Danger Dismissed: How the Pentagon downplays
the risks of depleted uranium weapons
'Silver Bullet,' Black Dust
by Bob Evans
December 12, 2004
Chapter 1: Looking for a cause, looking for a cure.
Many vets suspect the magic weapon of the 1991 Persian Gulf War caused their continuing health problems. The Pentagon dismisses the dangers. For Matt Rohman, the symptoms began about the time that his unit returned to its barracks in Germany after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
First came a fatigue that sleep couldn't cure. Then severe pains in his joints. His teeth started falling out; his hands and feet went numb. Asthma grabbed his lungs. Debilitating migraine headaches squeezed his skull for days at a stretch. Sleeplessness and other symptoms followed.
Now every day for Rohman, 40, begins the same: waking up in his York County home and trying to figure out how many of the pills and inhalers from the Veterans Affairs hospital he'll have to use.
He wants to swallow just enough to keep his lungs working and the pain at tolerable levels. He's willing to ignore some of his problems to keep some of the drugs in their bottles. That way, his wife, 22-month-old son, 11-year-old daughter and what's left of his life don't disappear into a medicinal fog.
At best, he'll spend the day with no feeling in his feet or hands, watching his kids play, pretty much stuck to a chair or the couch. You could stub out a lit cigarette on any of his fingers or toes, and he wouldn't feel it because of the neuropathy - a nerve disorder that leaves him unable to feel anything. On a good day, he's able to hobble across the room or maybe go out with his family for an hour or two.
The bad days bring pain in his head too intense for him to be much help to his family or himself. Those days can also mean swelling in his extremities so severe, the tips of his toes and fingers look like toadstools and he can't walk at all.
After years of testing and examinations, doctors from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have concluded that something happened to Rohman's brain or central nervous system during the war. The neurological and other symptoms make that clear.
Repeated tests, including brain and body scans, show that his brain is swollen. But there's no evidence of a physical injury or cause, those doctors' reports say, leaving them stumped about why he's so debilitated.
The neurological and other symptoms that Rohman suffers are mirrored in tens of thousands of others who served in the war. When Rohman filed his final plea for VA benefits related to wartime service, the document noted that Rohman had 11 of the 13 officially recognized symptoms consistent with Gulf War service-related illness. One of the 13 applied only to women.
The government lists 20 active theories of what caused these problems.
But it provides no answers.
It doesn't even know how many veterans have these problems or where they live. All that's known is that of the 697,000 who deployed in the war, more than 183,000 had service-related disabilities at the end of 2003, with thousands more applications pending. That's 26 percent of the total, three to five times higher than the rate of disability after World War II (9 percent), the Korean War (5 percent) and the Vietnam War (9 percent) for a comparable period.
All from a war that lasted 100 hours, while the others went on for years.
Perhaps it was the highly potent bug repellent that the military used to keep away the sand fleas and other pests in the deserts of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Perhaps it was the experimental pills that troops were ordered to take to ward off the effects of disease and chemical weapons.
Perhaps it was the residue of their own government's most effective weapon for defeating enemy armor - the tank-killing projectiles made from depleted uranium.
In the past few years, while the media and public have been paying attention to another war in the region, doctors and researchers have been finding out more about depleted uranium and how it might be responsible for some of the problems suffered by veterans of the Gulf War. Some of this research hasn't been made public yet, while other findings made ripples only among doctors and professors still in the hunt for a cause and a cure.
There's now physical evidence that depleted uranium, once in the body, migrates to the brain, lungs, bones and testicles of rats and mice. Researchers have found that even a single particle placed in contact with human bone cells can set off a chain reaction of cell and chromosomal abnormalities of the type thought to cause cancer.
They've also found that rats with depleted uranium in their bodies develop tumors and cellular mutations consistent with cancer. And that mice who breathe in tiny bits of the metal - just like the soldiers on the battlefield - get genetic mutations thought to be indicative of cancer.
PENTAGON UNWILLING TO FUND NEW RESEARCH INTO ILLNESS
Despite their efforts, these researchers haven't been able to show why brain scans on Gulf War vets show abnormalities that don't appear in scans of other servicemen and women who didn't go to the war. They just know that it's further proof that there's a real problem among those vets.
They also can't say why men and women who deployed in the Gulf War are twice as likely as others their age to get a fatal neurological disorder known as ALS - Lou Gehrig's disease.
The questions demand answers. To get them, more money and scientific patience is needed, these scientists say.
