tranformed into depleted Uranium metal. This form of the element is about 40% less radioactive than the naturally occuring forms, yet maintains an important physical property. The density of Uranium, and depleted Uranium specifically, is quite high (twice that of lead, at about 22000 kg/m3.) For this reason, depleted Uranium is used in armour piercing anti-tank shells, as the high-density, and fairly high hardness of the metal makes the shells extremely hard to stop.

These shells were employed during the 1991 Gulf War to great effect. The one draw back is that the depleted Uranium was left behind in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq.

Knowing that a radioactive substance dots the deserts of Iraq, it must be determined what effect, if any, this will have on the surrounding population. According to a WHO report on dU, it is not necessary to monitor conflict zones (where dU was used) in general, though it does mention that children in conflict zones could be at a higher risk, due to possible hand to mouth activity. Luckily, the majority of the shells fired in Iraq were used in the uninhabited deserts, rather than in the middle of population centres. Therefore the hand to mouth activity is minor, if it happens at all.

The greater concern must be over the possibility of the emitted radiation having harmful, and potentially deadly effects. On this matter, the report states "For the general population it is unlikely that the exposure to depleted uranium will significantly exceed the normal background uranium levels." So even assuming that the radiation sources are sufficiently close as to constitute exposure, it most likely doesn't matter anyway.

As well, the report says that the primary organs damaged by dU are the lungs and kidneys. The lung damage is primarily from ingestion of dU particulate, so for the situation in Iraq, it does not really apply. Damage to the kidneys has been observed in workers exposed directly to dU over extended periods of time, but this damage has been non-fatal. Knowing this, it seems unlikely that the amount of radiation emitted by dU in the Iraqi deserts could cause anything near the scale of death that the commenter describes. This is especially true when one considers the fact that the majority of anti-tank shells were fired in Kuwait, in the attack that repelled the invading Iraqi army. Yet there has been absolutely no mention of any Kuwaiti children dying as a result of dU radiation. Odd indeed.

The oddest part of the 3000/month figure is the absudity of that kind of death rate at all. According to the CIA world fact book 2002, the Iraqi national death rate is 6.02 deaths / 1000 people, per year. With a population of approximately 24 000 000, Iraq therefore loses about 144 000 people per year, or 12000 people per month. Therefore, according to the most recent blame-America figures, a full quarter of all Iraqi deaths are children dying from dU. Seems a bit odd. Unless of course 1.5 of those 6 / 1000 deaths have been added to the Iraqi rate, bumping it up from an expected 4.5. Alas, this is not the case. According to the 1990 CIA factbook, the Iraqi death rate at that time was 7 / 1000, even though life expectancy was actually higher by one year. So if we accept that the real Iraqi death rate should be 4.5 / 1000, then we have here the case of a country that in 10 years, reduced its death rate by about 35%, despite a drop in life expectancy, a full-scale war, and nearly crippling sanctions. Right.

It is sad that such a large portion of the anti-war movement insists on repeating emotional arguments that have been shown to be false. It seems as if the most vocal supporters of the movement are incapable of producing concrete reasons against an invasion, and merely slip into an echo chamber. Going to war cannot be taken lightly, and honest, open debate is critical to the decision-making process. And that can't happen without an honest, open anti-war movement.
posted by Dan 2:55 p.m.