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America's Terrible History of Depleted Uranium

Not only does Iraq have to deal with the physical toll of a decade-plus of war, it's also been left with a huge, and ongoing, health crisis.

The United States has left its mark on Iraq in myriad ways in its two wars in the Persian Gulf, but one of the least-discussed is the effects of the US military's use of depleted uranium (DU) munitions. DU is a munitions designer's dream: projectiles using DU alloys are armor-piercing and incendiary, which means it's ideal for obliterating and burning tanks and other armored vehicles. But its use has left the Gulf's battlefields blanketed with radioactive material.

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DU is byproduct of the production of the enriched uranium used in nuclear reactors, and as such has relatively low levels of radiation. But Gulf War soldiers were regularly exposed to it, not least when DU used in munitions converted into an aerosol form after explosions. That means that Gulf War soldiers may have been exposed without realizing it, and has long been blamed for contributing to Gulf War Syndrome, although more recently chemical weapons have also been blamed.

According to one report to the Hague Peace Conference in 1999, a few hundred tons of DU was used in the war, which still lingers in Iraq and surrounding nations. DU was also used in the Iraq War, especially during the siege of Fallujah. Gulf War Syndrome is also appearing in our most recent veterans, although its link to DU isn't clear. What is clear is that many Iraqis have had long-term exposure to environmental DU. In 2004, Iraq had the world's highest mortality rate from leukemia (PDF), and Basra and Fallujah have had high rates of birth defects and cancer, which some researchers believe is linked to the use of DU

Our colleagues at VICE recently discussed the legacy of both Iraq wars on Iraq's environment, and spoke with Congressman Jim McDermott of the Seventh District of Washington State. McDermott is one of the few voices in Congress who's consistently asked about and discussed the military's use of DU.

Again, DU alloys do have attractive qualities for designing munitions, which is why it found its way into everything from tank rounds to the rounds used by the A-10 tank-hunting jet. But as McDermott, a former physician, notes, the health problems that sprouted up after the military began using DU are immense.

And while our many soldiers' DU-related health problems is terrible enough on its own, we've also left Iraq covered in radioactive munitions fragments that, by the very virtue of having exploded, are essentially impossible to clean up. That is a huge, if overlooked, legacy of the United States' wars in Iraq: Not only does Iraq have to deal with the physical toll of a decade-plus of war, it's also been left with a huge, and ongoing, health crisis.

@derektmead