But the main source of that money for the past 13 years - the Pentagon - says it isn't interested in pursuing new research into the health problems of its former soldiers. Especially when it comes to studying the health effects of using depleted uranium on the battlefield, a use that gives the United States and its allies a lopsided advantage in ground wars.
Pentagon officials have long dismissed the possibility that any of the veterans' problems are the result of the radioactive toxic dust that results when depleted uranium weapons hit hard targets. This fall, they released a $6 million study that they labeled "Capstone" - a title picked because they say it should close the book on whether inhaling depleted uranium on the battlefield is a health risk worth considering.
A number of scientists say it's too soon to stop investigating the possible dangers of these weapons, especially when there have been so few experiments that show what happens when animals or humans inhale the special type of dust created when depleted uranium weapons hit their targets.
None of the recent research that points to possible problems with the weapons was included or addressed in Capstone, not even the work performed by government scientists or researchers financed by the Army and Department of Defense. The Army officer who oversaw the study says that's because there was a conscious effort to base the work on "mainstream science," instead of "preliminary data."
Critics say that's the government's way of simply ignoring the emerging and potentially damning evidence on the subject. With the building body of data, they say, this is no time to label something the final word on depleted uranium's dangers.
The skeptics include a panel of scientists, doctors and veterans appointed by the Bush administration to study the nature and status of research into the cause of the veterans' illnesses. The panel issued its first report last month and said more research into possible health effects from depleted uranium was needed.
"We're not finished," says Lea Steele, the panel's scientific director.
The committee's report says poorly planned and administered research programs are partly to blame for having so little to show for the $247 million spent on research into Gulf War illnesses so far. It points no fingers, but it does note that 74 percent of that money has been controlled by the Pentagon and that most of it has gone to support the now-discounted idea that stress and psychological problems account for the physical symptoms that vets suffer.
Steve Smithson is a member of the panel and the assistant director of the American Legion's Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division. He says the Pentagon has been trying to prematurely end the debate about possible health hazards from depleted uranium for years.
"These are very effective weapons," he says, "and they want to keep them."
WEAPONS' POTENTIAL DANGERS WERE KNOWN FOR DECADES
Depleted uranium was used in combat for the first time in the Gulf War. The weapons proved so effective, troops began calling them "The Silver Bullet," in honor of their near-magical ability to kill the enemy.
The weapons enable U.S. tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles to fire accurately and decisively from much greater distances than other anti-tank weapons used in ground combat. That means U.S. troops can kill the enemy before the enemy can fight back.
Last year, when Operation Iraqi Freedom began, the weapons' effectiveness played a big role. It was a reason commanders said they could whip Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein with a smaller, lighter - but more mobile - force than they used in the 1991 Gulf War.
Before that, many people thought that depleted uranium wasn't much more than low-level nuclear garbage.
Depleted uranium is the byproduct of making "enriched uranium" for nuclear weapons and fuel. The process involves stripping natural uranium of its most radioactive components for use in bombs and power plants. What's left is "depleted" uranium.
In the early days of making nuclear weapons, this byproduct was considered a problematic waste. But almost immediately, weapons researchers began trying to make something with it. It took more than 20 years, but by the late 1970s, they'd succeeded. The Army, Navy and Air Force each had a weapon using the material.
But they had to wait to see their creation anywhere except a test range. The first war that involved U.S. forces using tanks against hostile forces who also had tanks was the Persian Gulf War.
One of the weapons' special properties creates what all acknowledge is the downside of these weapons.
When those weapons strike something hard, they slice through the target, getting sharp where other metals get dull. They get sharper by shedding millions and millions of tiny bits of flaming depleted uranium, spitting out the bits like shavings from a pencil in a high-speed sharpener.
Once cool, those bits become mildly radioactive toxic black dust particles, most of them small enough to inhale deep into the lungs. The Capstone study says those toxic particles will likely remain in the lungs for years.
U.S. researchers have known that the weapons' use created a long-lived radiological risk to the lungs since at least the early 1980s. They've also known that these tiny bits of black dust pose a potentially catastrophic health hazard for troops on a battlefield.
None of that was revealed publicly when the weapons were put to use. It wasn't until the mid-1990s that the government officially and publicly acknowledged that troops in the Gulf War had been exposed to this hazard and should have been warned and trained about the dangers beforehand.
By then, thousands and thousands of troops had started suffering the debilitating pains, neurological problems and other symptoms.
