Demystifying the effects of depleted uranium on Iraq's population

piero scaruffi

Send me an email if you think anything here is incorrect. (It took me a long time to put together the data for this page. Please make sure you have reliable sources before you write)

Demystifying superstitions is virtually an impossible job, because people believe in superstition no matter what. It's like trying to prove that God does not exist. If you want to believe something, you will. So stop reading here if you want to believe because you want to believe. What follows is a rational (not hysterical) analysis of the facts on the often-heard claim that depleted-uranium (DU) munitions caused the death of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

I have seen the magical number 500,000 people killed by DU, and I also show below where that number came from (and that is a funny story in itself).


I am not claiming to be sure that DU is not harmful. We found out that even sugar kills, so it may well be that DU also kills. But, so far, I have seen no scientific or statistical evidence that DU is more dangerous than sugar, even if people routinely quote the "thousands" of civilians (usually, children) killed by DU-weapons.

I will be happy if all armies of the world abandon depleted uranium (and, for that matter, all weapons), and I would not want to live near a storage of depleted uranium.

I will try to summarize briefly what this deadly element is, and how it can kill five times more people than Hiroshima's bomb.
  1. First things first: DU weapons were used by ALL western armies, not just the USA. DU bullets were introduced in the 1970s, specifically to destroy the Russian T-72 tanks, and were adopted by all NATO countries, particularly in Europe.
  2. Today, DU is also widely used for DEFENSIVE purposes, not only offensive ones: mainly in tanks. The famous M1 Abrams tank has a DU armour. DU was originally introduced to break (Soviet) tanks, now it is often used to protect (USA) tanks. So the people who are mostly exposed to DU are the USA soldiers who are hit on both sides: they are protected by DU armours and they carry DU munitions. They are exposed to DU every single day. No Iraqi civilian can have possibly been exposed to DU more than an American soldier.
  3. The original report by Gunther (see below) that everybody still uses to "prove" the Iraqi increase in cancer and leukemia cases, showed the increases mostly in areas where very few DU weapons were used (Basra), and little or no increase in areas where DU weapons were used massively (border of Iraq and Kuwait). The increase in cancer and leukemia cases is real. But its distribution does not match the use of NATO weapons. The Clinton administration repeatedly responded to all these reports by showing that there was no correlation between the distribution of illnesses and the distribution of DU. But, of course, you will never find Clinton's arguments published on the websites that denounce the USA for using DU.
    That distribution of illnesses matches, on the other hand, the distribution of storage sites for Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, which are likely to have contained the weapons of mass destruction that, according to the same anti-Americans, never existed. If one, for a second, assumes that those biological and chemical weapons did exist, and were stored in Republican Guards centers, then the two distributions (illnesses and Saddam's weapons) seem to match a bit better.
  4. At the beginning of the Gulf War, DU-munitions were mainly used inside the territory of Kuwait, but there has been no increase in leukemia and cancer cases in Kuwait.
  5. France has always been one of the main users of DU: Cogema, one of the world's main suppliers of DU, is a French company. One of the main DU processing facilities is in Annecy. The two largest storages of DU in Europe are in Bessines and Miramas. I bet there is more DU in France than all the DU left in Iraq. And France is much more densely populated than Iraq. So, according to the "depleted uranium kills civilians" theory, people should be dying like flies all over France.
  6. If thousands of Iraqi civilians had been killed by DU, there should be tens of thousands (or hunderds of thousands) of USA soldiers killed by DU over the last 25 years. Studies of the 120,000 Gulf War veterans have shown that the percentage of cancer among them is the same as among the general population.
  7. No DU-related deaths have been verified in the countless camps in the USA where those DU bullets were used daily for training for many years. No such death was reported anywhere else in the world, despite the fact that NATO countries were transporting and stocking and testing and training with the same bullets and armours for 20 years. The Iraqi civilians have been exposed to only a fraction of the DU that NATO soldiers (and civilians in NATO countries) have been exposed to.
  8. If DU caused cancer, you would notice a statistical anomaly in the number of cancer cases only after several years. Not even Hiroshima caused cancer right away. But the case for cancer caused by depleted uranium was made right after the war. A big tactical mistake, because it is hard to believe that cancer appeared so suddenly in so many people. Whatever caused that increase was probably a much older event. A more reasonable explanation is that the increase in cancer and leukemia of the 1990s was caused by something that happened in the 1980s, before the coalition troops (including the USA) invaded Iraq.
  9. The population of Iraq increased from 12,029,000 in 1977 to 16,278,000 in 1987, an increase of 35.3%, and then to 22,675,617 in 2000, another healthy 39% increase. Nonetheless, the distribution of the Iraqi population over the years suggests that the country did experience an unusual "low fertility" (or high child mortality) in the early 1990s. Of course, it could just be a side-effect of hundreds of thousands of men dying in two Saddam Hussein wars (the war against Iran ended in 1988, leaving 375,000 Iraqis dead - Gallup 2003 estimate).
  10. In 2001 the UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) tested the effects of 9,000 kgs of DU munitions used in Kosovo. UNEP found no abnormal radioactivity, no significant sign of contamination in water or in the food chain, and no correlation with all reported illnesses.
