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The U.S. military has yet to discover a case of an American servicemember becoming ill due to its use of depleted uranium over the past few decades, a Pentagon official says.

Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of force health protection and readiness for the Pentagon’s department of health affairs, doesn’t rule out the possibility of that happening.

But he said in a telephone interview Wednesday that a preventive education policy and the nature of the munitions themselves have resulted in no documented cases since the start of the first Gulf War.

Kilpatrick made his comments when asked about an October report in the Corriere della Serra, one of Italy’s largest daily newspapers, that highlighted an address by Italian Defense Minister Arturo Parisi before an Italian Senate commission looking into the issue.

Parisi reportedly said that 255 Italian troops had contracted tumors while serving on missions in such places as Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Balkans in the past decade. According to the report, 37 had died. It also stated that 1,427 troops who hadn’t served abroad had developed tumors during the same period.

Kilpatrick said he had read the article, but would only say that he recalled a similar issue about Italian troops and leukemia being discussed several years ago and thought that issue was no longer under discussion. He said studies conducted in the United Kingdom have found no evidence of harmful effects on troops.

Depleted uranium doesn’t pose a risk unless it’s inside the body, Kilpatrick said. That’s because it’s a heavy metal, which have been shown to mutate cells. Kidneys are especially thought be vulnerable to such substances.

But Kilpatrick said the DOD has been monitoring 70 servicemembers who were heavily exposed to depleted uranium in the Gulf War — some still carrying small fragments of the substance in their bodies — and they haven’t developed illnesses linked to the substance.

He said more than 2,000 U.S. servicemembers have been tested in recent years and only 10 were found to have traces of depleted uranium in their bodies. Most of those were exposed during the first days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when U.S. forces were battling enemies in tanks.

“There really isn’t any reason to use depleted uranium unless you’re going after armored targets,” Kilpatrick said.

Attacks by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t involve such armored vehicles, so the chances of servicemembers coming into contact with depleted uranium today are “very, very small,” he said.

Kilpatrick said he’s not aware of any studies conducted on Iraqis targeted by U.S. munitions.

DOD policy calls for troops to avoid areas that might have been hit by depleted uranium munitions and to seek medical screening if they feel they’ve been exposed.

Theories connecting Gulf War Syndrome to radiation exposure from uranium-laced battlefields have persisted for years.

A study released last year by Northern Arizona University showed cells exposed to uranium can bond with heavy metal particles. That biochemical reaction can cause genetic mutations, which in turn can curtail cell growth and potentially cause cancer, the study found.

"If not seeing radioactivity in people being tested, maybe that’s not what we should be looking for," said biochemist Diane Stearns, who conducted the study.

Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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