Depleted Uranium: delicious or dangerous?
BY TYLER BASS
Late this May, America.gov sought to clear the air on a wide variety of topics: aliens, anti-Semitism, Islam, fake moon landing stories, various 9/11 theories, government synthesized AIDS and more. The page is produced by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs and, as expected, they endorse none of their cataloged conspiracies. The Grassy Knoll was as obviously bunk as the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, and that’s just as crazy as depleted uranium being more of a health risk than low-toxicity tungsten. With all the ideas given equal weight, the vibe is somewhere between Ted Kaczynski and Howard Hughes.
It reminded me of Cass Sunstein, now administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and his tone in a 1998 co-authored research paper called Conspiracy Theories. Sunstein is fascinated by how conspiracy theorists are led astray, and consequently Sunstein and co-author Adrian Vermeule repeatedly emphasize how peer pressure, concern for reputation and group dynamics produce beliefs that should not fall within normal consideration. Toward the beginning of the essay, the authors are willing to acknowledge some conspiracy theories’ essential truth. (The authors cite adults’ obvious conspiracy regarding Santa Claus’ existence.) But by the end of the essay, they consider conspiracy theories exclusively in the framework of a false belief that governments may or may not have some reason to subvert through various means. Too conveniently, the authors provide no rubric by which “the government” decides which conspiracy theories in question are false and require subversion.
An incessant consternation with conspiracy theories’ “self-sealing” nature influences Sunstein’s entire advisory study. And this consternation would seem almost naïve if the essay did not largely conclude with a tedious rumination on the meaning of the Freedom of Information Act, the selective necessity of government agencies disclosing information and Judicial Watch’s long attempt to get the entirety of the Pentagon 9/11 surveillance footage released to the public. The essay parrots the cliché that governments have enormous trouble keeping big secrets, but seems to spend an awfully long time contradicting that claim by evidencing how footage so sensational could and even should have been kept from the public for years on end.
How can governments get around false conspiracy theories’ “self-sealing” nature? In response to this question the authors respond: “An obvious answer is to maintain an open society, in which those who are tempted to subscribe to conspiracy theories do not distrust all knowledge-creating institutions, and are exposed to corrections. But we have seen that even in open societies, conspiracy theories have some traction; and open societies have a strong interest in debunking such theories when they arise, and threaten to cause harm, in closed societies.” However, because the hypothetical “open society” in question has never truly existed, there is no standard by which we might judge if an institution of utter transparency might prove the undoing of paranoia. To claim that an open society, if it has ever existed (it hasn’t), would successfully stifle false and popular conspiracy theories is simply lazy thinking.
It also struck me that their considerable insight into many conspiracy theorists’ willful ignorance never bleeds over into the obvious demands on covert infiltrators of theorists’ online forums and physical meetings. So easily they decry the “informational cascades,” which lure like sirens the freakishly delusional into skepticism about the government, but they deliberately ignore the enforced ignorance the U.S. government places on its own military servants by blocking web pages critical of state ideology or even YouTube.
All in all, these messages represent an expression of deep insecurity and paranoia inside of the State Department. Clearly, the authors are people who have thought Jeff Rense’s website through pretty well. Of course, in the case of the depleted uranium, the people actually having to handle this stuff know it’s radioactive by the way they’re taught to handle it. U.S. military training videos from the mid-‘90s flesh out the radiological dangers very clearly. Here, the comparison to tungsten aerosolizes like a uranium dart through concrete.
On a day in mid-2005, Richard Skinner of Homeland Security claimed to the Senate Commerce Committee that his central issues to address were “the department’s effort to detect radioactive material in cargo security, challenges facing the Coast Guard and the department’s port security grant program.” In order to test its own capabilities, DHS managed to smuggle in cargo containers a few loads of depleted uranium (you know, like tungsten, right?) As a result of this failure, Skinner justified the addition of more sensitive radiological detection equipment for DHS.
An EPA report from 2006 reads: “As they decay, DU and its decay products emit alpha, beta, and gamma radiation that can result in external and internal exposure to those who handle or encounter DU-contaminated materials. Based on the zero-threshold linear dose response model, any absorbed dose of uranium is assumed to result in an increased risk of cancer. Since uranium tends to concentrate in specific locations in the body, the risk of cancer of the bone, liver, and blood (such as leukemia) may be increased.
“Inhaled DU particles that reside in the lungs for long periods of time may damage lung cells and increase the possibility of lung cancer after many years. DU is considered primarily an internal hazard, although there is some external radiation hazard associated with DU since is progeny emit gamma rays.”
Lynn Goldman, a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins University, testified before House Veterans Affairs last year that “there are ongoing studies of the depleted uranium. And I think that’s very important because we – actually, this is probably the first time there has been a large enough group of people with documented DU exposures to be able to carry out those studies.” Adding that “some cancers have very long latency periods,” Dr. Goldman agreed with Rep. John Hall that the radiological effects of depleted uranium were worth keeping an eye on.
In a conference call with bloggers in April of last year, Melissa Forsythe, the deputy director of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, named depleted uranium among possible contributing factors to Gulf War syndrome identified in the 19 years since the end of the first Gulf War conflict. (Not that the embargo didn’t require “conflict,” but you get my meaning.)
Insofar as its radiological properties themselves, this is a different kind of threat than other kinds of aerosolized heavy metals. If I’m wrong and this stuff is as harmless as tungsten, though, don’t count on this point of disagreement to go away anytime soon. On one hand, if you take America.gov and others at their words that depleted uranium is harmless, you have to assume some sort of association bias with the plethora of foreign doctors who’re willing to say that it’s toxic.
You might very well be asking yourself if there is really any meaningful difference between someone being Julio Aparicio’ed in the throats by one of these darts and bombs, and dying more slowly by inhalation. The cruelty is apparent, and, as one of the guys from one of the Fat Man/Little Boy flights famously said in not so many words, hating the cruelty of the act of thermonuclear annihilation itself was to ignore the cruelty in something as humble as a bayoneting. Well, as some see it, this entire ordeal’s moral significance is managed by cut size in a direct sense, because slicing and modifying your DNA removes the personal culpability degree even farther from the theater of war than just wantonly, conventionally blowing away civilians or fellow soldiers. You see, the suspicion that a few doctors have brought forward is that this could cause birth defects far down the line. But much like the circumstance argued about with North Korea over biological weapons, pointed out by America.gov, it’s going to be hard to extract an ounce of sympathy over some petty technical concern so long after a war. All of the scientific data on this is soaked in association bias, according to basically everyone. And that’s why the masses will be chanting “conspiracy” for decades.
But, gee whiz, if America wants to claim that depleted uranium is no more harmful than tungsten, it sure seems strange that these substances are handled so differently than tungsten by the military itself.
On the finer points, there is a clear case of difference of opinion between the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency and even America.gov’s far more presumptive assertion. America.gov seemed to portrayed the sober discussion among reasoning medical authorities as the product of a subjugating, dominating influence attempting to manipulate using fear. The IAEA more bluntly states its apparent disagreement with the 2006 EPA report’s assessment, saying, “Based on credible scientific evidence, there is no proven link between DU exposure and increases in human cancers or other significant health or environmental impacts.” The World Health Organization’s public statement reads as the relative agnostic of the three sources, claiming that it was still monitoring sites and conducting studies into an incident as old as the Bosnian 1995 airstrike locations, albeit while dismissing the radiological effects in certain communities from depleted uranium as “negligible.”
Without question, the news is good for administrators seeking to deny resources to funders of depleted uranium health risk research. The reply can be proud and simple: “What are you – a crazy conspiracy theorist?”