DoD Finds No 'Plausible Link' Between DU, Illness
By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 17, 2001 Fifty years worth of studies and experience has convinced DoD officials there is minimal risk in using depleted uranium in munitions, a senior defense official said.
A 1999 RAND review of literature on depleted uranium and the more radioactive natural uranium failed to find a "plausible link" between exposure to these substances and illness, said Bernard Rostker, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. He was speaking to reporters at a DoD briefing Jan. 12.
Rostker said this RAND report -- available at http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/library/randrep/du/cover.html -- has since been scrutinized by two presidential action committees and the General Accounting Office.
America's use of depleted uranium in weapons and armor has come under fire recently. Officials in several European countries suggest leukemia suffered by some of their service members who served in Kosovo may be linked to exposure to depleted uranium. U.S. aircraft used depleted uranium ammunition in certain areas during Operation Allied Force in 1999.
Rostker, who also serves as the special assistant to the deputy secretary of defense for Gulf War illnesses, medical readiness and military deployments, denied any link. He cited the RAND report and subsequent reports from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Institutes of Medicine.
"Cancers do not develop, even leukemia, in the periods of time we are talking about here," he said. "And there is no indication from 50 years of research and monitoring of people working with natural uranium ... that would associate it with leukemia."
DoD has extensively studied individuals exposed to high levels of depleted uranium in the Gulf War, and has found no increased risk of illness due to their exposure. Rostker explained that researchers are particularly studying the risk of lung cancer and kidney disease.
Lung cancer was of a particular concern because scientists thought depleted uranium fragments might lodge in the lungs and cause cancer years later. Service members may inhale dust particles of DU especially if they are around tanks hit by DU rounds.
Kidney disease is a risk with high-level exposure to any heavy metal, including uranium. Heavy metals generally collect in the kidneys. At high levels, DU can cause renal failure, Rostker said. But, he noted, exposures in the Gulf were far below the dangerous level, and exposure in Kosovo was less than that in the Gulf.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has been closely monitoring 33 Persian Gulf veterans known to have been exposed to high levels of depleted uranium "either directly in friendly fire situations, where their vehicles were hit by depleted uranium shells, or in cleaning up those vehicles and providing aid to the people who were in the vehicles when they were hit," Rostker said.
Of these 33 veterans, 16 still have depleted uranium particles embedded in their bodies and continue to have elevated uranium levels in their urine, he said. The others do not have elevated radiation counts. But none of them, he said, has developed lung cancer or kidney disease.
He also said DoD continues to monitor soil in Kuwait for contamination. "At its most contaminated level, it's at a level that the (Environmental Protection Agency) would allow us to return to general use without any cleanup," Rostker said. Even in areas where tanks destroyed by depleted uranium shells are stored, the concentration of depleted uranium in rainwater run-off is "just slightly above background," he said.
DoD continues to fire depleted uranium weapons at ranges in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. Officials study levels of the substance inside vehicles hit by DU rounds. "While we know the down-wind implications of a depleted uranium round hitting a tank and how much is thrown up, it turns out we did not have good readings for the tank compartment itself because the projectile entering the tank compartment destroyed the sensors," Rostker said.
"And so we have gone back and are in the middle of refiring those with hardened sensors so we can find out what immediate effect of the depleted uranium is within the confined cavity of a tank or in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle," he said.