Depleted Uranium: The Rest of the Story
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2000 There's more to the story on depleted uranium than what people saw on the CBS news program "60 Minutes," says Bernard D. Rostker, head of DoD's office on Gulf War Illnesses.
The U.S. armed forces first used depleted uranium munitions and armor in combat during the Gulf War. A "60 Minutes" broadcast, aired Dec. 26, 1999, focused on the military's failure to train service members on the substance commonly known as 'DU.'
The U.S. military uses depleted uranium in armor-piercing tank rounds and as armor because of its extreme hardness. Depleted uranium is about 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium.
During a recent interview with American Forces Information Service, Rostker acknowledged that this failure resulted in some service members receiving excess exposure. He pointed out, however, that "60 Minutes" did not focus on whether or not those exposures have proven to be harmful.
Rostker, who is also under secretary of the Army, met with the "60 Minutes" crew for three-quarters of an hour, but only appeared on the air for 45 seconds. He said the finished segment only briefly mentioned an important fact about Department of Veterans Affairs research into DU. After years of monitoring service members exposed to DU, the VA has determined DU has had no health impact on these service members.
"Yes, we didn't do what we should have, but ["60 Minutes"] chose to gloss over the fact that the lack of training did not result in any medically significant consequences for any of the people that were exposed," Rostker said. "We are concerned about our service members' health and there is nothing that we have been able to discover that would indicate that this is related to any unexplained illnesses."
Most service members did not receive DU training during the Gulf War, Rostker said. He said he believes this was because "the danger of being exposed was known to be so trivial -- nonexistent."
"We had an obligation to do the training," he said. "We told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in our licensing that we would provide this training. It's something we should have done, and we didn't follow through."
Rostker said his office has worked to improve DU training. "We're pressing each of the services to train people who might be exposed to depleted uranium," he said. The Army has made DU training one of the common soldier tasks for new recruits during basic training.
In the past, Rostker said, DU training tended to scare people by showing people in Mission Oriented Protection Posture (MOPP) gear. Gas masks and MOPP suits are no longer considered necessary, he noted. Current training calls for wearing a dust mask and gloves, prudent safeguards required by the NRC.
"You want to prevent inhalations from the small particles, and prevent accumulation on the skin," he said. "But even if there was inhalation and there was accumulation, the body throws off the uranium in very short order. One would not expect to see any either short-term or long-term impact and that's what has occurred here."
Defense officials also warn service members to stay away from wrecked vehicles to avoid all toxic agents. "It turns out you'll get a larger dose of radiation from the radium on the instrument dials in Russian-made tanks," Rostker said. "They're actually putting out more radiation than any of the depleted uranium that might have struck the vehicle."
While some have charged that DU has contaminated the Middle East, Rostker said, there is no lingering danger in the Gulf from the substance. Environmental teams have tested soil samples in the region and found no call for further clean up. Service members deployed there have absolutely nothing to fear, he said.
"Even under the most stringent requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency, all of the samples environmental officials have taken and analyzed were either at background or well below any level that would require cleanup."
Defense and VA officials continue tracking three categories of people exposed to DU during the Gulf War, Rostker explained. Level One are those involved in friendly fire incidents. Level Two are those who worked in and around depleted uranium. Level Three includes anyone else who may have had casual contact.
Officials have monitored 33 out of 107 people categorized as Level One for about the past five years. "Those were the 33 that were most exposed to depleted uranium," Rostker said. "Sixteen of those still have depleted uranium fragments in their bodies in ways that can't be surgically removed without destroying underlying muscle."
The first of two studies of this group was published recently in a peer-reviewed medical journal. It concluded there were no observed health effects that could be attributed to DU exposure, Rostker said. "That doesn't mean these veterans aren't suffering. They're suffering from the wounds of the burns associated with being hit by a round in a vehicle.
"There were some elevated uranium counts in those who still have fragments, as one would expect," he said, "but no radiological impact that could be noted and no impact on the kidneys which is the organ where one would expect to see damage if there was to be damage," Rostker said.
Rostker said the second report, due to be published soon, covers the last three years and comes to exactly the same conclusion. There's no indication to date that there is any impact on those most heavily exposed during combat, he said.
Defense officials have been proactive in their efforts to seek out Level Two people exposed during clean-up operations, Rostker said.
"We've sent out literally hundreds of letters requesting that people in the units involved contact the VA and get the test kits they need to collect their urine for 24 hours and bring it to a military treatment facility or veterans hospital," he said. "The VA still owes us a report on that, but it's our understanding that there's been no excess accumulation of uranium and we don't see it in their kidneys, in their urine, etc."
VA officials intend to continue monitoring those exposed to DU and propose to expand their studies. "We want to know the maximum we can about this substance."
Any veteran who believes he or she was exposed to DU and wants to be tested can call 1-800-472-6719 or go to the Internet at www.gulflink.osd.mil for more information.
DU is now part of America's arsenal and it's here to stay, Rostker said, because it gives U.S. forces an important advantage both offensively and defensively.
"Defensively it constitutes a substance that we use in protecting our tanks. During the Gulf War, no Iraqi shell penetrated a tank that was protected by DU armor," he said. "It stops it cold.
"Offensively, let me just say, the troops called it the magic bullet. It allowed them to engage at ranges up to 3000 meters. It flies true. It's a one-shot kill. I've seen what a depleted uranium round can do to a (Russian) T-72 tank. It went in and it came out the other side. It is devastating."
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen recently nominated Rostker to be the next under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. If confirmed, he will retain his position as Cohen's special assistant for Gulf War Illnesses.