Dismissive comments challenged by doctor
September 19, 1998
By Rod Hafemeister
Belleville News-Democrat

ARLINGTON, Va. — The doctor heading a study of veterans hit with depleted uranium ammunition disagreed on Friday with statements by the Pentagon’s chief Gulf War investigator that the exposures were not medically significant.

“We’re finding things that directly correlate to the amount of uranium in the urine, things that I believe are caused by the uranium,” said Dr. Melissa McDiarmid.

McDiarmid heads a team at the Baltimore Veterans Hospital that since 1993 has been following 33 veterans who were exposed to depleted uranium (DU) ammunition in friendly fire incidents during the 1991 Gulf War.

She explained the team’s latest findings at an annual Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses Conference being held in Arlington, Va. The findings contradict statements by Bernard Rostker, the Pentagon’s special assistant for Gulf War illnesses.

In March, Rostker told an American Legion conference that “actual exposure to depleted uranium is not medically significant” and “has not produced any medically detectable effects.”

Rostker’s office repeated the statement in a special report released in August and Rostker made a similar claim in a Sept. 8 speech to the American Legion’s national conference.

Critics accuse Rostker of playing down the dangers of DU to protect an incredibly effective weapon. But McDiarmid said she thinks it’s a misunderstanding of the findings.

“I think it’s very difficult to collapse everything it just took me an hour to say into one or two sound bites,” McDiarmid said. “And it’s also extremely difficult when that’s done by PR people instead of physicians.

“I would say some of the misunderstanding that’s taken place between our program and Dr. Rostker’s can be laid at the feet of people trying to take two lines to say what it took me an hour to say.”

Rostker is not a medical doctor. He has a doctorate in economics.

McDiarmid said the Pentagon seems to be focusing on the fact that none of the exposed vets have suffered kidney damage, which is believed to be the first effect of heavy metal poisoning by DU.

But the team is finding other subtle changes in some of the veterans, and it is not clear what the long-term effects may be, she said.

Those veterans who were exposed to only DU dust now have uranium levels in their urine that are almost as low as members of a control group who were not exposed.

But a number of the veterans still have DU fragments in their bodies and are showing elevated levels of uranium in their urine. The fragments act as a depot of heavy metal, which gradually oxidizes and is released into the body, McDiarmid said.

Those with higher levels are showing correspondingly higher levels of a hormone that regulates sexual functions and lower scores on one type of problem-solving test.

“The differences that we saw were still within the band of what’s normal,” McDiarmid said. “But they are trending toward the high end of that band.”

That makes it difficult to tell the veterans what’s in their future, she said.

“We walk the tightrope of trying to be extremely clear, especially with the folks in our group, about what our findings are and, at the same time, to say, ‘Here are my concerns as a clinician. I don’t know what to think.’”

Depleted uranium, a byproduct of the nuclear industry, has less radioactive material than natural uranium. Because it is heavier than lead and ignites on impact, it is one of the few materials that can defeat modern tank armor.

Originally Published, September 19, 1998 , Belleville News Democrat, Belleville, Illinois
(c) 1999, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.


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