MAC: Mines and Communities

Tungsten – terror and toxicity

Published by MAC on 2009-01-26

The enormity of Israel's recent murderous strikes against the people of Gaza is gradually being recognised. Among emerging accusations is that the regime employed a new type of weaponry, dubbed DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosive). This was designed in the US, ostensibly to pulverise a specific "site" without harming "non combatants" nearby. Or - as one retired Israeli general put it a fortnight ago (apparently without irony) - in order to target "small objects."

DIME bombs are packed with tungsten powder which explodes, melting or slicing off parts of victims' bodies, but dissolving in human tissue, thus leaving evidence of the atrocity hard to detect.

This would not be the first time that tungsten has been used to slaughter people or animals. During the mid-1990s the metal came to replace lead in US-manufactured bullets, because it was viewed as less toxic. (Thus creating the repugnant euphemism: "green ammunition").

However, recent research suggests that tungsten use and dispersal may have detrimental and toxic consequences for living organisms which have not yet been properly evaluated.

Some reports have suggested that DIMEs were intentionally supplied by the US to Israel in 2006, so the Pentagon could study their impacts "in the field."

In any event, what is increasingly regarded as the site of Israeli war crimes, and is already the locus of a humanitarian crisis, now also looks like being a major environmental disaster area.

As the IUCN puts it: "We cannot ignore the longer term impacts of the conflict on the environment and on the civilian infrastructures, which are so essential for the well-being of the Palestinian population."

Basic data on tungsten:

China is today by far the largest supplier of primary tungsten.

The other principal producing countries are:


Mines have closed in recent decades in Australia, Brazil, France, Japan, South Korea, Sweden and the USA.

Tungsten reserves are distributed globally as follows:

China - 57%
Canada- 12%
Former Soviet Union - 6%
South America - 4%
US- 4%
Other countries - 17%
[Source: International Tungsten Industry Association]

Dime bombs leave Israel's victims with mystery wounds

Jerusalem faces a UN call for a war crimes investigation

Belfast Telegraph

19 January 2009

Israel is facing demands for war crimes investigations as it declared a unilateral ceasefire in Gaza after a 22-day assault in which more than 1,200 Palestinians, a third of them children, were killed and 13 Israelis died.

Two children were killed yesterday when Israeli tanks shelled a UN school in which families were sheltering, leading a UN spokesman, Chris Gunness, to say: "There has to be an investigation to determine whether a war crime has been committed." The call was dismissed by an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, who said: "These claims of war crimes are not supported by the slightest piece of evidence."

But among numerous allegations of disproportionate use of force, questions are also multiplying about the use of unconventional weapons by Israel, including a new type of bomb that causes injuries that doctors have not seen before, and which they find impossible to treat.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, claimed in a televised address last night that the military operation had "fully attained" its goals, "and beyond". Israel had declared the ceasefire in response to an appeal from the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, but troops would remain for now in Gaza, and Hamas would be "surprised again" if it attacked. But even though Mr Olmert said Hamas had been "beaten badly", rockets landed in Israel a few minutes before he spoke. Despite the desperate state of Gaza's population, Hamas leaders said they would continue to fight for an end to Israel's closure of crossing points into the territory and a withdrawal of the Israeli forces. Mr Mubarak invited the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, to discuss Gaza in Sharm el-Sheikh today.

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said he might attend, and Gordon Brown is among other leaders due to take part. Although Mr Olmert's announcement was only a first step towards halting the conflict in Gaza, the UN is not the only international body insisting that inquiries must be held as soon as possible into the tactics and weapons used by Israel.

Erik Fosse, a Norwegian doctor who worked in Gaza's hospitals during the conflict, said that Israel was using so-called Dime (dense inert metal explosive) bombs designed to produce an intense explosion in a small space.

The bombs are packed with tungsten powder, which has the effect of shrapnel but often dissolves in human tissue, making it difficult to discover the cause of injuries.

Dr Fosse said he had seen a number of patients with extensive injuries to their lower bodies. "It was as if they had stepped on a mine, but there was no shrapnel in the wounds," he said. "Some had lost their legs. It looked as though they had been sliced off. I have been to war zones for 30 years, but I have never seen such injuries before."

However, the injuries matched photographs and descriptions in medical literature of the effects of Dime bombs. "All the patients I saw had been hit by bombs fired from unmanned drones," said Dr Fosse, head of the Norwegian Aid Committee. "The bomb hit the ground near them and exploded."

His colleague, Mads Gilbert, accused Israel of using the territory as a testing ground for a new, "extremely nasty" type of explosive. "This is a new generation of small explosive that detonates with extreme power and dissipates its power within a range of five to 10 metres," he said. According to military databases, Dime bombs are intended for use where conventional weapons might kill or injure bystanders - to kill combatants in a house, for example, without harming people next door.

