October 20, 2004
The recent crash of a Boeing 747 in Halifax, Canada, raises a number of questions about the use of depleted uranium (DU) in airplanes, public health concerns and the 9-11 attacks. When a Boeing 747 crashed and burned on takeoff at Halifax International Airport in Nova Scotia, Canada, on Oct. 14, an official accident investigator said the aircraft probably contained radioactive depleted uranium. Bill Fowler, an investigator with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said the plane was likely equipped with DU as counterweights in its wings and rudder.
“A 747 may contain as much as 1,500 kilograms [3,300 lbs.] of the material,” the Canadian Press reported. It took 60 firefighters and 20 trucks about three hours to control the fire. Fowler said: “there is no threat or concern” about DU exposure to those working on the wreckage.
“That’s baloney,” Marion Fulk, a retired staff scientist from Lawrence Livermore National Lab, told me. Fulk, 83, is currently researching how low-level ionizing radiation causes cancer, birth defects and a host of other health problems. Burning depleted uranium creates a “whole mess of oxides,” Fulk said, “which is what makes it so wicked biologically.”
In 1988, American physicist Robert L. Parker wrote that in the worst-case scenario, the crash of a Boeing 747 could affect the health of 250,000 people through exposure to uranium oxide particles. “Extended tests by the Navy and NASA showed that the temperature of the fireball in a plane crash can reach 1,200 degrees Celsius. Such temperatures are high enough to cause very rapid oxidation of depleted uranium,” he wrote.
“Large pieces of uranium will oxidize rapidly and will sustain slow combustion when heated in air to temperatures of about 500 degrees Celsius,” Paul Lowenstein, technical director and vice-president of Nuclear Metals Inc., the company that has supplied DU to Boeing, wrote in a 1993 article.
Now, some researchers are turning to the large number of sick firefighters and workers from the World Trade Center site and reports of elevated radiation levels around the Pentagon after 9-11. They contend that the Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft involved in the attacks may have also contained depleted uranium counterweights.
PENTAGON RADIATION LEVELS
Around the Pentagon there were reports of high radiation levels after 9-11. I have seen documentation that radiation levels in Alexandria and Leesburg, Va., were much higher than usual on 9-11 and persisted for at least one week afterward. In Alexandria, seven miles south of the burning Pentagon, a doctor with years of experience working with radiation issues found elevated radiation levels on 9-11 of 35 to 52 counts per minute (cpm) using a “Radalert 50” Geiger counter.
One week after 9-11, in Leesburg, 33 miles northwest of the Pentagon, soil readings taken in a residential neighborhood showed even higher readings of 75 to 83 cpm. ”That’s pretty high,” Cindy Folkers of the Washington-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) told me. Folkers said 7 to 12 cpm is normal background radiation inside the NIRS building, and that outdoor readings of between 12 to 20 cpm are normal in Chevy Chase, Md., outside Washington.
The Radalert 50, Folkers said, is primarily a gamma ray detector and “detects only 7 percent of the beta radiation and even less of the alpha.” This suggests that actual radiation levels may have been significantly higher than those detected by the doctor’s Geiger counter. ”The question is, why?” Folkers said.
If the radiation came from the explosion and fire at the Pentagon, it most likely did not come from a Boeing 757, which is the type of aircraft that allegedly hit the building. ”Boeing has never used DU on either the 757 or the 767, and we no longer use it on the 747,” Leslie M. Nichols, product spokesperson for Boeing’s 767, told me. ”Sometime ago, we switched to tungsten, because it is heavier, more readily available and more cost effective.”
The cost effectiveness argument is debatable. A waste product of U.S. nuclear weapons and energy facilities, DU is reportedly provided by the Department of Energy to national and foreign armament companies free of charge. DU is used in a wide variety of missiles in the U.S. arsenal as an armor penetrator. It is also used in the bunker-buster bombs and cruise missiles. Because no photographic evidence of a Boeing 757 hitting the Pentagon is available to the public, 9-11 skeptics and independent researchers claim something else, such as a missile, struck the Pentagon.
A white flash, not unlike those seen in videos of the planes as they struck the twin towers, occurs when a DU penetrator hits a target. Photographs from the Pentagon reveal that large round holes were punched through six walls in the three outer rings. The outside wall is 24 inches thick with a six-inch limestone exterior, eight inches of brick and 10 inches of steel reinforced concrete; the other walls are 18 inches thick. The object that hit the Pentagon on 9-11 penetrated several feet of reinforced concrete, leaving holes with diameters between 11 and 16 feet.
Bill Bellinger, then head of the EPA’s Radiation Program for Region III, which includes Virginia, told me he had received information of elevated radiation levels and contacted EPA officials at the Pentagon. ”I was concerned about that,” Bellinger said. “I didn’t disregard it at all.” Bellinger told me that he thought the radiation was from DU in the aircraft.
Bellinger, who was based in Philadelphia, did not personally visit the Pentagon site and said that EPA personnel at the site had not reported high levels of radioactivity. However, the EPA official who Bellinger said had worked at the Pentagon, Craig Conklin, now at FEMA, told me that he had not been involved at the site, “directly or indirectly.” Workers and FEMA officials at the Pentagon were seen wearing special protective outfits and respirators. FEMA photos show the workers going through decontamination procedures.
Bellinger said that the Department of Defense was responsible for on-site safety procedures at the Pentagon. In New York, however, considerably less attention was paid to the health risks the burning rubble posed to workers at the WTC site. A recent screening done by Mount Sinai Hospital found that nearly three-quarters of the 1,138 first responders had experienced respiratory problems while working at Ground Zero, and half had respiratory ailments that persisted for an average of eight months afterward. ”We were dumfounded by how many people were sick, and how sick they were, and how sick they still are,” said Robin Herbert, co-director of the program.
Thomas Cahill, professor of physics and atmospheric sciences, analyzed the plumes from a station one mile north of the burning WTC rubble. “The small particles worried me the most,” Cahill told me, referring to the sub-micron-size particles, which can pass through the filters of respirators. Cahill said the high levels of silicon, vanadium, nickel, and sulfuric acid concerned him. The fine concrete dust, he said, acted “like Drano” in the lungs of the workers, where it irritated and burned the wet membranes.
Until Dec. 15, the pile was so hot, a piece of paper would ignite on contact with the rubble, Cahill said. “You had the workers working on top of a huge incinerator in the rush to get Wall Street going again,” Cahill said. “It was really dumb. Only 30 percent of the firefighters working at the site in October were wearing any protection at all,” he said.
A class action lawsuit on behalf of more than 800 people who suffer health effects was filed against WTC leaseholder Larry Silverstein and the companies that supervised the cleanup: AMEC, Bovis Lend Lease, Turner, and Tully Construction. The suit was filed on Sept. 10, the last day set by a federal three-year statute of limitations for lawsuits related to 9-11. “Under state labor law, employers have a duty to provide a safe place to work,” lead attorney David Worby said. “They violated that duty. Everyone knew what was on the ground.”
As many as 100,000 workers at Ground Zero and hundreds of thousands more people in the area were exposed to airborne toxins, Worby said. ”If you expose a person to this amount of lead, cadmium, benzene, asbestos, and glass shards, they are going to be sick,” he said. “More people could die from this than died on the day of 9-11.”
AMEC Construction Management, a subsidiary of the British engineering firm AMEC, renovated Wedge One of the Pentagon before 9-11 and cleaned it up afterward. AMEC had also renovated Silverstein’s WTC 7, which collapsed mysteriously on 9-11, and then headed the cleanup of the WTC site afterward. The AMEC construction firm is currently in the process of closing all its offices in the United States.
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