  11. In october 1992, an Israeli cargo jet crashed near Amsterdam. Boeing revealed that each Boeing 747 contains counterweights made of DU (see below for the civilian applications of DU). Boeing revealed that its jets contain between 380 kgs and 1,500 kgs of depleted uranium. In 1992, the Dutch were able to recover 150 kgs of that DU. The rest is still in the ground or evaporated (either way, it should be really bad news). Given the very high temperatures of an airplane crash, the people of Amsterdam have been more exposed to the effects of DU than the people of southwestern Iraq. Instead, nobody died in Holland and no increase of cancer cases has yet been recorded. Using the same arithmetics used by critics of DU in Iraq, it was calculated that 250,000 residents of Amsterdam should experience some kind of illness: not a single one was ever reported. 648,000 kgs of DU were used in the Gulf War, equivalent to the DU of 1,000 Boeing jets. If 500,000 people died because of 648,000 kgs of DU, you would expect at least 500 deaths in Holland (a much more densely populated area than southwestern Iraq) and much more contamination (Holland is a lot windier than Iraq and has many more waterways). Not a single death has ever been attributed in Holland to the side effects of that incident.
    So much so that in subsequent crashes of Boeing planes (India, Colombia, South Korea, Turkey, El SAlvador, Cameroon, Peru, Nigeria, Comoros, Indonesia, Argentina, Philippines and several in the USA) no research was conducted on the effects of the DU counterweight: it is assumed to be harmless by all aviation agencies of the world.
  12. The only verified incident (or, better, the only one that convinced me, because even this one is not fully verified) took place in Paducah, Kentucky, where DU was accidentally contaminated with radioactive material (so the problem was not DU, but the fact that it got contaminated) and then used to build weapons. That was in 1995, four years after the Gulf war. These weapons were, alas, used in traning in Puerto Rico, a fact for which Puerto Rico has sued the USA. The lawsuit claims that a town in Puerto Rico experienced a 300% increase in cancer over the last 20 years (Read again: over the last 20 years). Too bad that this is pretty much the increase in cancer cases in every western country (over 20 years). But the contamination did occur, and it was certainly not healthy to be exposed to it.
  13. (There was also an incident when DU melted in a French foundry, but i never investigated it because, like most critics, i am mainly interested in what the USA does).
  14. Needless to say, countless journalists have taken a Geiger counter and traveled to southern Iraq to test the Iraqi tanks hit by DU bullets. You never read their articles because... there was nothing to write about. They didn't find any abnormal radioactivity, they didn't write any article. Not a single one. As far as I could verify, all the articles that mention radioactive tanks are based on conjecture.
  15. Depleted uranium per se is not classified (by any lab) as a lethal substance. If anyone tells you that it is "radioactive" (a word that causes hysteria), ask her/him what its radioactivity is: most likely, s/he will not know the answer.
    (Note: any substance, even your tv set, is radioactive to some extent, but it has to go above a certain threshold in order to be considered "truly" radioactive: DU's radioactivity is below that threshold).
    There are three types of uranium: U238, U234 and U235. Uranium 234 and 235 are fissionable material. Depleted uranium, or U238, is what is left over when the U234 and U235 are removed and it is not fissionable. U238, or DU, has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, which is often rendered as "depleted uranium remains radioactive for billions of years", repeated like a mantra. In fact, it means that its emissions are very low, since its half-life is the same as the age of the Earth. (For example, plutonium, a highly radioactive substance, has a half-life of only 24,000 years).
    U238's radioactivity [in MBq/kg] is 12.4 or [in mCi/kg] 0.335: is this a lot or very little? It is interesting to ask the people who claim that DU is "radioactive". They should know right away if 12.4/0.335 is a high or low value. I have done it, and so far none of them had taken the time to verify if this number is low or high.
    The WHO (World Health Organization) considers this level "weakly radioactive" and thus not hazardous: it is assumed that it does NOT cause cancer, birth defects or genetic mutations. Using common sense instead of hysteria, we can say that DU's radioactivity is comparable to radioactivity of the average hospital room where X-rays are performed, but it is higher than myself would like to have in my house: U238 is thousands of times more radioactive than the second heaviest metal, lead (the exact number depends on which type of lead).
  16. DU is also used outside the military. DU is one of the heaviest metals (perhaps the heaviest found in nature) . It is very useful for armours and bullets, but also for:
    • counterbalance in aircrafts and ships
    • to shield radiation in hospital radiotherapy units
    • containers for radioactive material
    • heavy industrial equipment
    • to determine the age of ancient rocks (DU has a life of 4.5 billion years, almost the same age as the Earth)
    • glass (you won't believe this: the Romans used natural Uranium for coloring glass since at least 79 AD)
    • yacht keels (don't know what this is)
    • dental porcelains (good luck if you have a crown)
    • in general, radiation shielding (it is five times more protective than the best lead)
    The funny thing is that the main civilian use of depleted uranium is TO PROTECT from radiation.
  17. Yes, DU is toxic, another claim often made, but toxic does not mean radioactive, it means poisonous, like most explosives. WHO (World Health Organization) has set a TDI (Tolerable Daily Intake) level for Uranium of 0.6 microgram/kg body weight. Even if they swallowed entire weapon fragmets, it would be difficult for an Iraqi child to "intake" that much DU. And you would have to dump tons of DU in Basra's aqueducts to contaminate the drinking water to that level.
  18. On the other hand, it is very possible that enemy soldiers got sick from the debris and dust caused by DU-munitions (assuming that those soldiers survived the DU bullet). When DU penetrates a solid object, it causes a very hot cloud of dust. The more solid the object, the hotter the cloud. I have no problem believing that it is not healthy to breathe that hot cloud of dust generated when a DU bullet breaks into a Soviet-made tank.
    (Despite all the claims, I found little evidence that this cloud of dust could generate significant radioactivity, and no evidence at all that it could travel long distances. The temperature would have to increase to tens of thousands of degrees in order for DU to become truly dangerous for nearby towns).
    Bottom line: only the enemy soldiers are certainly affected (if they survived the blow).
  19. A strongly anti-American report published by the Guardian in 2003 was at least honest to add (at the very end): "Civilians would probably encounter depleted uranium after a battle and would be spared large doses. Their problems would come from the possible contamination of food and water supplies." Absolutely true. Except that there are very few water supplies in the desert of Iraq where western armies used DU munitions.
    The Guardian also forgot to add: "just like any toxic substance used in previous and current wars."

