Perry O’Brien

September 5, 2007

Dreamworks’ summer blockbuster Transformers opened with the devastation of a U.S. military base at the hands of an evil space robot. Luckily, the movie depicted a special robot-killing weapon to defeat the evil robot: the sabot round. In fact, the sabot round is a very real weapon that has been used in both Iraq wars. But because of its dangerous health effects, the ongoing use of this weapon may constitute a war crime.

The sabot round is nothing more than a lightweight frame containing a solid, two-foot-long dart made from depleted uranium, or DU. Forged from leftover nuclear metal ore waste, DU is incredibly dense, allowing it to penetrate most conventional armor, and it is used primarily to penetrate tanks. It’s also pyrophoric, which means the dart spontaneously ignites on contact with air, producing intense heat. A single DU sabot round will punch through a tank and engulf the interior in molten plasma. The resulting conflagration often burns hot enough to ignite the enemy vehicle’s ammunition and fuel, completely destroying it. For the Department of Defense, DU is cheap and readily available: The Cold War left the United States with about half a million tons of the stuff.

The thing the DoD often doesn’t like to talk about is that depleted uranium is both radioactive and toxic, putting its use in violation of some basic tenets of the Geneva Conventions. Defenders of DU (mainly the United States and Britain) have argued that it’s perfectly safe to hold a sabot round in your hand. That’s probably true, but when a sabot round hits its target, much of the shell aerosolizes into a ceramic dust that can enter the soil. This dust contaminates food and water supplies and can be inhaled or absorbed into the body through open wounds. A variety of critics, including veterans’ organizations, independent researchers, and the European Parliament, have charged that this dust has created serious health problems for exposed soldiers and civilians. If it’s as toxic as they say, then the use of DU violates at least three international laws.

The Hague Convention of 1907 prohibits the use of “poison or poisoned weapons,” and DU could fit that description. A recent study on rats shows that exposure to depleted uranium can cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and reproductive systems. This latter effect has been cited by independent researchers as the cause of unusually high rates of infertility and birth defects in both Gulf War veterans and civilians in Iraq, where U.S. forces fired over 300 tons of DU ammunition. A 2005 study concluded that the risk to both groups from DU exposure was nominal, though the report admitted to “fairly large calculational uncertainties.” Ultimately, not enough research has been done on DU’s effect on human populations. Despite admitting that thousands of Gulf War veterans were exposed to the substance, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has tested fewer than 100.

DU is a radioactive substance. The Defense Department points out that alpha waves emitted by DU are stopped by human skin. But on the battlefield a DU weapon can easily enter the body as dust or metal shrapnel. Under international law, this puts DU weapons like the sabot round into the same category with nuclear and chemical weapons that cause “indiscriminate destruction.” A 1990 report for the U.S. Army warned of the radiological dangers to soldiers and civilian populations posed by depleted uranium, but more recent reports funded by the DoD have contradicted these concerns. As in the case of DU’s toxicity, there simply isn’t enough conclusive human data to determine the radioactive threat posed by sabot rounds.

It is significant, however, that Gulf War veterans have been found to be more likely to develop cancers of the bone, skin, and liver than other veterans. Even more alarming, Iraqi doctors have reported up to a five-fold increase in cancer rates among populations living near sites contaminated by depleted uranium.

DU also has an environmental impact, since its half-life is about 4.5 billion years. UN teams found traces of DU in Bosnia seven years after the war there, and Iraq has hundreds of radioactive sites left over from the first Gulf War. This persistent contamination puts DU in violation of the Geneva Conventions prohibition on weapons that “cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment.”

Given the evidence linking DU exposure with numerous health problems, it is shameful that the United States continues to field such weapons without further research on their human impact. For the sake of our own soldiers, not to mention the citizens of countries such as Iraq, Americans should join the international community and call for an immediate moratorium on the use of all DU weapons.

Perry O’Brien is a former U.S. Army Medic and a student at Cornell University.