Children in the Punjab are increasingly born with birth defects. The phenomenon may well be due to depleted uranium carried over by wind currents from Afghanistan. (Photo: Money Sharma / EPA)
Children born with abnormally enlarged or small heads, disproportionately short arms and legs, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and other complications. Increasing instances of infertility among women. A spurt in cases of lung cancer and intestinal ulcer.
Punjab, a state in India bordering Pakistan, has reason to be concerned about this scary picture emerging from surveys recently carried out in some of its areas. Not only Punjab, however.
According to a section of the researchers particularly concerned with the cases of birth deformities, Punjab may be paying with the health of its people for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
More precisely, depleted uranium reportedly used in wars in these countries may be the cause of the deformities and disorders on the rise in India's northwestern state, according to a team based in the city of Faridkot.
Winds from Afghanistan may have carried to the state a large quantity of highly toxic uranium, which has contaminated water and increased uranium in bodies to dangerous levels. This apprehension was raised at least five months ago by the team of the Baba Farid Center for Special Children, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), where some of the affected kids have been undergoing treatment.
In what would appear to be a scandalously successful cover-up, the question raised by the team has been kept away from major headlines in the Indian and international media, with New Delhi seeing no need even to take cognizance of it.
In a downplayed report, which the most prominent media did not consider deserving of better display, Dr. Pritpal Singh, in charge of the Faridkot clinic, said the number of affected children had risen "dramatically in the past six or seven years." Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan was launched on October 7, 2001.
The use of DU weapons in the Iraq war, started on March 20, 2003, may also have contributed to the tragic drama in Punjab, according to the team. The radioactive uranium, released in such cases, gets mixed in soil, air and water within a large radius. Areas within 1,000 miles from the place where the uranium is released can get affected. Parts of Iraq close to Iran fall within that distance. Afghanistan is just over 330 miles away from India's Punjab.
Evidently, children of Pakistan, which occupies this distance, have also been exposed to the same danger. So are their counterparts in areas India adjoining Punjab.
DU - defined as uranium containing a smaller percentage of uranium-235 than the 0.7 percent found in natural uranium - has found several military uses. Because of its high density, it is used in tank armor, sandwiched between sheets of steel armor plate. It is also used in armor-piercing, incendiary ammunition. It has also been used, above all, to destroy bunkers and tanks.
According to US radiation specialist Leuren Moret, "DU weaponry largely meets the definition of a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)." In a newspaper article in 2005, she wrote: "Since 1991, the US has released the radioactive atomicity (through DU weapons) equivalent of at least 400,000 Nagasaki bombs into the global atmosphere. That is 10 times the amount released during atmospheric testing which was the equivalent of 40,000 Hiroshima bombs. The US has permanently contaminated the global atmosphere with radioactive pollution having a half-life of 2.5 billion years." She also described DU weapons as "dirty bombs, dirty missiles and dirty bullets."
Experts estimate that 1,000 tonnes of uranium is already present in the Iraq-Iran region and Afghanistan. People from these areas have been found to have 100 times more uranium in their urine compared to those from other areas.
The Faridkot center sent hair samples of 149 children - 116 below the age of 12 - to the laboratory of the Micro Trace Minerals in Germany in June 2008. The results came back in February 2009. The samples of children below 12 years revealed 82 percent of uranium and those of the rest, 87 percent. Singh found the results "astonishing as there is no atomic plant near Punjab."
An investigation team of the Observer (London) has just days ago confirmed the "dramatic rise in birth defects, physical and mental abnormalities, and cancers" in the state. The team, however, has linked the uranium contamination to ash from the region's coal-fired power stations.
In a phone call with Truthout, Singh stressed that the matter called for a "scientific inquiry," which the Observer investigation was not claimed to be. He pointed out that there were complaints of such consequences from the DU weapons in other places.
On May 1, 2008, the One Planet program of the BBC World Service quoted doctors in Kabul and Kandahar saying that the incidence of birth defects, including premature births and malformations, had doubled in under two years. Among the malformations were "neural tube defects and malformation of limbs; for example, the head is smaller than normal, or the head is larger than normal, or there is a big mass on the back of the baby."
Though the George Bush regime protested innocence, the program cited the Canada-based Uranium Medical Research Center (UMRC) as saying that the cause might be depleted uranium. In 2002 and 2003, the center carried out analyses of urine from Afghans. In some, it found levels of uranium hundreds of times greater than in Gulf War veterans.
As for Iraq, shockwaves were sent across the world by disclosures of a large-scale rise in children's deformities and deaths in Fallujah after two massive bombing campaigns in 2004. In November 2005, the Pentagon was forced to admit the use of white phosphorous and DU ammunition during these campaigns.
Deafening is the silence of New Delhi on the possible consequences of the use of DU weapons in a war at India's doorstep. Does the Bush-built "strategic partnership" on South Asia demand callous indifference to the plight of deformed and dying children in Punjab?