Rohman was one of them.
'WE ACTUALLY SLEPT UNDENEATH DESTROYED TANKS ...'
For three months after the fighting stopped, Rohman and his buddies in a 3rd Armored Division combat engineer squadron were ordered to crawl around in the black dust left over from successful shots of depleted uranium.
He was ordered to live and breathe in it while finishing the job of destroying damaged Iraqi tanks and munitions, to make sure that the enemy's equipment couldn't be used again.
"We actually slept underneath destroyed tanks and stuff because we figured they wouldn't fire at their own destroyed vehicles," Rohman says.
For months, the black dust covered many of those vehicles, rubbing off on Rohman's clothing, getting on his skin and often into his food and water.
Hundreds of other soldiers were ordered to do the same work, while thousands of others might have come in contact with the dust through curiosity or happenstance.
Neither Rohman nor the military can say how many of them got sick like he did. Rohman says none of the other soldiers from his unit came from nearby towns or cities, so he lost touch with them while focusing on his own deteriorating health. Researchers say the military didn't keep, or pursue, the kind of information that would help them make such determinations. They also say one of the biggest obstacles to solving the riddle of the illnesses is that people who appear to have the same experiences reacted differently - some getting ill and others staying well.
Many soldiers didn't pay the black dust any notice during the war because the military had never told them about the dangers.
"We didn't know any different," Rohman says.
The Pentagon acknowledged seven years after the war was over that it should have provided training that advised troops to avoid contact with the dust or to use safety masks and suits in the situations that Rohman described.
Instructions on depleted uranium weren't added to the Army's regular training program until the late 1990s. Since then, the requirements for telling troops about depleted uranium have been gradually relaxed for troops who don't fire or handle the weapons.
The Army has a long list of medical and training requirements that must be met before a soldier is supposed to be sent off to war. The checklist for Transportation Corps soldiers deploying from Fort Eustis to Iraq is long. But for the past two years, it hasn't included a requirement that soldiers in transportation units receive depleted uranium hazard training, even though the Army's own radiological experts said in 1997 that they should.
Military and medical officials say it's too early to tell what the effect will be on troops involved in the continuing fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Department of Defense policy - spurred by members of Congress critical of the way that the military handled health complaints after the Gulf War - requires all soldiers, sailors and airmen who come home from overseas wars to fill out a multipage questionnaire about their health and what they experienced.
The only specific mention of depleted uranium exposure on the questionnaire involves one item near the end of a list of 22 possible exposure risks. The list includes such mundane items as "paints," "sand/dust" and "vehicle or truck exhaust fumes." Some soldiers returning from Iraq say that because they were never given instruction on the possible hazards, they didn't know what to choose when given the options of "No," "Sometimes" or "Often" on this question.
Army, Air Force and Navy officials say anyone who checks "Sometimes" or "Often" is questioned further and tested, if necessary. They also say any man or woman in the military who deployed and asks for a test for depleted uranium will be given the test, no further questions asked. Department of Veterans Affairs officials say the same applies to those who served in the Persian Gulf War.
PROMISE TO PERFORM TESTS NOT FULFILLED FOR VETERANS
Yet, Rohman's medical records show that he made VA officials aware of his exposure to depleted uranium six years ago. He's sure that he told them earlier, but many of his records have been lost, and the earliest date that he can document is 1998.
When the Daily Press called the VA administrator responsible for the local testing program to find out why this problem persisted, she immediately agreed that a mistake had been made and took steps to bring Rohman in for evaluation. He still hasn't been tested.
It isn't clear whether things have gotten any better for veterans of the more recent fighting in Iraq.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, checked in the past year the health forms filled out by more than 1,000 troops who'd returned from the Gulf War. It found that very few of those who'd chosen "Sometimes" or "Often" got tested, said Dan Fahey, a congressional adviser who participated in a briefing on the study.
Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a veterans advocacy group, says he's talked to dozens of soldiers just back from the current war who told him that doctors can't diagnose their ills but have refused to test them for depleted uranium exposure.
The soldiers even showed him medical records and other paperwork to prove it, he says. They won't go public for fear retaliation from the military.
Robinson and Smithson say they won't be surprised if there are thousands of veterans with undiagnosed, unexplained illnesses once the totals are in from Operation Iraqi Freedom and its aftermath. Rohman says he won't be surprised, either. He wonders whether this new generation of warriors will succumb to the same undetected poisons that he believes hit him. His brothers still wear military uniforms and could be called to combat tomorrow - one a Marine the other in the Army.
