Attrition: Poison


April 13, 2010: The Department of Defense wants to reduce the use of hexavalent chromium in its equipment. Hexavalent chromium is used to make metals that are corrosion resistant, an important consideration for military equipment. It is also used in many consumer and industrial products. Alas, hexavalent chromium has been found to be a carcinogen, and with so much of it in use (over 100,000 tons a year), it gets into the air and water. But, then, so do many other potentially dangerous chemicals. This is a side effect of technology, which has saved millions of lives and improved living standards for billions. With all that, there's plenty of opportunity for these beneficial chemicals to get into the headlines when too many of the wrong materials get into the wrong place, and kill people.

No company wants to be on the receiving end of this bad news. But sometimes it's unavoidable, even when the incident is more fable than fact. For example, in early 2001, the Italian media pushed a bizarre, but powerful, story involving Italian peacekeepers dying from the "Balkan Syndrome." Half a dozen Italian troops who had served in Kosovo died of Leukemia after returning home and the media decided that depleted uranium was the culprit.

Another two dozen Italian soldiers (out of 60,000 who have served in the Balkans since 1995) had come down with various illnesses now known as the "Balkan Syndrome." For weeks, the Italian, and then the European, press ran with the story. No one, apparently, bothered to check with doctors or scientists who knew anything about depleted uranium.

Depleted uranium is used as an armor-piercing penetrator in 30mm cannon carried by A-10 attack aircraft (as well as in 120mm tank guns). Depleted Uranium is denser, and heavier, than any other metal. Thus it goes through more armor. It has proved a very effective anti-tank weapon. Not only does it go through armor, but it also burns when it hits armor at high speed (a mile a second.) This increases the damage within the tank. But when the depleted uranium burns, it also creates many tiny fragments. Italian scientists feel that these fragments, emitting alpha rays, are causing the Balkan Syndrome problems. U. S. A-10s fired some 30,000 30mm shells in Kosovo in 1999.

However, the depleted uranium particles are still a heavy metal and are in the air only for a short time after the depleted uranium shell has hit something. After that, the particles fall to the ground, and tend to stay there. Depleted uranium replaced tungsten, another (non-radioactive) heavy metal for armor-piercing work. Tungsten can also cause health problems if it gets inside of you, as does another, more familiar heavy metal, lead.

Depleted uranium is what is left over when uranium has the highly radioactive U-235 removed for use as nuclear fuel or for atomic bombs. What is left is U-238, which, while still radioactive, emits much less dangerous alpha rays. U-235 emits the much more dangerous gamma (and other) radiation. Depleted uranium is thus less radioactive than the original uranium, and not much more radioactive than many other rocks.

Thousands of American soldiers and civilians have handled depleted uranium in the last half-century, with no noticeable increase in health problems. Moreover, there has been no increase in cancer cases among the civilian population of Kosovo since 1999. Cancer specialists also point out that it takes five to ten years for Leukemia to develop from a radiation exposure. The Italian troops had only been in Kosovo since 1999. Nuclear medicine specialists also point out that depleted uranium's alpha rays are stopped by just about anything, including skin. Leukemia is a cancer of the bone marrow and the depleted uranium's alpha rays cannot reach the bone marrow.

There has, however, been an increase in cancers in Kuwait and southern Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. But this region underwent far more than just the firing of many depleted uranium shells. The area was subjected to several weeks of burning oil fields. These fumes are also a known carcinogen and were far more abundant than the remains of depleted uranium shells. Moreover, the thousands of armored vehicles that tore up the pristine desert created an unprecedented (even for Arabia) dust cloud containing a very fine, talc-like sand and a lot of other nasty stuff. Local doctors were not surprised at the increase in illness because they knew, from long experience, what oil fumes and the crud in the sand could do.

So what made all of this a credible news story in Italy, and throughout Europe? Part of it was the eagerness of the media to fall all over a scary story. But in Italy there was also much public displeasure with NATO actions in the Balkans. Italy, in particular, has been the destination of many Albanian refugees, from Kosovo as well as Albania itself. Most of the air attacks against Serbia and Kosovo came from Italian air bases.

When it was reported, during the air campaign, that returning warplanes would drop their bombs in the Adriatic (rather than risk landing with them), the Italians were incensed. The bombs were not armed, but still highly explosive and, sitting on the bottom of the Adriatic, a clear danger to Italian fishermen. But then so are the even larger quantity of bombs dropped by returning American bombers during World War II. There's a lot of dangerous stuff sitting on the bottom of the Adriatic, including warships and the ammunition they took down with them. But the jettisoned bombs of 1999 made the news big time in Italy. It was a hot story for a while and was another popular expression of Italian displeasure with their involvement in the Balkans.

The Balkan Syndrome incident was also another example of information warfare. Italian politicians knew that they were going to take some heat for going along with the rest of NATO in attacking Serbia and taking over Kosovo. What better way to deflect some of the ill will than to get solidly behind the Balkan Syndrome madness. The true nature of depleted uranium eventually will erode the viability of the Balkan Syndrome as a news story. Moreover, the real story probably will never get any play.

That is, after any war, particularly an unpopular one, there are many veterans with additional physical and psychological illnesses. Happens every time. But the politicians will suffer no ill will from their involvement in supporting the public outrage over Balkan Syndrome.

So it's no surprise that the Department of Defense wants to avoid another media mauling by backing away from hexavalent chromium.



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