Remarks by Dr. Bernard Rostker

At the American Legion Washington Conference

March 23, 1998

Washington, D.C.

Distinguished guests and fellow Legionnaires, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today about a very important topic, the health of the men and women who protect us all by their service in our armed forces. The issue has been raised, Could the unexplained illnesses affecting many of those who served in the Gulf War be the result of exposure to depleted uranium (DU)? In addition, by implication, the question has been asked, " Is it safe to continue to use depleted uranium as shielding in our tanks and, offensively as armor piercing rounds." The best answer I can give you is based on testing conducted prior to fielding depleted uranium, testing after the war of the environment on the battlefield of Kuwait, and medical research and monitoring after the Gulf War of those we know who have been injured. The best answer is the actual exposure to depleted uranium is not medically significant. Let me be precise, to date DU exposure has not produced any medically detectable effects.

The only soldiers on the battlefield who should be concerned about DU are the Iraqi soldiers, not because it might have a long term effect on their health, but because their tanks and armored personnel carriers provided them with no protection from our DU munitions. DU rounds ripped through their tanks like a hot knife through butter, and their guns were totally, and I mean totally, ineffective in penetrating American armor protected with DU shielding. DU did have an effect on the battlefield. It undoubtedly saved thousands of American lives. Just ask any American tanker if he wants to face the Republican Guard in battle without every advantage we can provide him, including DU shielding and DU SABOT rounds.

There are several pieces of information concerning DU you need to know to make an informed judgment about DU.

First, you need to know what DU is and what it is not.

Depleted uranium is exactly what its name implies. It is what is left after enriched uranium is extracted from uranium ore. Enriched uranium is used as nuclear fuel and in nuclear weapons. DU is approximately 40% less radioactive than natural uranium. In fact, because DU has very low radioactivity, its major hazard is as a heavy metal, much like lead. Unfired DU rounds pose virtually no radiological hazard because it is shielded in a thin metal jacket. After DU hits a target it may burn and form DU oxides. This may pose a potential hazard if it is inhaled, or ingested, or absorbed in a wound. The problem, of course, depends upon the exposure and dose received.

Second, you need to know about the extensive testing done on both the effectiveness of DU shielding and rounds, and its safety.

DU munitions were developed in the mid-1970s when it became clear that tungsten carbide rounds could not defeat the latest generation of Soviet armor. Extensive testing of DU has established the level of safety for those who work around DU. For example, a tank driver who was inside a fully loaded tank all year long would not exceed the occupational limit. The current dose limit for skin would only be exceeded if unshielded DU remains in direct and continuous contact with the skin for more than 250 hours. While these tests concluded that DU did not appear to be any more toxic than lead or other heavy metals, it was noted that in combat situations, there was a potential problem from inhalation, ingestion and implantation of fragments.

Third, you need to know about our efforts to fully report to you on the use of DU during the Gulf War.

Following the well regarded health risk assessment model, my office is sponsoring three coordinated efforts. We will report later in the spring on our detailed reconstruction of the conditions and circumstances surrounding thirteen DU exposure scenarios. The RAND Corporation is providing a comprehensive review of the scientific and medical literature. And, CHPPM - the Army's Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine - has undertaken an assessment of potential doses associated with each scenario.

I can tell you now that we have categorized the thirteen scenarios into three Tiers or groupings based on exposures.

Fourth and finally, you need to know about

The Department of Veterans Affairs at their facility in Baltimore Maryland has been monitoring the health status of thirty-three Tier 1 soldiers who were directly engaged in the friendly fire incidents. This includes sixteen soldiers with DU fragments still in their bodies. Formal publication of results by the VA will be made through the scientific peer review process, but only those with retained DU fragments show any elevated levels of uranium in their urine. The Kidney is the most sensitive organ for DU exposure. None have any evidence of Kidney damage to date

You also should know that we have been working with VA Headquarters, the VA in Baltimore, and the Army as the DOD executive agent to extend the medical assessment and monitoring program to the remainder of Tier 1 and then to Tier 2. In fact, this week the VA is sponsoring nation-wide training for their staff that will be used for the new screening.

I think you will also be interested in knowing that we have been monitoring the former battlefield in Kuwait to evaluate the potential occupational and environmental hazards to personnel currently deployed to the region. This directly relates to speculation by the group Swords to Plowshares and the National Gulf War Resource Center that DU on the battlefield might be the cause of illness in the Iraqi and Kuwaiti population. In late 1994, a 16 member medical team was deployed to Kuwait and examined the "Boneyard," where DU-destroyed Iraqi vehicles are stored. They tested the destroyed vehicles for radiation at the point where DU rounds penetrated, at other parts of the vehicles and took wipe samples inside and outside the vehicles, as well as soil samples in the drainage pathways on the site. They also used personal lapel breathing zone samples to monitor personnel exposures during sampling activities at the site. While the area around the entry and exit holes exhibited radioactivity above background, the wipe samples measuring removable contamination were within regulatory limits. The soil and air samples were at background levels.

Many have been critical of DOD because we have not adequately carried out the required DU education program. Last January, Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre directed the Services to provide DU training. All of the Services have responded. The Army will add a new DU task to the Soldiers Manual of Common Tasks Skill Level 1. This task will target every soldier, active and reserve, in the Army. The Navy and Marine Corps will include DU awareness through medical safety training and during fleet readiness training. The Air Force will include DU awareness in their readiness training packages, and all personnel on mobility status and those deployed to high threat areas will be trained.

Let me summarize:

A final comment: As I noted in the beginning, DU did have an effect on the battlefield. It undoubtedly saved thousands of American lives. Just ask any American tanker. Moreover, the extensive testing before the war and monitoring of those most exposed to DU after the war, shows that exposure to DU on the battlefield is not medically significant.

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