New report: evidence that depleted uranium can cause cancer now overwhelming
The report Malignant Effects finds that little was known about the risks to civilians posed by DU weapons prior to their first major use in the 1991 Gulf War, with significant uncertainties persisting until the present day. The majority of the studies analysed in the report were undertaken after reviews by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UK Royal Society so the new findings are not properly represented in these historic risk assessments.
All radioactive substances that emit alpha radiation, including DU, have already been classified by the WHO’s specialist International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as Group 1 carcinogens if they get inside the human body. Studies show that DU can also damage DNA and cellular processes in a number of different ways, such as by triggering oxidative damage, breaking DNA strands and binding directly to the DNA itself. Other papers have documented that DU can cause mutations in DNA, change the structure of chromosomes, make cells become cancerous and destabilise the genome.
“These studies contain irrefutable evidence of the damage that DU can do,” said David Cullen, one of the report’s authors. “It is completely unacceptable that this material was used in weapons before the effects were properly understood. We urgently need research to find out how much DU is getting into people who are forced to live, work and play in areas contaminated by DU weapons so that we can make a full assessment of the risks”.
While new weapons are supposed to be reviewed to ensure their compliance with international law, the precise risks from radioactive or toxic substances in weapons may take many years of studies to fully emerge. This delay places civilians at risk. Studies into DU’s impact in the field have been severely hampered in Iraq by the refusal of the United States to release data on where the weapons were fired and in what quantity. The chance release of a handful of coordinates earlier this year indicated that DU had been used against a far wider range of targets in Iraq than was legal and in populated areas, increasing the risks that civilians would be exposed.
The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) has called for DU weapons to be banned, just as anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs have been. ICBUW argues that the weapons are inherently indiscriminate and that their legacy persists long after the end of conflict.
“The rush to develop and deploy these weapons resulted in the dispersal of a substance with little understanding of the risks to civilians, risks that continue to this day because the states that have used these weapons in Iraq and elsewhere have never seriously tried to clean up their mess,” said ICBUW Coordinator Doug Weir. “The use of DU breaches the most fundamental radiation protection norms and the irresponsible behaviour of users has demonstrated that only a global ban would end their use.”