A nuclear policy group is calling for more research on the health effects of special ammunition used by the U.S. military in the Iraq and other wars.
Tank-busting shells made of an extremely dense metal called depleted uranium are a Pentagon favorite. The super-hard shells penetrate heavy armor extremely well. They were used extensively in Iraq, as well as in the last Gulf war, and in the Balkans.
But depleted uranium is slightly radioactive, and can be toxic at high levels. Executive Director Charles Sheehan-Miles of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute says civilians may be at risk, even after combat is over.
"On impact the rounds burn into tiny particles. These blow into the air from the explosion," he said. "They settle around the impact site. They fill the damaged vehicle, and they can be inhaled or ingested by anyone who enters or climbs on the damaged vehicle."
Mr. Sheehan-Miles says children playing on damaged tanks may be especially at risk. Depleted uranium that finds its way into food crops and ground water may also pose a health risk.
Iraqi health officials have reported increases in birth defects and cancers since the 1991 Gulf War, especially in children. These figures have not been independently verified.
Mr. Sheehan-Miles says the health risks from depleted uranium, or DU, may be greater after the latest war in Iraq.
"DU munitions were fired over a longer period of time in sustained combat for several weeks. They were also used in highly populated urban areas," he said. "DU munitions were fired in Baghdad and in the other cities. So this dramatically increases the urgency of dealing with this issue."
The U.S. military disagrees. Pentagon officials say depleted uranium ammunition does not pose any health risk.
Studies on the issue have been mostly incomplete or inconclusive. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences says there is some evidence that depleted uranium exposure does not cause kidney damage, and at low doses does not cause lung cancer. But the study says there is not enough data to make a conclusion about higher-level exposure. And the Academy says it just can not say whether depleted uranium causes other kinds of cancer, or other diseases.
The Nuclear Policy Research Institute is calling for independent studies on the health effects of depleted uranium in Iraq. Mr. Sheehan-Miles says if the coalition forces do not trust Iraqi studies on depleted uranium, they need to allow outside doctors to evaluate the claims.
"The medical experts need to make that determination, not policy experts," he said.
The Institute is also calling on coalition forces to cordon off and clean up depleted uranium-contaminated sites.