So who originated all the fuss about DU? I think it was a very funny mistake. The man who started the whole controversy is Siegwart Gunther, the president of the International Yellow Cross. Read again: Yellow, not Red. It's an Austrian organization founded in 1992 (by he himself). I have not been able to find it on the internet. But many thought that he was the president of the Red Cross and took him very seriously.
I read different accounts of his story. I respect professor Gunther, but the accounts are just very hard to believe. Apparently, Gunther claims that he was arrested by German police while attempting to smuggle DU shell fragments into Germany. He claims he simply wanted to test them in his lab (but the Yellow Cross does not seem to be a scientific center). It was not illegal to transport DU, but apparently Gunther claims that German police arrested him because the material was highly radioactive. Apparently, Gunther survived the effects of such high radioactivity, but also was so irresponsible as to take highly radioactive material into an airport, on a plane and into his own country. Noone has been able to confirm his story because there seems to be no record at the German customs or police of this event. According to Gunther, German police beat him in a German jail (see this account and this account). He then published a paper on his tests of the DU (so the German police apparently let him keep the highly radioactive DU after torturing him...).
His conclusion was that DU was radioactive and Iraqi children were dying after playing with DU fragments. (I have tried to contact professor Gunther for several years, latest on 24 august 2004 via his home page asking for his comments to this page, but he has never replied).
Later, pretty much everybody reached the conclusions that I summarized in this page: that DU is unlikely to cause any significant radioactive effect on civilians. So the anti-American propaganda changed the issue from "children got cancer by playing with DU fragments" to "the cloud created by DU explosions spread to infect civilians". They also changed the issue from "DU left by NATO troops" (which involves, for example, France and Britain) to "DU left by the USA" (which blames only the USA).
And where does the magic number of 500,000 dead Iraqis come from? As far as I can tell, it's another funny mistake.
The London Independent in november 1991 published an article that quoted a source of the British Atomic Energy Authority (never identified) claiming that the USA, Britain and France had left enough DU in Iraq to cause "500,000 potential deaths" in the following decades through increased cancer rates.
The article was honest enough to explain that this was an unlikely, worst-case scenario. The number is what this gentleman predicted in 1991, not what has happened between then and now. But people started circulating the number of 500,000 as the number of people who already died since 1991, and, funnily enough, that number has never increased since I first heard it ten years ago (it should be increasing dramatically, because it takes 10-20 years for leukemia and cancer to kill someone, as the London Independent well knew).
I also can't help thinking that the number 500,000 has acquired a magic status after, in 1998, the US Department of Energy declared that it had about 500,000 metric tons of depleted uranium in storage (Oak Ridge National Laboratory Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831-6180 Abstract). Before that abstract was published, the number most often used was "one million civilians". So i suspect that 500,000 metric tons transformed itself into "500,000 dead civilians" (and "500,000 Iraqi children") in the imagination of the anti-Americans. It even became (I quote from "the United Nation report of 500,000 Iraqi children dying YEARLY". There never was such a report.
The people who use that number are either ignorant in geography (they don't know that Iraq only had 16 million people) or in mathematics (they don't realize that 500,000 means 1 every 30 Iraqis) or in medicine (they don't consider that the number of cancer cases is several times higher than the number of people who actually die of it, so it would mean that most of the population of Iraq has cancer right now).
Nobody ever bothered to count the dead bodies because... there are no dead bodies to count. It was only an apocalyptic prediction (of what could happen in a "worst-case scenario"), not a headcount of something that actually happened.
This long story proves very little about depleted uranium, but proves a lot about the way human minds work.
Here is my prediction: the day we find what Saddam Hussein did with his weapons of mass destruction we will also find a better explanation for the abnormal death rate of Iraqi children in the early 1990s.

