Sunday, January 29, 2006

Plight of the Skeptic

I noticed a call for submissions to Skeptic's Circle, posted on Orac's site.  Then I decided to write about the controversy over the use of depleted uranium (DU) munitions in Iraq.  It is a subject that I have wondered about for years, but never took much time to research.  It caught my attention during the US military action in Kosovo, when I read in a newspaper that Russian diplomats had expressed concern to the US.  They stated, reportedly, that the US should not use DU munitions because they are "too dangerous."  I laughed a bit, because it seems that ammunition is supposed to be dangerous.  

Of course ammunition is supposed to be dangerous, but the question is not about the immediate, direct hazard created by a projectile with a lot of kinetic energy.  The question about the safety of DU munitions has to do with delayed toxicity, and the potential for that toxicity to be expressed at a distance from the battlefield, long after the battle is over.  

Anyway, I decided to look into it.  Some of the controversy seems to revolve around the fact that DU is slightly radioactive.  Others express concern about chemical toxicity.  Furthermore, there are concerns about statistical correlations that seem to indicate some risks, but which do not establish evidence of causation.

Eventually, I encountered the Wikipedia page on DU.  There is a notice on that page, that the content has been locked, pending resolution of the exact controversy that I was looking in to.  There is a link to a discussion page.  The discussion page contains a great deal of information, and illustrates well the controversy itself.  In fact, it is written much along the lines of what I was planning to write, so I guess there is not a lot of reason for me to do the same thing all over again.

But while the jury is still out on the question of whether DU is "too dangerous," the existence of the controversy leads to another point worth looking into.  It seems to me that the US military, among others, began using DU without doing much research into the possibility of toxicity that could be expressed over prolonged periods of time, or spread widely over a distance.  On one hand, that may be viewed as having been grossly irresponsible.  On the other hand, it is clear that DU munitions are effective for their intended purpose, and it is equally clear that, if we are going to be in a war, we want our troops to have the most effective weapons possible.  The point is this: once a war gets going, whatever the merits of the war, it is in our best interest to get it over, with as little loss of life (on our side, and among civilians) as possible.  Often, using potent weapons is a means to that end.  Additionally, it is conceivable that we could get engaged in a war so dire, that use of weapons with lingering toxicity could be justified.  

Thus the question: is our need for potent weapons so great, that the military is absolved of responsibility for testing the munitions for lingering toxicity?  If not, how extensive should the testing be?  After all, one can scarcely go around starting a war just to test the weapons, yet that is the only way to get a definitive answer to many of the most difficult questions.  

When DU is used in battle, some of it is converted from a solid metallic mass of uranium to various chemical compounds in gaseous and particulate forms.  Each different form will be spread around to a different extent, will come into contact with the body in different ways, and will do different things upon contact.  Some may be taken into the body, whereas others may not.  Because of these complicating factors, any assessment of risk would require that it be determined what compounds are formed in actual use, how much, where they go, how widely they are distributed, etc.  That kind of information can come from only one source.

A definitive answer would require testing the munitions in actual battlefield conditions. To do that, you need an actual battle.  Even that does not really solve the problem of how to do research on the issue.  Definitive answers to the questions about toxicity would require a controlled experiment: fight the exact same battle twice, one with DU munitions, the other without.  I guess it is obvious that such a definitive, controlled experiment cannot be done.  

This leads to another question: if no definitive study can be done, what lesser substitute is acceptable?  

Well, that question naturally leads to more questions.  It is really a question of relative risk: is the overall safety of our country enhanced by the use of DU munitions, or are there risks that outweigh the benefits?  Is it possible that there would be some wars in which the benefits would outweigh the risks, yet other wars in which they would not?

It seems that unjust wars would not justify the use of DU munitions, of course; but are there some just wars that are not sufficiently just so as to justify the use of a weapon that might have lingering toxicity?  Are there nuanced judgments to be made, and if so, who gets to be the one to make the judgment?

And the final question: is it the inevitable plight of the skeptic, to be drawn into a quagmire of unanswerable questions, whenever a question of any sort comes up?  And which is more noble: to ask the question, or to answer it?  And why do you ask?


UPDATE: there is a site out there offering to explain how you can detoxify yourself from DU. And it only costs $30!