Instead of being made from metal, which sprays shrapnel across a wide area, the casing is carbon fibre. Part of the motive for developing the bombs was to replace the use of depleted uranium, but Dr Fosse said the cancer risk from tungsten powder was well known. "These patients should be followed up to see if there are any carcinogenic effects," he said.

While the loudest controversy has been over accusations that white phosphorus was illegally used, other foreign doctors working in Gaza have reported injuries they cannot explain. Professor Mohammed Sayed Khalifa, a cardiac consultant from Sudan, said that two of his patients had had uncontrollable bleeding. "One had a chest operation, and continued bleeding even after having been given large quantities of plasma," he said. "The other had what seemed to be a minor leg injury, but collapsed with profuse bleeding. Something was interfering with the clotting process. I have never seen such a thing before."

Dr Ahmed Almi, an Egyptian cardio-thoracic consultant at al-Nasser hospital in Khan Younis in southern Gaza, said he had seen a number of patients with inexplicable injuries. A boy of 14 had a small puncture wound in his head, but extensive damage to his brain, making it impossible to save his life. "I don't know the nature or type of these weapons that make a very small [entry wound] and go on and make massive destruction in the tissues," he said.

Israeli military representatives have refused to confirm or deny using specific weapons, but insist that all Israel's weapons comply with international law. Neither white phosphorus nor Dime bombs are illegal, but campaigners say the way they have been used, especially in Gaza's densely packed urban areas, could constitute a war crime.

Human Desperation and Environmental Destruction in Gaza

NEW YORK, New York, 22 January 2009 (ENS) - Senior United Nations officials today began to assess humanitarian needs in Gaza, getting a first-hand look a the destruction inflicted on the area's 1.5 million residents and their environment during three weeks of Israeli military operations.
"The mission was struck by the scale and urgency of the needs of the people of Gaza, and the heavy and multi-faceted impact that this conflict has had on the civilian population," according to a joint statement issued by John Holmes, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and Robert Serry, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.
The UN Security Council is calling for the temporary ceasefire in Gaza declared by both sides on January 18 to become a durable truce with guarantees to prevent arms smuggling and to ensure that all border crossings are permanently reopened. But shelling from both sides continues intermittantly, according to local media reports.
Israel launched the 22 day offensive on December 27 with the stated aim of ending years of rocket fire from Hamas at southern Israeli towns. The fighting claimed over 1,300 lives in Gaza, 412 of them children, and wounded more than 5,450, 1,855 of them children, as well as causing widespread destruction and suffering. At least 13 Israelis also died in the conflict.
The bombing and shelling caused extensive damage to civilian facilities throughout the Gaza Strip, and supplies of basic food and fuel, and the provision of electricity, water and sanitation services remain critical.
"We saw a lot of shocking destruction," Holmes said in an interview with UN Radio, describing the scene at several sites in Gaza, including the still-smoldering ruins of the UN compound that was hit last week by Israeli forces.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has demanded a complete investigation by Israel into all attacks against UN facilities in Gaza, and that those responsible be held accountable for their actions.
"Questions of compensation will arise because there was obviously very significant damage," said Holmes, to "UN installations, work and UN staff."
During their mission, Holmes and Serry will meet with Israeli authorities to underscore that country's role in facilitating humanitarian assistance for the people of gaza, including the need for full, timely, and unrestricted access for all goods and they also are meeting with Palestinian Authority leaders to work out the best way to scale up humanitarian assistance in Gaza. Once the assessment is completed, the UN will launch a Flash Humanitarian Appeal for Gaza in early February.
"Children form the majority of the population of Gaza," said UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman, a former U.S. secretary of agriculture. "No human being can watch this without being moved. No parent can witness this and not see their own child. This is tragic. This is unacceptable."
The UN World Food Programme today began emergency distributions of vitamin A-fortified date bars and high-energy biscuits to thousands of displaced people in Gaza City. The distributions also include ready-to-eat meals for hospitals and milk for children. They are part of WFP's recently launched Operation Lifeline Gaza.
WFP emphasized that all crossing points into Gaza must re-opened for the agency to be able to move 600 tons of food every day into the Gaza Strip as planned. To date, WFP shipments have been crossing only through Kerem Shalom, at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, including shipments from Egypt.
The environmental destruction wrought by the Gaza conflict is widespread, according to Friends of the Earth Middle East.
From its three offices in Amman, Jordan; Bethlehem and Tel Aviv, Israel, the nonprofit organization is appealing to the UN Environmental Programme to send a team from its Post-Conflict Assessment Unit to Gaza and Israel.
The UNEP mission would undertake an independent assessment of the environmental impacts and make recommendations for reconstruction efforts.
The conflict has had "dangerous repercussions for the Gaza Strip's already dilapidated water supply network and sewage," the group said.
UN reports indicate that more than 500,000 Palestinians in Gaza remain without safe drinking water. Sewage collection systems and treatment facilities have ceased functioning, resulting in sewage in the streets.
The raw sewage overflow could reach surrounding communities and the Mediterranean Sea. "Sewage contamination will lead to long-term consequences for both Palestinians and Israelis including the outbreak of infectious diseases and the loss of important groundwater sources through pollution," warns Friends of the Earth Middle East.
The group's Palestinian Director Nader Al Khateeb and Israeli Director Gidon Bromberg said that documenting the consequences of war on the shared environment of Israel and Palestine highlights the loss to both nations and must be followed up by actions that will help avoid another round of violence and destruction.
"Reconstruction efforts, beyond urgent humanitarian assistance, should focus on working with communities on both sides of the border, Bromberg said. "The reconstruction effort should involve grassroots peace-building efforts so that the ceasefire has a better chance of survival and that infrastructure rebuilt will not again be destroyed by the next round of violence."
From its headquarters in Switzerland, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said the environmental crisis unfolding in Gaza must be addressed without delay.
The Gaza Strip, one of the world's most densely populated areas, is under tremendous environmental stress, and the current conflict is making a dire situation tragic, both for human beings and for nature, said the IUCN.
"What we are seeing in Gaza today is first and foremost a human tragedy," said IUCN President Ashok Khosla. "The world is focusing, and rightfully so, on addressing the most pressing humanitarian needs of the Palestinian population. But we cannot ignore the longer term impacts of the conflict on the environment and on the civilian infrastructures, which are so essential for the well-being of the Palestinian population."
"IUCN is an organization dedicated to the conservation of biodiversity, which means life, all life," said IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre. "Gaza needs peace to address the many environmental problems threatening its future."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.

