When Libyan rebels requested NATO air support to help them in their fight against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, they might have gotten more than they bargained for, and might be paying for it for a long time to come.
Several scattered reports released since the conflict began (here's a good one) claim that some of the missiles NATO jets are using to disable Gaddafi's army are tipped with depleted uranium, a toxic heavy metal that could have long-term negative health effects on populations exposed to it.
British and American troops returning from Iraq during both the first and second Gulf wars, during which such missiles were often used, had to be tested for exposure to the toxic metal.
Depleted uranium is what is left over after enriched uranium, which is used in nuclear fuel and weapons, is extracted from natural uranium. Although depleted uranium has a low level of radioactivity, it is still toxic.
The United States, United Kingdom and a dozen other countries use missiles tipped with depleted uranium. They do this not because of its radioactivity but because of its density. A shell tipped with depleted uranium, which is very heavy, has a huge amount of momentum and can rip through a tank — for example — with ease.
It was Gaddafi's tanks that posed the biggest problem for the rebels in the early days of the conflict.
Such missiles are good for more than just breaking through steel. Once the missile pierces the armor of its target, the depleted uranium then disintegrates and starts to burn. So a strike on a tank would likely burn its crew alive. When the dust settles, so does the depleted uranium, which has a half life of 4.4 billion years.
Former U.S. congresswoman and presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, who is fiercely anti-war and traveled to Libya in June, has said that she found evidence of the use of depleted uranium at hospitals she visited.
A report on Wednesday by the Centre for Research on Globalization says measurements conducted at bomb sites showed higher than normal levels of uranium, citing scientists inside Libya.
The use of depleted uranium in weapons might be questionable, but it is not illegal. The International Court of Justice ruled in 1996 that only weapons that use toxic or radioactive metals for the purpose of poisoning or asphyxiating are illegal.
Depleted uranium, however, is simply used for blowing stuff up. So it's okay.