The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

SMU professor Susanne Scholz in the West Bank in 2018.
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Sara Hummadi, Video Editor • May 18, 2024
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Poisoned past, present, future

SMUndinista!
 Poisoned past, present, future
Poisoned past, present, future

Poisoned past, present, future

On Monday of this week, the Pentagon announced that they had no plans to clean up the depleted uranium left behind in Iraq as a result of the recent hostilities. This comes as no surprise, and yet I was still startled by the sheer audacity with which the Pentagon continues to insist that DU is safe.

Depleted uranium is a waste product left over during the operation of nuclear reactors. It is an extremely dense metal, 1.7 times denser than lead, and thus makes an excellent coating or tip for munitions. Current operators include the United States and Great Britain, as well as numerous American allies and client states around the world. DU shells can punch through most tanks in service today and, perhaps logically, the material is also used in fortifying armor. Upon striking a solid surface, DU penetrates before exploding into a caustic vapor cloud, which then settles as a fine dust.

This dust is rather long-lived, and is commonly blown about by the wind, settling in the soil and water, and eventually ending up inside plants and animals. DU exposure has been linked to a multitude of health problems, including all the elements of Gulf War Syndrome, as well as severe birth defects and leukemia. The material was first used in Gulf War I, to a devastating effect, in more ways than one. While it made scrap metal out of Iraqi vehicles, DU became a part of the Iraqi ecosystem. Thousands of coalition veterans have insisted in the following years that their serious health problems (and in some cases, deaths of their comrades) were caused by exposure to the metal. The government has stonewalled on the issue for years; in fact, it took most of a decade before they even acknowledged Gulf War Syndrome’s existence. For the Iraqis, the situation was much worse, though there are no hard figures as to the results.

What can be said is that, during the years of sanctions following the war, massive amounts of birth defects and infant mortality were reported in Iraq, specifically in the south of the country where most of the fighting occurred. In 1999, when it became known that DU had been used in Kosovo, departing Dutch soldiers had to hand over all of their clothing and equipment, which was subsequently shipped home in specialized heavy plastic bags. Their vehicles also ended up in a radiation decontamination facility. Time will tell how much this helped.

Moving forward to the present day, Gulf War II has seen widespread use of depleted uranium, and the aforementioned refusal on the Pentagon’s part to admit there is anything wrong with DU, much less clean it up.

If this sounds familiar, it should. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military embarked on a defoliation program known as Operation Ranch Hand. Intending to deprive the Viet Cong guerillas of the vegetation in which they found food and protection, modified aircrafts sprayed chemical herbicides on South Vietnam. By the time the program concluded, over 19 million gallons of dioxin-based toxins had been sprayed over six million acres, affecting more than 20 percent of the country.

Operation Ranch Hand never really made much of an immediate military impact, but it was far from harmless. The program was halted in 1970 when the Defense Department received proof that the chemicals used (identified by their colored containers, e.g. Agents Blue and Orange,) did in fact pose serious health risks. American veterans of the conflict who had their health ruined by defoliants finally reached an out-of-court settlement with the government in 1985, and nobody really knows the extent of the damage done to South Vietnam, only that it has resulted in thousands of birth defects and deaths.

Our own government does not confine such activities to far off lands, not by any means. The Shoshone Nation in Nevada is the most heavily bombed nation on the planet. Over 600 nuclear explosions have occurred in the area, with the resulting high levels of cancer. Making matters worse, the government has, for the past several years, been trying to turn Yucca Mountain, which lies within land guaranteed to the Western Shoshone Nation, into a vast dump for nuclear waste. Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) typified the mindset behind this proposal, asserting “God made Yucca Mountain for the express purpose of storing high level nuclear waste. There’s nothing within 100 miles of the place.”

Did anyone else see the Young Conservatives of Texas table on Tuesday? They had a sign reading “Because the alternative is to be a tree-hugging, granola-eating peacenik.” What level of criminality is necessary to deride those who stand against poisoning our world and our bodies? The phrase “He used chemical weapons on his own people” keeps coming to my attention, and I think it hits close to home.

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