By Kathleen Sullivan
OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
5 Aug 1998
Battlefield exposures to the toxic debris created by U.S. weapons in the Persian Gulf are not the cause of undiagnosed illnesses among veterans, the Pentagon announced in a new study.
Veterans' advocates denounced the finding, contained in a 121-page report released Tuesday, calling it an absolute fabrication that contradicts the preliminary findings of an ongoing Veterans Affairs study.
"We believe the people looking into the microscopes not the propaganda artists at the Pentagon who have a policy of promoting the use of depleted uranium ammunition," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of veterans groups.
The report also drew fire from radiation expert Rosalie Bertell, president of the International Institute for Public Health, a nonprofit research center in Toronto.
Bertell said the Pentagon "missed the boat on the biology" by focusing on the effects of immediate, high-level exposure to depleted uranium kidney damage and neglecting the long-term health hazards linked to radiation, such as cancer.
The Pentagon's report analyzes the health threat posed by the use of depleted uranium ammunition in the 1991 Gulf War.
The ammunition, fired by U.S. tanks and aircraft, is made of a heavy metal that is radioactive. Pentagon officials say it blasts through tanks "like a hot knife through butter."
The ammunition was used for the first time in combat in the Gulf War, and soldiers were not warned that inhaling, ingesting or absorbing its radioactive and toxic residue could cause cancer or respiratory, kidney and skin disorders.
In its report, the Pentagon analyzed 13 scenarios in which soldiers may have come into contact with depleted uranium (DU) dust or debris, and classified them into three groups.
Level 1: Soldiers in vehicles accidentally hit by U.S. tanks, and those who entered the vehicles to rescue them.
"These soldiers could have been struck by DU fragments, inhaled DU aerosols, ingested DU residues, or had DU particles land on open wounds, burns or other breaks in their skin," the report said.
Level 2: Soldiers (and some civilians) who inspected, repaired or moved contaminated tanks, and soldiers who took part in the cleanup after the explosions and 18-hour fire at the Camp Doha ammunition depot in Kuwait after the war.
"These soldiers may have inhaled DU residues stirred up (resuspended) during their activities on or inside the vehicles, transferred DU from hand to mouth, thus ingesting it, or spread contamination on their clothing," the report said.
Level 3: Soldiers exposed to smoke from the fires at Camp Doha, smoke from burning U.S. or Iraqi tanks, and soldiers who entered contaminated tanks on the battlefield after combat.
"While these individuals could have inhaled airborne DU particles, the possibility of receiving an intake high enough to cause health effects is extremely remote," the report said.
The Pentagon announced Tuesday that the 300 soldiers considered to be in levels 1 and 2 will be offered special medical screenings joining a health monitoring program for 33 veterans already under way at the Baltimore VA Hospital.
"While their DU exposures are unlikely to have exceeded the threshold levels at which health effects might be observed, prudence dictates that they be evaluated to establish any residual body burden of DU," the report said.
However, Bernard Rostker, head of the Pentagon's Office of the Special Assistant on Gulf War Illnesses, said there appears to be no link between exposures and ailments.
"The report's conclusion, based on a comprehensive review of available data and a science-based methodology, is that exposures to DU's heavy metal (chemical) toxicity or low-level radiation are not a cause of the undiagnosed illnesses afflicting some Gulf War veterans," he said.
Rostker's office is investigating the array of puzzling symptoms and debilitating illnesses reported by about 100,000 of the 700,000 U.S. men and women who served in the gulf.
In January, Rostker said thousands of soldiers may have been exposed to depleted uranium during the war.
Rostker, who conducted a briefing Tuesday morning on the report at the Pentagon, was not available for calls later in the day.
Veterans and veterans' advocates blasted the report.
"I guess I'm not sick," said Doug Rokke, an Army Reserve captain who has suffered from kidney, respiratory and skin disorders since the war.
Rokke, a radiation expert, inspected tanks hit by depleted uranium during Gulf War battles. After the war, he helped design the Army's DU training program.
Rokke said he was appalled by a photograph in the Pentagon's report that shows Rostker leaning against a tank in Kuwait, his hand resting near a hole created by a DU tank round.
"That violates every standard we've got published in training materials," Rokke said. "If you're in an area where depleted uranium has been used, you need to use respiratory and skin protection. Rostker is standing there in a shirt and tie, his hand on a contaminated tank. That's absolutely crazy."
Army training videos created after the war advise soldiers to minimize the time they spend around blast sites, maximize their distance and wear protective clothing, including gas masks, if they will be exposed to the dust or debris for more than a few minutes.
Sullivan, of the National Gulf War Resource Center, said the report shows the Pentagon and the VA are miles apart on the issue of health effects of depleted uranium exposure.
Last month, the VA issued a directive to all its hospitals saying "abnormalities" have been detected during testing on some of the 33 veterans with DU shrapnel in their bodies, Sullivan said.
"How can Rostker say there's no problem," he asked.
He also criticized the Pentagon's decision to limit medical screenings to 300 veterans a violation of Army regulations that require medical exams for soldiers who may have been exposed to radioactive material.
Dan Fahey, author of a 1998 report on the battlefield hazards of depleted uranium, accused the Pentagon of downplaying the health risks associated with DU and exaggerating the ammunition's effectiveness a strategy designed to keep the ammo in its weapons arsenal.
The report said the benefits of using depleted uranium in battle vastly outweigh the risk of exposures.
"That sentence perfectly captures the Pentagon's perspective," Fahey said. "The operational benefit is what's most important not the health risks."
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