Again, please do not say that piero scaruffi believes DU is perfectly safe. I do not know if it is or is not safe, just like i do not know if cell phones are or are not safe. So far there is no evidence that either cell phones or depleted uranium killed anyone in Iraq (other than the enemy soldiers that DU-munitions was designed to kill). The story often repeated is flawed to the point of being not credible.


If you want to hear the other side (but you probably hear it every day), you can find on the web many collections of articles about the danger of DU. In my opinion, most of them are misleading and unscientific, and often contradict each other.

If, on the other hand, you want to read a scientific report on Uranium, this one is a relatively easy one. Yes, i know, it is not as "cool" as reading that 500,000 Iraqi children have been killed by the USA.

See my 2003 article How many Iraqi civilians are killed by the sanctions? for another controversial topic of the same kind.
In march 2006 i received this letter from a scientist: "I'm currently involved in research in microbiology and immunology, and think I might be able to offer a scientific perspective on this issue. Harlequin Ichthyosis (HI) is the most severe form of congenital ichthyosis. Harlequin ichthyosis is an autosomal recessive disorder marked in over 95% of patients by a deletion in ABCA12, resulting in truncation of a protein necessary for lipid transport in the epidermis, leading to hyperkeratinization of the skin.

Now, HI in Western populations is estimated to occur in 1/300,000 births, but in some populations, such as the Navajo, this number is estimated at 1/5,000, and in Puerto Rico, 1/60,000. These increased rates are mostly due to consanguinity: people mating with cousins (1st and third).

If Iraq's population is 26,074,906, then there should be 86.9 (87) Harlequin babies in Iraq right now. It really doesn't surprise me that Gunther found a few, as a child with these symptoms is bound to raise a few eyebrows.

Likewise, that disorder that he calls "Zyklopie" is a cleft palate deformity. 6,800 in the US are suffering from cleft palate disorders. 295,734,134 live in the US. That's 1/43,490 children. That's 599.6 (600) children in Iraq with cleft palate disorders, under normal conditions.

In other words, Gunther's pictures, at least in part, are of children suffering from perfectly normal disorders which are present in the population.

As a scientist, I can honestly say that Gunther's work is sloppy to say the least. If he'd wanted to prove a case for DU causing HI, he would have simply karyotyped the parents and grandparents of the children born with HI. If the grandparents' genotypes didn't contain ABCA12 mutations, then he might have a case, but as it stands he does not."

Send me an email if you think anything here is incorrect. (It took me a long time to put together the data for this page. Please make sure you have reliable sources before you write)
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