Questions Continue About Depleted Uranium

May 1, 2001 by Legion Magazine

by Victoria Fulford

HMCS Athabaskan was equipped with weapons using depleted uranium during the Persian Gulf War.

The Pentagon called it the silver bullet. A substance that gives military projectiles an extra punch allowing them to penetrate metal armour with ease. It’s depleted uranium, a topic in the news not for its ability to destroy on the battlefield but because of the possible health risk it could pose to the soldiers who came into contact with it and to civilians living in areas where it was used.

During the Persian Gulf War, where it was first used, an estimated 300 tonnes of depleted uranium was fired in missiles and munitions. Approximately nine tonnes of depleted uranium munitions were fired by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Kosovo and three tonnes in Bosnia. Some see a correlation between the use of depleted uranium in these conflicts and the range of illnesses in returning veterans that are often referred to collectively as Gulf War or Balkans Syndrome.

The leukemia deaths of approximately 20 peacekeepers from Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain and elsewhere that were reported in the media early this year raised concerns that these and other illnesses could be linked to the use of depleted uranium. In January the Italian government pushed for a moratorium on the use of depleted uranium weapons by NATO countries. It was never passed. NATO health officials maintained that there was no proven scientific link between depleted uranium exposure and increased cancer rates.

In Canada, some former peacekeepers have gained media attention by suggesting that their illnesses could be explained by their exposure to DU, most likely through contact with spent shells and vehicles that had been hit by weapons containing the substance.

When a depleted uranium shell hits a solid object, the shell ignites dispersing particles of depleted uranium dust into the air which can then be inhaled on the spot or carried on the wind to other locations. Often the shell will not be completely destroyed and parts of its depleted uranium core will remain intact raising the possibility it could be picked up by an unsuspecting passer-by.

Canada has only used depleted uranium in the weapons systems of the destroyers Athabaskan and Terra Nova which were outfitted with it in preparation for the Persian Gulf War. It was removed from the weapons inventory in 1998 because of special storage restrictions which created logistical problems aboard the ships. Canadian munitions now use tungsten as a hardening agent, rather than depleted uranium, a substance readily available to our neighbours to the south.

“We don’t produce depleted uranium in Canada as far as I know. It’s a by-product of the enrichment process,”said Dr. Reza Moridi, vice-president of science and technology at the Radiation Safety Institute of Canada. “In American reactors…they have to use enriched uranium. When they receive natural uranium, they process it, they enrich or increase the concentration of uranium 235 (isotope) and the waste is depleted uranium basically.”

But whether or not depleted uranium is dangerous is still a question. Dozens of scientific studies claim it isn’t. In March, the United Nations released its final report which downplayed the short-term effects of depleted uranium weapons on human health and the environment. United Nations Environment Program investigators visited 112 sites that were identified as being targeted by weapons containing DU during the Kosovo conflict. A total of 355 samples of soil, water, vegetation, milk and ammunition fragments were analysed. No widespread ground contamination or significant radiological or chemical risks were found.

However, the report did acknowledge the scientific uncertainty about the long-term environmental consequences of depleted uranium. Specifically, the chance that buried depleted uranium could find its way into ground water and the drinking-water supply. For these reasons the report recommended continued monitoring of ground water, marking of all areas contaminated by depleted uranium and decontamination where possible. The report also called for a scientific mission to Bosnia to examine the situation there.

As the controversy over DU continued to rage in the early months of 2001, the Canadian government was trying to address the fears of Canadian peacekeepers and their families. A year earlier, National Defence Minister Art Eggleton announced that the Canadian Forces would offer depleted uranium testing for anyone who requested it. Later that spring Veterans Affairs Canada followed suit, offering to cover the costs of depleted uranium testing for released members of the Forces.

