There is no strong research linking exposure to depleted uranium to health problems of veterans, yet those problems are real and deserve further research, concludes a report from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Several veterans who believe their health conditions are linked to exposure to depleted uranium took their protests public, sparking former Veterans Affairs minister Steven Blaney to commission a scientific advisory committee to study the issue. That report, delivered in January, concluded depleted uranium is potentially harmful, but “it is not associated with a large or frequent health effect.”
Although incomplete military records make it impossible to tell where and when individuals were deployed, and there is no way currently to accurately measure soldiers’ exposure, the advisory committee concluded it is unlikely Canadian soldiers have been exposed to harmful levels of depleted uranium (DU).
That left veterans hanging. To qualify for benefits from Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), veterans must provide a diagnosis and proof of a link between military service and their illness or injury.
Depleted uranium is used as tank armour and tank-piercing ammunition. It becomes hazardous when it burns, creating dust that can be breathed in by troops exposed to burning vehicles, salvaging damaged vehicles or in clean-up operations.
The Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs (ACVA) conducted its own study, examining peer-reviewed and less rigorous scientific studies and hearing evidence from expert witnesses and veterans. Opposing positions emerged. Expert witnesses agreed with the scientific advisory committee’s conclusions, while veterans were critical, citing omissions and questioning the advisory committee’s impartiality.
Retired naval lieutenant Louise Richard served as a nurse in the Gulf War in 1991, where depleted uranium ammunition was used, and personnel were also exposed to various inoculations, medications to protect against nerve gas exposure, pesticides, toxic smoke from burning oil wells as well as patients with communicable diseases.
Sick personnel left the services “undiagnosed, misdiagnosed…untreated,” she said. “Our symptoms, illnesses and concerns have been minimized, belittled, ignored.” Medical documentation to support benefit claims is often missing. Record keeping in a war zone is not always easy.
ACVA, made up of a dozen members of Parliament and chaired by Nova Scotian Greg Kerr, concluded that at present there is no clear scientific evidence linking exposure to depleted uranium to adverse health effects. However, the report, titled Depleted Uranium and Canadian Veterans, acknowledges that still leaves sick veterans waiting for answers. These veterans “would benefit more from research conducted…away from depleted uranium.” It recommends the federal government support research focusing on treatment of illnesses that have complex or poorly understood causes, but that can “in all likelihood” be attributed to military services.
The report recommends VAC seek scientific advice on links between military service and veterans’ health problems from independent organizations such as the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research. It also notes VAC needs to clarify its process for using scientific evidence to establish or disprove a connection between military service and medical conditions.
“Public policy needs to be supported by credible research,” said Andrea Siew, director of The Royal Canadian Legion’s Dominion Command Service Bureau in Ottawa. However, she added, “the government has been slow to accept credible research,” citing the Institute of Medicine’s research on ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.)
“It is time research moved on to finding links between military service and such health problems as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and cancers,” she said.
ACVA recommends VAC consider introducing a “flexible mechanism” to assess links between military service and medical conditions with complex causes that are difficult to identify or poorly understood. “Veterans who might have suspected that their health problems were related to depleted uranium exposure still cannot find a satisfactory explanation for the cause of their health problems,” the report says.
Confrontations over access to benefits “do no justice to the sacrifice made by veterans or to Canadians’ desire to treat veterans with the respect they deserve,” the report goes on. “Every effort should be made to ensure that challenging a decision concerning access to medical services or financial benefits does not become an ordeal for veterans and their family members.”
A government reply to the report is expected this fall.