Depleted Uranium in Iraq

Struan gave the following speech at a meeting of the Delegation for Relations with Iraq on Thursday 7 November in the European Parliament in Brussels.

Welcome and thank you for coming to today's meeting of our Delegation, which will be dedicated to the consequences arising from the use of depleted uranium, and of contamination by other toxic remnants in Iraq; let me also welcome our guest speaker, Mr Wim Zwijnenburg, a leading expert in security and disarmament, from the Dutch non-governmental organisation "Pax Christi". I also warmly welcome the European External Action Service representation, and the representatives of the Iraqi embassy in Brussels!

Before we start, please allow me to reiterate my strongest condemnation of the horrible terrorist acts, which continue to target all sectors of Iraqi society, and to express my deepest sorrow and condolences to the families of the victims. Our Delegation, and the European Parliament as a whole, supports the Iraqi struggle against the terrorist plague and wishes to see a stable nation, where different peoples, ethnicities and religions could finally live together in peace, prosperity and mutual understanding. In this framework, our Delegation welcomres the presidential decree, issued last Monday by the Iraqi Vice President, Mr Khudayr Al-Khuzaie, specifying April 30, 2014, as the date for holding the next parliamentary elections. We believe that elections will help to loosen the political stalemate, which contributes to the poor security environment in the country.

Iraq has been subjected to on-going national and international armed conflicts for more than two decades. This, coupled with international sanctions, has deprived citizens of resources which most people take for granted; medicines, food, clean water, electricity, access to information and so on. However, the most enduring impact of conflict and warfare, arguably, is borne by Iraq’s children.

Mrs Narmin Othman, the former Minister for the Environment in Iraq, outlined the challenges Iraqi citizens face, including "water, air and soil contamination caused mainly by emissions from cars and generators in crowded areas, unplanned use of chemical fertilisers, war remnants and bombing with depleted uranium". Her ministry had identified discarded military vehicles and tanks contaminated with radioactive materials from the 1991 and 2003 wars, but no action had been taken to dispose of them. This, along with waste from heavy industry and hospitals and raw sewage discharged into the two main rivers (Tigris and Euphrates) was identified as a major health hazard to wide sections of the population.

Depleted uranium is a man-made, radioactive heavy metal derived from uranium ore as a by-product of uranium enrichment. It is a dense metal that reacts with most non-metallic elements and has pyrophoric properties, meaning that it may spontaneously ignite at room temperature in air, oxygen and water. It has a number of uses, including in X-ray radiation shielding in hospitals, in powerful projectiles such as bullets and missile nose cones and as protective armour for tanks.

When used as a projectile, a depleted uranium penetrator ignites on impact due to the high temperatures produced. This characteristic leads the projectile to sharpen as it melts, making it easier to pierce heavy armour. When piercing armour the projectile leaves behind its depleted uranium jacket, dispersing depleted uranium dust into the environment. Most of the dust particles are reported to be small enough to be inhaled or ingested by humans and remain windborne for an extended time. When deposited on the ground it settles as partially oxidised dust, potentially contaminating ground water. Studies have discovered that ingested depleted uranium accumulates in bones, kidneys, the reproductive system, brain and lungs and suggest it may have toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic effects. The presence of such a substance close to residential communities is therefore a cause for concern, particularly in relation to the health of unborn and young children.

Indeed, between October 1994 and October 1995, the number of birth defects per 1,000 live births in Basra Maternity Hospital was 1.37. In 2003, the number of birth defects in that same hospital was 23 per 1,000 live births. Within less than a decade, the occurrence of congenital birth defects increased by an astonishing 17-fold in the same hospital! Another, even more horrifying example: since 2003, congenital malformations have increased to account for 15% of all births in the city of Fallujah, where heavy fighting had occurred. Congenital heart defects have the highest incidence, followed by neural tube defects.

Those are terrible facts. Can you imagine being an average Iraqi today, planning to build a family and knowing that your baby has, in the best of cases, one possibility out of ten to be born malformed, due to the presence of heavy metals, uranium included?

Therefore, our Delegation does not only endorse the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) recommendations concerning capacity building for the removal of depleted uranium from the Iraqi environment; the Delegation supports the world-wide ban on the use of depleted uranium for weaponry, without any compromise and with no exceptions! Consequently, we urge the European Parliament and the European Union to make recommendations in this sense, and we urge all EU Member States who are still using depleted uranium weaponry, to abandon this substance which has such devastating side effects and which targets the most innocent and vulnerable of our citizens - the children.