“It’s totally voluntary,” explains VAC spokesperson Janice Summerby. “If anyone has any concerns they’re welcome at any time to request testing.” When asked whether there was a limit on the number of tests that would be administered, a factor to consider when the cost of each test runs about $800, or if there is a time frame in which the request must be made, Summerby said the tests would be “done as required, as requested. There’s no limit.” So far, 40 former members of the Canadian Forces who served in areas where depleted uranium was used have requested testing through VAC.

The testing itself is being undertaken by Becquerel Laboratories Inc. and Activation Laboratories Ltd., both of Ontario. Two urine samples are submitted directly to each lab from the Department of National Defence Post-Deployment Clinics, Operational Trauma Stress Support Centre or a referring community physician. The samples are analysed by the labs for the total level of uranium, especially isotope 238, they contain. In this way each lab acts as quality assurance for the other. Results are available from the tests in four to six weeks.

It should be noted that everyone has some level of uranium in their bodies, it is a naturally occurring element that is found at an average concentration of 0.0004 per cent in the earth’s crust. It can be found in trace amounts in food, especially vegetables, cereal and table salt. The normal levels of excretion of uranium are in the range of 0.04-0.05 micrograms per litre of urine. One microgram equals one millionth of a gram.

If the number of calls received at The Centre for the Support of Injured and Retired Members and Their Families is any indication it appears that the majority of those who want testing are getting it. Jointly staffed by the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada, the centre provides information on how to get DU testing and acts in an advocacy role for those who feel they have been treated unfairly.

“We’ve got a list currently of about 15 cases that have had some complaint about the process,” said Rick MacLellan, director of Casualty Support and Administration at the centre. “In other words they either didn’t understand it or it was going too slow for them or nobody got back to them, that kind of stuff. From an overall perspective that basically tells me we’ve missed the boat on 15 people but that’s not a major catastrophe when you consider all the people involved.”

Colonel Ken Scott is the director of medical policy for National Defence. He said that a total of 130 urine samples had been submitted by current and former members of the Canadian Forces as of mid-March of this year. As for the test results, “the total uranium in all the urine samples we have received has been completely normal.

“We were not expecting to find elevated uranium levels in the urine,”said Scott. “In fact we’ve not found any and nobody else in NATO has found any either.”

Scott is quick to point to U.S. reports from the 1997 Presidential Advisory Committee, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the Institute of Medicine and the RAND organization which found that depleted uranium is not a significant threat to humans or the environment. These are in addition to reports released in December 2000 by the Presidential Special Oversight Board and the White House which came to the same conclusion.

“There have been claims that Gulf War veterans have had levels of uranium in their urine in the parts per billion which is three orders of magnitude higher than the normal population which is parts per trillion,” said Scott.

“The author of the RAND report (Naomi Harley), in fact, says that to have a level of uranium, an elevation in uranium without imbedded shrapnel, years after the Gulf War as being claimed by some of the advocacy groups would require an inhalation exposure so intense that you would probably choke to death from all the dust.”

A group of Canadian scientists at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., claim that they have found traces of a specific isotope of uranium in 12 of 20 ill Canadian, British and American veterans they have tested. Lead researcher Patricia Horan told Maclean’s magazine “I can’t tell you how the depleted uranium got in the soldiers. But I can tell you it’s there. Period.”

James Wright, head of the department of earth sciences at Memorial, told the magazine DND has been unable to detect depleted uranium in veterans because the equipment used by the university, a $1-million mass spectrometer, is more sophisticated than the equipment being used by the labs doing the DND testing.

At press time, the research conducted at the university was scheduled to be presented to a European Union panel in early April. Whether it will do anything to settle the debate over depleted uranium is another question.

The World Health Organization isn’t taking any chances. In February it appealed for $2 million to support its investigation of the possible health effects of depleted uranium over the next six months. The funds will form part of the estimated $20 million the organization plans to spend on work in this area over the next four years to remedy what it sees as the unacceptable current state of uncertainty about the possible health consequences of exposure to depleted uranium.

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