Depleted Uranium Environmental Exposure Report Released


WASHINGTON, August 4, 1998 (GulfLINK) - After an extensive investigation into the use of depleted uranium during the Gulf War, the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses has released its report. The report finds that there is no evidence to support the claim that depleted uranium caused or is causing the undiagnosed illnesses some veterans are experiencing.

The report points out that the Gulf War was the arena for the first battlefield use of armor-piercing munitions and reinforced tank armor incorporating depleted uranium. Many experts agree that depleted uranium played a key role in the overwhelming success of U.S. forces during the Gulf War. However, its chemical and radiological properties gave rise to concerns about possible combat and non-combat health risks associated with DU use.

Bernard Rostker, special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, says the report examines a variety of issues regarding DU exposures that took place during and after the Gulf War.

"We start our report by explaining what DU is and outlining the potential health risks of its chemical and radiological properties," he says.

"Depleted uranium is the by-product of the process for converting or "enriching" natural uranium for use as nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons," Rostker explains. "It's approximately 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium."

He says the same depleted uranium used in armor-piercing munitions and armor shielding is also widely used in civilian industry, primarily for stabilizers in airplanes and ships as well as for radiation detection and shielding for medicine and industry.

He explains that depleted uranium is a toxic heavy metal that is also slightly radioactive.

"A common misconception is that depleted uranium's primary hazard is radiological. This is not the case," Rostker says.

"Depleted uranium emits alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays. Alpha particles, the primary radiation type produced by depleted uranium, are blocked by skin, while beta particles are blocked by the boots and battle dress uniform worn by our service members. Gamma rays are pure energy and are highly penetrating; however, the amount of gamma radiation emitted by depleted uranium is very low."

Defense Department officials say the sabot rounds fired from the main gun of U.S. Abrams series tanks figure prominently in most of the depleted uranium incidents under investigation. The round uses a 10.7 lb. depleted uranium penetrator that is approximately 27 inches long and 1.5 inches thick. They say the round, when fired or burned in fires, exposes the depleted uranium rod. That exposed penatrator rod poses a very low radiological threat and no heavy metal toxitity threat as long as it remains outside the body, say the experts. However, if internalized in sufficient quantity, depleted uranium may pose a health hazard to personnel. Nonetheless, the medical significance of any exposure scenario depends on a number of factors including the amount taken into the body, the particle size distribution, and the solubility of the material.

Rostker says the report goes on to detail the different types of DU exposures that occurred during the war and explain the possible health effects of those exposures.

"We've categorized the exposure scenarios into three levels based on the type of exposure," he says.

"Level I is the highest exposure group, it includes about 113 soldiers who were in or near combat vehicles at the time they were struck by depleted uranium rounds, as well as 30 to 60 people who entered these vehicles immediately afterwards. Depleted uranium fragments struck and became embedded in some of these soldiers. Others may have inhaled and ingested depleted uranium particles, or had depleted uranium contaminate their wounds."

He says the U.S. Army's Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine has done a preliminary estimate of worst case dose, based on test data and the assumption that the depleted uranium rounds impacted a depleted uranium protected, heavy Abrams tank, an event which never occurred in the Gulf War.

"They concluded that the hypothetical radiation exposure would have been about the same as a person would get from living in the United States for three years," Rostker says.

Since 1993, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been monitoring 33 vets who were seriously injured in friendly fire incidents involving depleted uranium. These veterans are being monitored at the Baltimore VA Medical Center. Many of these veterans continue to have medical problems, expecially problems relating to the physical injuries they received during friendly fire incidents. About half of this group still have depleted uranium metal fragments in their bodies. Those with higher than normal levels of uranium in their urine since monitoring began in 1993 have embedded DU fragments. These veterans are being followed very carefully and a number of different medical tests are being done to determine if the depleted uranium fragments are causing any health problems.

The veterans being followed who were in friendly fire incidents but who do not have retained depleted uranium fragments, generally speaking, have not shown higher than normal levels of uranium in their urine.

For the 33 veterans in this program, tests for kidney function have all been normal. In addition, the reproductive health of this group appears to be normal in that all babies fathered by these veterans between 1991 and 1997 had no birth defects.

Dr. Rostker explains the second category of exposure, Level II, includes around two hundred soldiers who worked in and around vehicles struck by depleted uranium. Rostker says the vehicles were mostly wrecks of American vehicles struck during friendly fire incidents. He says it also includes as many as 600 personnel who took part in the clean up after the fire involving DU munitions and DU armored tanks at Camp Doha.

"We believe all these exposures were less than the worst case I just mentioned," Rostker points out.

"While we do not have a specific count of the number of people in Level II, we will build a more complete list as we notify those whose names we already have."

Level III, Rostker says, includes all others who had fleeting contacts with DU. This group includes individuals who may have entered Iraqi equipment, or who were down wind from vehicles that burned after being struck by a depleted uranium round or down wind from the Doha fire.

"Based on existing research, we believe this group received minimal, medically insignificant exposures and we have no plans to provide special screening beyond that already available to all Gulf War veterans at their request," he says.

Recent environmental studies of DU munitions, environmental assessments of DU contamination on the battlefield, results of current medical studies, further monitoring efforts and on-going research are also included in the 41-page account. Rostker says the report also highlights some lessons learned from the Gulf War and makes recommendations for future force protection.

"The Department of Defense is fully aware of its responsibility for the use of depleted uranium, and has stepped up its emphasis on soldier and leader awareness of the hazards associated with battlefield depleted uranium use and contamination," he says.

"The U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command published Training Support Packages (TSPs) for respective training schools in September 1997."

"The Deputy Secretary of Defense has ordered the Service Chiefs to ensure that the hazards associated with depleted uranium are incorporated into the general military training program. Full implementation of the various training programs will be underway this summer. We will continue to monitor the status of the services' DU training efforts," Rostker adds.

As the latest in the series of informational publications published by the Gulf War illnesses investigators, Dr. Rostker says this particular investigation has been underway for more than 18 months.

"As with all of the information papers, case narratives and exposure reports produced by our investigative teams, extreme care is taken to ensure only susstantiated facts surrounding events that occurred during the Gulf War are presented to the reader," Rostker explains.

"In the case of the DU report, hundreds of veterans were interviewed in order to reconstruct numerous military operations and to document possible exposure to DU. This process takes time.

"In our efforts to be as accurate as possible, each publication is reviewed by other members of the Gulf War illness team and, once approved by them, is sent out for external review," Rostker adds.

He says the Department of Health and Human Services, Central Intelligence Agency, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Environmental Protection Agency and Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry were among the organizations that reviewed the DU report for accuracy prior to its release.

"In the case of the depleted uranium investigation, we underwent several rewrites of the report before allowing it to be sent for external review by recognized experts in the field," says Rostker.

"This process, while time consuming, ensures that the publication includes all the available information on the subject."

Rostker says this report, while comprehensive, does not close the book on depleted uranium.

"This is an interim report published to inform the public of the current status of our ongoing investigation," he says.

"Our investigators continue to compile data, pursue DU testing to fill data gaps, and interview Gulf War veterans in an effort to more accurately report on DU exposures in the future. Specific information on the new medical follow-up will be passed to the US Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine which is assessing the dose and health risks for each of the exposure scenarios. This work is expected to take at least another year to complete," says Rostker.

He says any veterans with new or additional information should call the DoD's Persian Gulf Task Force Hot Line at 1-800-472-6719. He added that any veterans desiring a free, in-depth medical examination should call the DoD's Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program at 1-800-796-9699 or the VA's Persian Gulf Registry at 1-800-PGW-VETS to enroll.