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Effect of Munitions Debated

But experts agree GIs from Iraq war should be tested for exposure to depleted uranium.

June 15, 2003|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Some people call depleted-uranium weapons the Army's "silver bullet." Others call them "America's dirty bomb." The Pentagon says that exposure to the munitions causes absolutely no ill health effects, while some Iraqi pediatricians and 1991 Persian Gulf War veterans blame it for causing birth defects and cancer.

At a symposium at the New York Academy of Medicine on Saturday, a group of scientists had differing interpretations on how dangerous exposure to depleted-uranium weapons is. But they all agreed on a few things: Every armed forces member returning from Iraq should be tested for exposure, Iraqi people should be warned of potential contamination and the coalition army should clean up the hazardous mess they left behind.

"There is controversy over the science," said Charles Sheehan-Miles, executive director of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, which organized the gathering. "But if there's a substantial chance that there's a health risk, we have a moral obligation -- and perhaps a legal one -- to clean it up."

Depleted uranium, a byproduct of the enrichment of uranium, is valued by the military because it slices easily through tanks and provides nearly pierce-proof armor for U.S. tanks and vehicles. Heavier than lead, it not only holds its shape better than any other material, but sharpens itself on impact, instead of breaking up.

"Nobody goes into a war and wants to be even with the enemy," said Col. James Naughton of the Army Materiel Command in a briefing for reporters days before the invasion of Iraq began. "We want to be ahead, and DU gives us that advantage. We can hit, and they can't hit us."

On impact, some of the round turns into aerosol that if inhaled or ingested, the Pentagon has acknowledged, can lead to lung cancer, kidney damage and other health problems. Soldiers who were hit with DU shrapnel in Desert Storm still had elevated uranium levels in their urine and semen a decade later, according to some studies. But the Pentagon insists that no serious medical consequences have been found in the 90 individuals it has tracked from among about 900 who were exposed in the Persian Gulf War.

"We're not seeing any abnormalities in individuals," said Michael E. Kilpatrick of the Pentagon's Deployment Health Support Directorate. "About 20 of these people still have DU in their bodies, but their kidney function is normal. They have fathered some 23 children among them without any birth defects."

And that is where the political battle was joined. Advocates for veterans' health said that internal Department of Defense memos and reports obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that one of the study participants has cancer, and that the Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledged that the study sample was too small to draw any conclusions. One study showed that the Pentagon knew in 1990 that DU had dire health effects that could become a cause for public backlash.

"Following combat, the condition of the battlefield and the long-term health risks to natives and combat veterans may become issues in the acceptability of the continued use of DU kinetic energy perpetrators for military applications," a July 1990 Army study read.

The issue of depleted-uranium munitions has become so politicized, it's hard to tell where the science stops and the science fiction begins, said Daniel Fahey, an independent analyst who obtained the study and has made a career of debunking extreme claims on both sides of the issue. "You're not going to resolve this until you do health studies of people who are exposed. We should let science dictate the policy, not politics."

Experts at the United Nations and independent analysts have estimated that 1,100 to 2,200 tons of depleted uranium were used by U.S.-led coalition forces during their attack on Iraq in March and April, but the Pentagon has not yet released an official assessment. The U.S. fired about 320 tons in the 1991 Gulf War, and about 11 tons were used during the 1999 war against Serbia over Kosovo.

Under Saddam Hussein's regime, comprehensive investigations of Iraqi doctors' claims of spikes in birth defects after the Gulf War ended in 1991 were difficult to undertake. Hari Sharma, a retired chemistry professor from the University of Waterloo in Canada, smuggled urine samples out of Iraq in soda bottles, and had to obtain lung tissue samples clandestinely. Now that a new Iraqi government will soon be in place, Sharma and other scientists voiced hope they can start fresh studies in Iraq and the United States on the radioactive and chemical effects of the material on the lungs, kidneys, lymph systems and other organs.

Kilpatrick, the Pentagon health support spokesman, said that all armed forces members will be asked about possible exposure to DU when they return, and that urinalysis will be available for any GIs who ask for it. But possible exposure won't trigger an automatic test and there are no plans for a systematic study, he said.

"The Pentagon is its own worst enemy," said Steve Fetter, vice chairman of the board of the Federation of American Scientists and an expert on nuclear weapons.

"If they collected data, it would probably show relatively low exposures to DU. But because they didn't, it leaves open speculation that DU is responsible for a variety of illnesses."

Fetter and others at the symposium urged mandatory urinalysis -- a simple test for elevated uranium levels -- for every GI returning from Iraq.

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