ATLANTA - The federal government is treating Persian Gulf War veterans wounded by radioactive shrapnel as guinea pigs, the Army's former top researcher on depleted uranium told a gathering of Gulf War veterans this weekend.
Doug Rokke is a health physicist who until this year worked on the Army's efforts to deal with the hazards of depleted uranium, or DU.
On Saturday, he accused the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs of risking the lives of Gulf War veterans hit with DU shrapnel so the government can study what happens to them.
He compared it to the infamous Tuskegee study, in which the federal government left untreated a group of black men with syphilis. "They deliberately left shrapnel in the soldiers to determine what the long-term effects would be," Rokke said. "Even if there is some reason they can't remove the fragments surgically, there's no evidence that they're doing anything to help them medically.
"This is just like Tuskegee - it's the same thing."
Public pressure ended the Tuskegee syphilis study after it was revealed in the 1970s.
Rokke and another Gulf War veteran, Dan Fahey, discussed the dangers of DU and the ongoing research study this weekend at a national Gulf War veterans conference in Atlanta.
Depleted uranium, a waste product of nuclear reactors that is used in anti-tank ammunition, carries two types of health risks.
As a radioactive material, it can cause cell damage and cancer. Because it is less radioactive than regular uranium, it generally is considered dangerous only if inhaled or ingested.
Besides the radiation problem, DU falls into the category of heavy metal poisons such as lead and is known to damage kidneys and respiratory systems.
Until recently, Pentagon officials investigating Gulf War illnesses maintained there weren't any health risks from depleted uranium.
On Aug. 1, Bernard Rostker, the Pentagon's special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, released a letter saying the Pentagon was "not ruling out the possibility that exposure to depleted uranium may be making some of our Gulf War veterans sick."
But the letter said studies so far had "shown no evidence of adverse health effects associated with this adsorption of uranium."
A March 1993 report from the Pentagon's Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, stamped "For Official Use Only," describes the research project involving some of the 33 veterans known to have DU fragments embedded in them from friendly fire episodes, as well as vets with other types of embedded shrapnel.
The report says that one purpose of the study is to evelop treatment recommendations and a better process of deciding when to remove such fragments.
But the research consent agreement signed by the veterans, obtained
by Fahey, says nothing about removing the shrapnel and says the purpose
is to "provide early detection of the health effects related to the presence
"From what they've told me, the guys don't know what's going on," Fahey said.
Rokke displayed an Oct. 22 letter from Rostker that says 16 of the veterans with DU shrapnel "are excreting increased amounts of uranium, indicating that these metal particles are not entirely inert."
"That's bad," Rokke said.
Much of the investigation into the mysterious illnesses plaguing Gulf War veterans has focused on possible chemical exposures, including chemical weapons, pesticides and oil fires.
Although Fahey and other veterans have been talking about depleted uranium for years, the issue received new attention this summer when Rokke released hundreds of pages of documents that show depleted uranium is much more dangerous than the Department of Defense has claimed.
Since the Gulf War, at least 18 nations have developed DU ammunition and more are likely to follow, Fahey said.
Depleted uranium ammunition was developed in the 1970s. Besides being harder and heavier than conventional bullets, it also ignites spontaneously when it hits armor, burning through and spraying fiery shrapnel inside the tank.
It also sprays the inside of the vehicle and the surrounding area with depleted uranium dust.
In the 1991 Gulf War, A-10 "Warthog" attack planes used 30-millimeter DU rounds while U.S. tanks fired depleted uranium penetrators that punched through all armor, even their own special DU hulls.
Pentagon documents show that nearly 10,000 DU tank rounds and more than 780,000 Warthog rounds were fired during the Gulf War - releasing nearly 300 tons of DU into the environment.
When the shooting stopped, Rokke was selected to be on a team that recovered vehicles hit with DU rounds. "We immediately recognized that we had a problem," Rokke said. "There was DU dust everywhere."
Because no one was told to stay away from DU-contaminated vehicles,
Rokke thinks that tens of thousands of veterans might have been exposed
He knows that many of the troops assigned to help recover the vehicles have tested positive for uranium levels far exceeding the norm and that one member of his team has died of cancer.
Rokke himself was found to have uranium in his urine that is up to 280 times the normal amount and has undergone nine kidney surgeries.
The Defense Department's own documents have warned that the long-term effects of low doses of DU can lead to cancer and that the Army was not adequately prepared to deal with DU contamination during and after the Gulf War.
"No one that I've ever met was told about this problem," Fahey said. "But it's very clear that they knew there was a problem."
"It's a hazard of the modern battlefield," he said. "People need to be trained about it. We need to take care of the people who have been exposed; we need to clean up the areas that are contaminated."
Orignally Published, November 10, 1997 , Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1997, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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