DU Health Hazards Downplayed
DALLAS, Texas—Research on the health effects of the highly toxic weapons substance known as depleted uranium, or DU, is not high on the list of priorities of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses, which met July 18 to July 19 in Dallas.
Despite this, the veterans group made DU a priority. Despite extensive reports showing the devastating effects of DU, AFP was the only media outlet at the meeting. Although this committee, mainly comprised of scientists, expressed some concern about the effects of DU—the ultra-dense radioactive component used in massive quantities mainly as kinetic-energy penetrators in various U.S. military munitions—other pursuits are taking precedence, at least at this time.
DU, used in the Balkans and currently used extensively throughout Afghanistan and Iraq, is tied to numerous cancers among soldiers and civilians, who inhale DU aerosols or ingest residue through their skin or on their food and in their water. It’s thought to have long-term effects via soil and groundwater infiltration. It as also been linked to birth defects in their offspring, including rare forms that are not usually seen in developed countries.
One prominent researcher at the Dallas meeting claimed concerns about DU and its relation to Gulf War Illness (GWI), while worthy of consideration, may be exaggerated.
“We’ll look at DU in the future if the epidemiological studies implicate it as a possible cause of Gulf War Illness,” committee member Dr. Robert Haley told AFP, just after the program concluded at Hilton Anatole Hotel. He went on to claim: “As far as we can tell, there’s no ‘Gulf War Illness’ in the second Gulf War, (from) 2003 and after.”
He said GWI is a term applied to what he called an “ethereal,” or mysterious, variety of maladies that, in his view, stem mainly or solely from Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield in 1990 to 1991, when hundreds of enemy storage sites containing dangerous chemical and biological military stockpiles, and some nuclear plants, were blown up by U.S. military technicians and fighter pilots. Chemical, biological and radioactive substances were spread around the turbulent, unpredictable environment of the Middle Eastern desert.
But Gulf War I troops were also exposed to DU aerosols and particles, as well as the fallout from such demolitions, all of which are blown across the countryside, often hitting troop formations and civilian centers, especially during the region’s notoriously intense sandstorms.
DU clean-up expert Dr. Doug Rokke, a Vietnam and Gulf War veteran who did not attend the Dallas program but has attended other committee meetings, responded to Haley’s claims by saying that the immediate DU-exposure testing needed within 24 hours of contact with DU residue “was deliberately delayed and denied” during wartime. So 15 to 16 years later, the direct evidence of DU exposure in Gulf War I is gone, but the long-term health effects from DU, including cancers and myriad other problems, are still affecting many veterans.
“Respiratory problems and rashes appear right away [with DU exposure],” Rokke said. Later comes lung cancer and other illnesses.
Rokke acknowledged that exposure to sarin and other chemical agents,
hazardous immunizations, pesticides and other substances all contribute
to GWI along with DU. He also told AFP that the Veterans Administration’s
(VA) own reports through 2006 show that there are 205,097 casualties
from the current Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom operations—including
67,000-plus soldiers categorized with “ill-defined” illnesses.
He said there are 1,584 with cancers, more than 21,000 with parasitic
infectious diseases, and many more with various illnesses, including
“That’s nonsense,” Rokke said about the notion that GWI is limited to the first Gulf War.
According to VA figures from August 2006 obtained by AFP, of the 205,000 GIs who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, at least a third of the total have sought medical care, for such problems as malignant tumors (1,584), endocrinal and metabolic diseases (36,409), nervous system diseases (61,524), digestive system diseases (63,002), musculoskeletal diseases (87,590), and mental disorders (73,157), among many other conditions. One of the largest categories is “ill defined”—or mystery conditions (67,743). In comparison, a relatively small number (35,765) have sought VA care for injuries. Thus, figures obtained by AFP corroborate what Rokke contends.
In the first day of the committee’s hearings, held at the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine, a general list of research priorities, which was not necessarily complete or final, was laid out. The main “areas of interest” were, in order: Epidemiological studies of the rates of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease; neuro-imaging, which covers the newest ways to look at subtle differences in brain chemistry that are hard to discern with traditional means; autonomic function; the use of animals as models for studying the effects of Gulf War exposures; the inflammatory effects on Gulf War vets of Gulf War exposures; and, among others, pre-clinical studies of the effects of Gulf War exposure on human cells.
Further down the list, the DU reference fell under the “other topic” category. Centered on studying the soldiers who were at the Camp Doha incident, the DU-related section of the research plan took into account cancer, reproductive effects, multi-symptom conditions, etc.—in comparison to veterans not exposed to DU.
The Camp Doha incident was a series of explosions that ripped through a United States ammunition depot in July 1991, showering soldiers with shrapnel. At least 50 Americans and six Britons were wounded. Injuries ranged from minor cuts to severe shrapnel wounds. The incident, at Blackhorse Camp at Doha, about 12 miles west of Kuwait City, apparently began with an electrical fire on a truck carrying 155-mm. howitzer shells. DU is used in those and many other munitions.
“If Camp Doha shows something, it moves [the DU research] up the hierarchy,” Haley said to more than a dozen researchers at the first hearing. He said an obscure group, known as the Merit Review Group, “has the final say on the science” and is the body that would re-prioritize DU research, depending on the outcome of initial studies.
Haley, who is well known in scientific circles for GWI studies on Navy
Seabees, argued for a middle ground between the committee focusing on
long-term research that would delay more immediate treatment for veterans
Anthony Hardie, who works in Wisconsin’s VA office and is himself an ill Gulf War vet, called the $15 million of funding for the group as “a small pittance of appropriations” and expressed disappointment over the results of earlier phases of GWI research over the last 16 years.
“I’m deeply disappointed this is all we have,” he said, adding that too much money was spent trying to prove “there was nothing wrong.”
After day one, researcher Lea Steele remarked that the clinical application of all the research projects and techniques outlined that day are “dazzling science, yes,” but she’s worried that too many precious dollars will be eaten up in fancy research and not enough will be available to treat sick vets.
The Advisory Committee is chartered by the VA secretary. It welcomes and solicits information from physicians, scientists, veterans and the general public related to medical research about GWI.
Helpful material includes information about treatments, causes, relevant scientific studies and other promising avenues for medical research. Appropriate submissions may be sent to the committee scientific staff. The mailing address: RAC-Gulf War Veterans Illnesses (T-GW), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2200 S.W. Gage Blvd., Topeka, Kan. 66622
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