Bob Evans / Newport News Daily Press – 2004-12-27 21:44:09
Newport News (December 15 2004) — In Great Britain, veterans of the 1991 Gulf War are signing up to take the world’s most precise test for determining exposure to depleted uranium.
The US government advertises a test for its veterans of that war too. But the test that it offers can’t detect uranium in low amounts, has a high error rate and uses equipment that’s less sensitive and accurate than the machines the British are using. US vets and soldiers who’ve had this test say they’ve been told they weren’t exposed when, in fact, the tests were simply incapable of detecting whether depleted uranium was present.
Members of Congress have asked the Pentagon to look into testing programs in other countries. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff promised to do that in April. But after that promise was made, the officer in charge of US testing said he had no reason to gather such data because his test was good enough.
“Our labs would easily detect depleted uranium levels approaching US peacetime safety standards,” says Lt. Col. Mark Melanson, who runs the health physics program at the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine. One of those labs handles all depleted uranium testing for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Randall Parrish, a scientist who played a big role in developing the British test, says he can’t understand why the United States is satisfied with an inferior test. “It is incorrect to assume that a low concentration of uranium in urine means there is no contamination,” he says, because there’s no good data to support that conclusion.
The US government’s refusal to adopt a state-of-the art test also prevents researchers from finding out why tens of thousands of veterans of the Gulf War have debilitating illnesses, says Mohamad B. Abou-Donia, a researcher at Duke University.
Abou-Donia has conducted many significant experiments into the causes of illnesses suffered by Gulf War vets. He also recently published a study that reviewed available scientific work on the health effects of depleted uranium.
Knowing which veterans were definitely exposed to depleted uranium — not just those who might have been exposed to huge doses — would fill a huge gap in the research, he says. But until a better test is adopted and used on a larger number of vets, that data isn’t available, he says.
So there’s no certainty about who was exposed and who was not. Until scientists can reliably determine who was exposed and who was not, they can’t prove or disprove links between depleted uranium and individual veterans’ health problems, Abou-Donia says.
Veterans and scientists have questioned for several years whether the use of depleted uranium weapons in the Gulf War is one of the reasons that so many veterans of that war came home weak and full of pain.
The weapons provided a decisive edge in tank warfare in the 1991 and 2003 battles in the Persian Gulf region. They also left behind millions and millions of pieces of easily inhalable black dust that’s toxic and mildly radioactive. The dust is a necessary result of using the weapons to hit and destroy hard targets.
In recent years, researchers have shown that laboratory animals that inhaled depleted uranium dust developed cancerous tumors. They’ve also found that a single particle of depleted uranium can alter the genetic structure of nearby cells in ways consistent with widely held scientific beliefs about the way cancer starts in the human body. And they’ve found evidence that once depleted uranium gets in the body, it migrates through the bloodstream to the brain, testicles, lungs, kidneys and bones, where it can reside for years.
But all that research constitutes preliminary steps toward figuring out how big a problem the dust from depleted uranium weapons might be, researchers say. Meanwhile, the military plans to significantly reduce its investigations into possible health effects resulting from depleted uranium, as well as other possible causes of Gulf War-related illnesses.
In Britain, Complaints Received a Response
The government’s attitude toward critics of the weapon isn’t much different in Britain. British and US troops are among the few who actually used depleted uranium weapons in battles. A large number of British vets have also been complaining about health problems similar to those experienced by US armed forces from that war.
Parrish says his government paid to develop the more accurate tests for veterans in part because of political pressure and in part because of medical experts’ suspicions that existing tests yielded inconclusive and inadequate evidence of exposure.
Those tests were being used to dismiss the veterans’ benefits claims. Some British veterans went to independent labs and received results that proved depleted uranium was in their urine. Analysis of 24 hours’ worth of urine is the commonly accepted method of determining whether someone has been exposed to uranium of any kind.
The British veterans’ pleas for a better depleted uranium test also got support from the British Royal Society, an invitation-only group of prominent scientists. The Royal Society carries clout in Britain: It dates to 1660, and its members are readily acknowledged as among the best scientific minds in the country. Society members decided to tackle the problem of Gulf War illnesses independent of the government, and after several years, they issued a series of findings.
While those findings didn’t contradict the government’s official viewpoint in many ways, the society did call for a testing program that could more accurately detect whether someone had depleted uranium in their body. That, coupled with activism by veterans groups, left the government little political choice. It took about two years to develop the highly accurate tests, says Parrish, a professor of isotope geology at the University of Leicester.
In addition to his teaching, he runs a laboratory at the British Geological Survey supported by Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council. The council is independent of the government and is similar to the National Science Foundation in the United States, Parrish says.
Parrish and David Coggon, a scientist and chairman of the board that runs the testing program, say there are only four labs (three in England, the other in Germany) that have adopted the more rigorous testing regimen so far.
Part of the difficulty of testing for depleted uranium in someone’s body is that you can’t cut up a person and look for the uranium like you would if it were in a rock, soil sample or lab rat. That’s why scientists look for it in urine. While not a perfect source, it’s the best available right now, Parrish and others say. Even the US military agrees.
Finding depleted uranium in the body gets complicated. Natural uranium is in everyone’s body because it’s in the food and water we ingest. Therefore, there’s natural uranium in everyone’s urine. It’s difficult to accurately identify the depleted uranium as opposed to the natural uranium, in part because the amounts of both are so small.
Once obtained, the uranium in a 24-hour urine sample is typically measured in nanograms. A nanogram is one-billionth of a gram or one billion times lighter than a dollar bill. If a total of 1 nanogram of natural and depleted uranium are involved, the quantities of each are even lower. It takes extremely sophisticated machines to help find and identify the microscopic bits of depleted uranium.
The British and US governments have been giving veterans and soldiers urine tests for depleted uranium for years. But unless the soldiers had relatively large quantities of uranium in their bodies, the tests couldn’t detect depleted uranium apart from natural uranium without a high margin of error, Parrish and other scientists say.
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