Unease Over Tungsten

Increased use boosts element's environmental status to concern

Rachel A. Petkewich

Chemical and Engineering News

19th January 2009

AS THE FILAMENT in an incandescent light bulb, tungsten can illuminate a room, but it hasn't been spotlighted as an environmental contaminant in the same way that lead or mercury has. In fact, in the mid-1990s, believing that tungsten is relatively insoluble in water and non toxic, the Army replaced the lead core in military bullets with tungsten alloys through its Green Ammunition Program. Similar bullets became available to hunters soon after as states began to ban lead ammunition to protect birds from lead poisoning.

Recent studies, however, indicate that under certain environmental conditions, some forms of tungsten can move readily through soil, leach into groundwater, and induce greater biological effects than previously known. These findings do not definitively raise a red flag about tungsten, but they have spurred more study on the metal's effects because of the increased use of tungsten in military ammunition and in civilian applications ranging from tools to tire studs.

"At present, nobody knows whether or not tungsten will become a big concern ecologically because only limited findings have been accumulated," says Yutaka Tajima, an M.D./Ph.D. who studies the biochemistry and toxicology of heteropolyanions, including those of tungsten, at Gunma University, in Japan.

Although recommended occupational exposure limits exist, tungsten is not regulated in drinking water or as an environmental contaminant in the U.S. and Western Europe. Tungsten was regulated in the former Soviet Union, and the regulations still apply to the now-independent states. In the past couple of years, the Defense Department and the Environmental Protection Agency each has listed tungsten as an emerging contaminant of concern.

The metal's toxicity is relatively low compared with, for example, mercury's or lead's, but "tungsten anions are never inert to living things," Tajima says. Chronic exposure to tungsten species by, for example, ingesting tainted water or foods, even at a very low concentration, is probably a more important issue than acute toxicity, he says.

Tungsten has the highest melting point among metals. Dense alloys such as tungsten carbide are sought after for welding, metal cutting, drilling, aerospace applications, and jewelry. Tungsten is also a good conductor of electricity, which makes it desirable as filaments for light bulbs.

Also known as wolfram, tungsten occurs naturally in mineral forms such as wolframite [(FeMn)WO4] or scheelite (CaWO4), but typically not as a pure metal. As rocks and soil weather, soluble and insoluble tungsten dusts drift into waterways. Water effluent from mining and manufacturing processes or landfills may also distribute soluble forms of tungsten.

IN SOIL, tungsten metal oxidizes to the tungstate anion (WO42-). Previous toxicology studies indicate that tungsten would be stable in the environment. Although thermodynamically stable under most environmental conditions, the tungstate ion does have biological effects. For example, tungsten may substitute for molybdenum in certain enzymes, inactivating the enzymes.

Furthermore, the tungstate anion polymerizes to polytungstates, says Nikolay S. Strigul, an ecologist at the Center for Environmental Systems at Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J. And because knowledge of tungsten's toxicity and its biological and environmental effects is based on studies of monotungstates, little is known about how polytungstates behave in the environment, he adds.

