A Toxic Legacy: The Science and Politics of Depleted Uranium and Other Heavy Metals

By Stephanie Hood, RCC Editor

Mark 149 Mod 2 20mm depleted uranium ammunition in 1987. Image from Wikipedia Commons
Mark 149 Mod 2 20mm depleted uranium ammunition in 1987. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

RCC staff, fellows, and visiting scholars were drawn together last week for a lunchtime discussion with Prof. Dr. Peter Horn—expert in isotope geochemistry at LMU—on the environmental detection of depleted uranium (DU) and other heavy metals. Horn introduced his topic with an overview of the background of DU use and of the scientific techniques applied to identify its presence in animals and plants. In his work, he analyzes the tissues of soldiers exposed to such oxides in recent wars—including the one in Kosovo. DU is highly concentrated on weapon heads and tanks, causing harm to humans and wildlife through its radioactivity, and by the formation of oxides upon its contact with solid materials, such as stone. Ingested by animal and plant cells through air, water, and food, DU-oxides can have serious consequences including major immune system, liver, and reproductive complications.

Horn continued his presentation with an insight into his experience of the social impact of DU use and of the political responses to his findings. Despite its dangers, Horn criticizes, limited finances are provided for research into the detection of DU and its effects. In Germany, articles, letters, or comments on the subject tend not to be published by larger journals and magazines, and only occasionally by leftist ones, leaving the public in the dark. Yet when it comes to understanding the effects of DU on humans and the wider environment, he claims, “the interest of the public is large—if not immense.”

This complex relationship between science and politics connects to recent dialogue within the RCC on the history of chemical use in warfare: in the most recent RCC special issue of Global Environment, an interview with historian and former Carson Fellow Amy Hay and activist Nga Le, entitled “The Legacy of Agent Orange: A Conversation about Risks and Responsibility” likewise underscored the complex politics between the US and Vietnam concerning the use of toxic chemicals in warfare. The environmental and political concerns raised in Horn’s dialogue also echo that of the center’s namesake, Rachel Carson, who exposed her concerns over the use of synthetic pesticides such as DDT in her book Silent Spring (1962). Indeed Horn himself emphasized that “certain[ly] [Rachel Carson] would be against [the] use of DU.”

The RCC thanks Dr Peter Horn for his presentation and looks forward to continuing engagement in interdisciplinary discourse on the environment. The discussion was informative, stimulating, and—in the spirit of the RCC—has highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary dialogue between the sciences, humanities and social sciences.

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