health impacts of depleted uranium (DU) munitions on soldiers who served in
the Iraq and the Persian Gulf Wars will be studied by Congress' General
Accounting Office, according to two congressmen who have requested a new
investigation into whether the Pentagon has ignored the medical consequences
of the armaments.
"We are requesting further investigation by the GAO of the study of veterans exposed to DU during the 1991 Gulf War, and an assessment of current DoD [Department of Defense] and DVA [Department of Veterans Affairs] policies to identify and provide medical care for veterans exposed to DU during Operation Iraqi Freedom," wrote Reps. Bob Filner, D-Calif., and Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas, in a Dec. 3 letter requesting the congressional inquiry.
"There are many uncertainties about depleted uranium, but one thing is clear: the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs have refused to conduct an adequate study of veterans exposed to DU on the battlefield," said Dan Fahey, a former board member of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a veterans organization, who helped the congressmen frame the GAO inquiry.
"Congressmen Filner and Rodriguez have once again demonstrated their concern for the health of veterans by asking the GAO to investigate what appear to be serious flaws in the VA's study of veterans exposed to DU," Fahey said. "The Pentagon has admitted that thousands of veterans may have been "unnecessarily" exposed to DU during and after the 1991 war—including approximately 900 veterans with significant exposures—but this year the VA assessed the health status of just 32 veterans."
The GAO study of DU's health impacts on soldiers is significant because the very dense and slightly radioactive metal is used extensively in bullets and shells fired by U.S. tanks and jets. It is a byproduct of making nuclear fuel and is more effective than lead bullets, making DU bullets and warheads a key component of the military's arsenal.
DU projectiles puncture almost all metal targets. Due to its m ass and velocity, it breaks up and vaporizes into micron-sized particles upon impact. The Pentagon says DU is safe, but veteran advocates are skeptical, saying the military should scientifically study the most-exposed soldiers to see if they develop illnesses tied to low-level radiation exposure. Such exposure would come from either inhaling or ingesting airborne DU particles from destroyed Iraqi targets or from friendly fire accidents, and the related emergency responses and subsequent clean up.
The health impacts of DU have been a controversial issue. Some anti-nuclear activists say there are traces of deadly nuclear isotopes in the metal, because it is made from spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants. But leading medical journals in the United States and England say more study is needed before definitive conclusions can be reached.
In Iraq, where the Christian Science Monitor last spring reported an estimated 75 tons of the metal was used by the U.S. Air Force last winter and remains scattered on the ground, the military has posted signs in some places warning people to stay away from destroyed targets. Subsequent statements by the British and American militaries lead independent analysts to estimate that 100-to-150 metric tons of DU was used in the Iraq War.
The congressmen, drawing on research prepared by Fahey, have asked the GAO to study whether DU can be linked to cancers and other diseases among Iraq and Persian Gulf War veterans. Before the Iraq War, Fahey unsuccessfully tried to persuade the VA to independently study these same issues.
"DoD's own laboratory studies confirm DU may cause cancer, tumors, neurological damage, and reproductive effects, but the possible connection between DU and disease development in the vast majority of exposed veterans remains unexamined, and therefore, unknown," the congressmen’s letter said. "This is of particular concern because it is now almost 13 years since the war, and the latency period for the development of many cancers possibly related to DU is 10 to 30 years."
They cited Fahey's belief that the Pentagon officials have made "false statements" about "the existence of a rare Hodgkin's lymphoma and a bone tumor among veterans in the DU Program, signaling a breakdown in the integrity of the study."
"On at least two occasions in 2001, DoD spokesmen falsely claimed that no veterans in the DU Program had developed cancer, in an apparent attempt to dampen controversy in Europe about the use of DU munitions in the Balkans," they wrote. "In addition, in April 2003, an Army doctor was quoted in press stories falsely claiming that no veterans in the DU Program had developed any tumors. These prevarications beg the question of whether other health effects have been observed among these veterans, but not reported."
That "army doctor" was Dr. Michael Kilpatrick of the Office of the Special Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, who is among the top-raking Pentagon officials who create military health policy. Those remarks were made at a NATO briefing.
The congressman also noted that the Pentagon "previously misled" GAO investigators and the Department of Veterans Affairs about "the extent of veterans' exposures to DU during the 1991 war" and said there was "cause for concern that DoD is not providing complete and accurate information about DU exposures in Iraq."
Fahey said this pattern of repressing information continues to this day.
"The VA is failing in its duty to assist veterans exposed to a known carcinogen on the battlefield, but sadly, it appears that the Pentagon is calling the shots when it comes to DU policy," Fahey said. "Even now, as our troops continue to fight and die in Iraq, the Pentagon refuses to disclose information about its use of DU, or release information to the United Nations Environment Programme about the quantities and locations of DU expenditure."
He said a serious inquiry by the GAO could clear up these and other unknowns. "There is a serious lack of transparency and accountability when it comes to Pentagon and VA policy on DU, but this GAO investigation is a huge first step in understanding what—if any—health effects DU has caused among U.S. troops."
Congressmen Filner and Rodriguez said the results of the GAO study could lead to legislation reorganizing the military's DU health programs.
"Depending on the findings of this GAO investigation, we may wish to introduce legislation requiring a restructuring of the DU Program and extending service-connected benefits to veterans who develop health conditions, such as certain types of cancer that can plausibly be caused by a significant DU exposure," they wrote.
The GAO investigation would most likely be completed by next summer.
Steven Rosenfeld is a commentary editor and audio producer for TomPaine.com, where this article first appeared (www.tompaine.com).
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