Polytungstates comprise a range of chemical species, explains Anthony J. Bednar, a geochemist at the Environmental Laboratory of the U.S. Army Engineer Research & Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, Miss. Examples include the heptamer (7 W and 24 O atoms) and the dodecamer, a complex better known as metatungstate (12 W and 40 O). Heteropolytungstates, which also incorporate phosphorus or silicon, have been found in the environment as well, he adds.

Polymerization of tungstates is not analogous to the way organic polymers form or tetrahedral phosphate or silicate units couple to yield a range of polymers, notes Michael T. Pope, a professor emeritus of chemistry at Georgetown University who studies polyoxometalates. Polytungstates are discrete entities with specific and characteristic structures that do not necessarily contain identifiable monomer units, he says.

"At present, nobody knows whether or not tungsten will become a big concern ecologically because only limited findings have been accumulated."

In the environment, Bednar explains, the geochemistry of the soil will ultimately influence what species-monomeric or a wide range of polymeric moieties-will form. Monomeric tungstates tend to form under alkaline soil conditions; polymeric species emerge under acidic conditions. Bednar says each species will have different properties in soil, such as binding, and these properties, along with conditions such as pH, ultimately affect the species' mobility and bioavailability.

Bednar and colleagues have done both laboratory studies and fieldwork at military sites such as Army training ranges over the past four years. They are identifying various tungsten species found in soil and developing methods to quantify them in environmental samples.

The researchers use liquid chromatography and inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) to determine submicrogram levels of tungsten, molybdenum, and phosphorus oxyanions in groundwater and soil extracts. Using model field soil, they also determine partition coefficients for various monotungstate, polytungstate, and heteropolytungstate compounds. They have found that the mobility of the mono- and polytungstate compounds decrease with time as they become more firmly bound to the soil particles.

In one of two upcoming papers in the journal Land Contamination & Reclamation, Bednar and colleagues report a method to separate and quantify monomeric and polymeric tungsten species by size exclusion chromatography (SEC) interfaced to ICP-MS. Then they use direct infusion electrospray MS to identify the polymeric species. For the second paper, they use SEC to analyze extracts from soil and sunflower plants (Helianthus annuus L.). They find that plant root tissue bioaccumulates roughly twice the amount of tungsten in the soil, but the leaves and stems accumulate less.

Strigul and colleagues have also demonstrated that when tungsten metal oxidizes in soil, the soil becomes acidified, which results in poor growth of plants and soil microbes. Changes in soil pH are well known to alter the availability of plant nutrients.

Both Bednar and Strigul have studied organisms exposed to tungstate species.

In a study published in the journal Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry (2006, 25, 763), Bednar and colleagues have found that sodium tungstate is less lethal than lead to earthworms (Eisenia fetida) but completely inhibits the invertebrate's ability to reproduce. (Lead's biggest effect was lethality.)

And an upcoming paper by Strigul and colleagues in the journal Desalination indicates that polytungstates may be more than an order of magnitude more acutely toxic than monotungstates to different organisms. He and his coworkers find that more guppies, tiny aquatic invertebrates known as Daphnia, redworms, and freshwater algae die when exposed to sodium metatungstate (Na6H2W12O40) than to sodium tungstate (Na2WO4).

"Polytungstates are apparently much more toxic than monotungstates," Strigul says. In light of these new findings, "a revision of our current knowledge of tungsten toxicological and environmental effects is necessary," he adds.

Never Inert

These heteropolytungstates were found in tungsten-spiked laboratory soil. Yellow is phosphorus, green is silicon, black is tungsten, red is oxygen, and gray is hydrogen. Anthony Bednar, Robert Kirgan & Gus Davico

RESEARCHERS have yet to elucidate how tungsten causes physiological stress to flora or fauna, although they have a few ideas. Strigul and his collaborators hypothesize that the observed difference in animal toxicity between the monotungstates and polytungstates may be explained by the tungstate species' different abilities to penetrate biological membranes as a result of anionic charge distribution in solution.

David R. Johnson, a toxicologist in the Environmental Laboratory at ERDC who has collaborated with Bednar, has been examining the effects of tungsten on phosphate-dependent pathways in animal cells. These pathways are important for normal cellular function, such as energy production and cell-signaling interactions. Disrupting these pathways can lead to potentially detrimental and toxic effects.

Polytungstates may play a role in plant toxicity by disrupting the production of energy-transporting adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and signaling pathways. Moreover, the researchers say, the biological activity of tungsten hinges on its physiochemical form and on whether or not it undergoes further reactions inside the organism. For example, tungstate may polymerize with phosphate in a plant or animal, deplete intracellular stores of phosphate, and disrupt phosphorylation reactions involved in ATP synthesis and cellular signaling.

The verdict is still out on tungsten in the environment and more study is necessary.

However, Strigul suggests that because plants have already been shown to take up tungstates, phytoremediation technologies may help if cleanup is deemed necessary.

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