PENTAGON: WE'RE CONVINCED OUR METHOD IS ACCURATE
The Pentagon will say only that as of October, 20,000 troops had been evacuated from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for noncombat-related illnesses and injuries and that, on average, about 5,800 troops are on "medical hold" each day because military doctors haven't finished diagnosing or treating them. Only five people have tested positive for depleted uranium from the most recent war - all victims of friendly fire who had depleted uranium shrapnel in their bodies, the Pentagon says.
Getting tests for depleted uranium exposure from the U.S. military and VA might be a waste of time, anyway, say Robinson and experts who have developed those tests for other countries. "Even the test they offer is a less-than-respected test," Robinson says.
Scientists overseas have spent years creating a more accurate method of detecting whether there are even tiny amounts of depleted uranium in the human body.
They say the U.S. government relies on testing procedures and equipment that have a high margin of error and are capable of discerning the presence of depleted uranium only in limited circumstances. They say it's not much of a test if you really want to find radioactive and toxic dust in particles small enough to the inhaled.
The British government officially takes the same stance as the United State on the dangers of depleted uranium, but it's financed a much more exacting test capable of finding out whether someone has even small quantities of depleted uranium in their system. It doesn't settle whether the depleted uranium is harmful, but it can identify the veterans' who definitely have it in their bodies.
That would be an important step forward, several researchers say.
British veterans of the Persian Gulf War began signing up for the tests in late September.
Rohman would like to take it, but the U.S. military says it has no need to use it or even find out how it works.
"We're convinced that our method is sufficiently sensitive and accurate enough," said Lt. Col. Mark Melanson, manager of the health physics program at the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, the Army's public health agency.
'OUR HUMAN RESEARCH ... HAS A LOT OF SEVERE LIMITATIONS'
He says the government labs used to identify soldiers with depleted uranium in their bodies can detect the substance as long as there are at least 3 to 5 nanograms of uranium per liter in a day's worth of urine.
The British test also involves a 24-hour urine sample. But it can accurately detect depleted uranium when only 0.1 nanogram of uranium per liter is present, making it capable of detecting amounts 30 times smaller or more.
The British also say their degree of uncertainty at these lower levels is less than 1 percent, a much smaller margin of error than the U.S. tests.
Melanson and other U.S. officials say anything below 3 nanograms of uranium in such a sample is clearly inconsequential. They cite studies of the known, respected science involving the health effects of uranium, specifically studies by the U.S. Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization.
But the co-author of the Institute of Medicine study, as well as an epidemiologist who was asked to review it to make sure it was scientifically sound, say that wouldn't be an accurate reading of the work at all.
Establishing a lower limwit for inhalation of depleted uranium hasn't happened, they say, because too little is known about how the substance reacts with tissues in various parts of the body.
"We have no idea," said Carolyn Fulco, the co-author of the Institute of Medicine study.
Beate Ritz, an epidemiologist and expert on cancer at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees: "Our human research, as valuable as it is, has a lot of severe limitations."
Ritz, one of the scientists and health experts whom the institute asked to review its work to ensure accuracy, says it might take decades of following Gulf War veterans to have even a hazy picture when it comes to cancer.
Fulco and others note that the Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization said explicitly that the data on depleted uranium's health effects were limited and that more research needed to be done.
Still, Melanson thinks that the 50 years of research considered by the studies is enough to show that low levels of uranium or depleted uranium in a human's blood, lungs and other body tissue isn't a problem.
Most of that research involved uranium millers, miners and processors.
It fed the government health standards that the Pentagon used in the Capstone study to establish that inhaling or breathing the dust from the weapons shouldn't be considered a significant health risk on the battlefield. Alexandra Miller, a radiobiologist at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, says using that research to dismiss the possible health effects of depleted uranium weapons is a mistake.
There are many studies of uranium miners' health that indicate problems, she says. In addition, she says, the studies of miners and millers are, in many ways, irrelevant to the experiences of soldiers on the battlefield.
When it comes to depleted uranium, she says, there simply hasn't been enough research on animals to know what happens when rats or humans inhale the dust from these weapons.
The amount of depleted uranium dust that can be inhaled without harm simply isn't known yet, she says.
"We don't really know," she said. "Not even for a rat."
Return To Cutting Edge Home Page