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DoD Report: No Link Between Depleted Uranium, Illnesses

By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 20, 2001 – DoD deployment health officials have released an information paper that states no country that sent troops to the Balkans has found a health threat related to depleted uranium.

Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the process by which natural uranium is enriched to produce reactor fuel and nuclear weapons, according to the paper. DU's extremely heavy and dense nature has made it a valuable component in U.S. armor and weapons for many years, it says.

In early 2001, international media reported an alleged link between depleted uranium use in the Balkans and leukemia in Italian troops who served there. U.S. officials have repeatedly said there is no danger from exposure to depleted uranium under the conditions faced in the Balkans.

The new DoD paper, released Nov. 6, recaps studies done by European countries and international organizations that basically substantiate what the United States has been saying for years -- there's no danger. The organizations behind the cited studies are credible and independent of DoD, the paper states.

The DoD report explains that at least 13 countries and several international organizations have sent survey teams to the Balkans to collect and analyze soil, air, water, vegetation, and food samples. Many countries that have sent peacekeeping troops to the region have also begun medical monitoring of these forces.

"These surveys consistently report no widespread DU contamination and no current impact on the health of the general population or deployed personnel," the DoD paper states.

Uranium is a naturally occurring substance. Very small amounts can be found in everyone, so testing for exposure to depleted uranium can be tricky, DoD experts explained. The most common method of testing for DU exposure is urine testing.

"We all excrete uranium every day," Jeff Prather said. "It's in the water. It's in our food, particularly in root vegetables." Prather is a member of the team studying possible effects of DU exposure for the Office of the Special Assistant to the Undersecretary of Defense for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness, and Military Deployments.

Depleted uranium isn't any more dangerous than natural uranium, Prather explained. And DU is 40 percent less radioactive, so it poses less of a radiological threat, he added.

Urine testing is a useful tool for assessing whether someone has received a significant uranium exposure, but since everyone has some uranium in their urine, low exposures to depleted uranium are hard to confirm, the experts explained. Depleted uranium exposures that produce urine uranium levels at about the same amount as normal would not cause concern, they explained.

Prather explained there are three ways depleted uranium can enter the body: by ingestion, by inhalation of dust particles in the air, or by DU shrapnel wounds. Uranium doesn't generally contaminate a person through fragments embedded in the body, he said. Ingested amounts of depleted uranium generally pass quickly through the body and aren't retained, he said.

Inhaled dust is the only real health concern because the body may retain particles for a long time, said Pat Williams, head of the DU team in the DoD deployment health office. "However," Williams explained, "it is essentially impossible to inhale enough DU to do any serious harm."

The DoD report provides information on health testing being done by many European countries on their service members who served in the Balkans. For instance, all Belgian service members returning from the Balkans take a urine uranium test. By December 2000, the Belgian Medical Service had conducted 3,580 urine uranium samples. None exceeded normal levels of uranium for the Belgian population, the report states.

Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia and Spain have all conducted tests on varying numbers of troops and none has been found to have an elevated level of uranium, the report states. It contains a chart that breaks down exactly what type of testing each country performed, how many troops were tested, and the results.

In addition, Italy now reports that the number of soldiers who've developed leukemia is actually only about half the number that would be expected to be diagnosed with the disease based on the country's average leukemia rate. The DoD information paper quotes a March 2001 Italian study that states: "There is nothing to lead to the conclusion that Italian troops were significantly exposed to DU."

The information paper also addresses environmental contamination with DU in the Balkans. It quotes a March 2001 U.N. report stating that its environmental researchers had "found no depleted uranium contamination of the water, milk or buildings in Kosovo."

The complete DoD report, including links to the original European studies cited, is on the Internet at www.deploymentlink.osd.mil/du_balkans/.

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