Military health officials dismiss soldiers’ depleted-uranium fears
ARLINGTON, Va. — No U.S. troops involved in the war in Iraq are showing signs of medical problems caused by exposure to depleted uranium, Pentagon health officials said, negating recent complaints by some troops to the contrary.
Since the war started last March, about 1,000 troops who indicated they might have been exposed to depleted uranium have been tested. Of those, three who have fragments of depleted uranium ammunition in their bodies have tested positive for higher-than-normal levels, but none show adverse health consequences, said William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for Health Affairs.
Recently, National Guard soldiers from New York’s 442nd Military Police Company complained of maladies from headaches to soreness, insomnia and breathing problems, and that independent medical tests of their urine showed high levels of DU.
But military-run medical tests have shown just the opposite, Winkenwerder said during a Thursday press roundtable.
Twenty-seven soldiers from the 442nd have had their urine tested.
“All 27 have normal levels of urine uranium,” said Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director for deployment health support directorate for Health Affairs. Of those tested, the highest level of natural uranium found was 16 nanograms of per liter of urine, with the average about seven nanograms, he said. A nanogram is one billionth of a gram.
Uranium is a natural element found in the air, water, soil and even food. People have about 100 micrograms of natural uranium in their bodies, and excrete between 10 to 50 nanograms per liter of urine, Kilpatrick said.
“Servicemembers should know that the potential health risks of depleted uranium are extremely, extremely low, and we have no evidence that there are health consequences among people who, even after many years, have high levels of exposure,” Winkenwerder said.
The Pentagon’s assertions that DU exposure doesn’t harm are false, said former Army Maj. Doug Rokke, who headed the Pentagon’s depleted uranium project in the mid-1990s and now is a staunch critic of the use of DU and the Pentagon’s policies allowing it.
“They’re liars and the U.S. continues to lie concerning depleted uranium munitions,” he said Friday in a phone interview. “Iraq joins Afghanistan and Bosnia and Vieques in being a toxic dump for depleted uranium that you just can’t clean up. It’s there for eternity.”
He said he has 5,000 times the normal levels of radiation in his body and suffers from respiratory and other medical problems.
The U.S. military continues to use DU because of its effectiveness in penetrating armor. Depleted uranium, a byproduct of enriching uranium for nuclear fuel, is used to manufacture ammunition because, as a hard, heavy metal, can pierce armor. While 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium, it still is radioactive. DU ammunition ignites when impacting a target, and when combined with oxygen, forms toxic dust.
“The bottom line, as long as this is exterior to your body, you’re not at any risk,” Kilpatrick said. “And the potential of internalizing it from the environment is extremely, extremely small.”
Continuous medical evaluations of roughly 70 servicemembers who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and have depleted uranium shrapnel embedded in their bodies show no health complications linked to the DU, the health officials said.
The 70 excrete between 150 nanograms to 45,000 nanograms per liter of uranium in their urine, Kilpatrick said, “and their kidneys are perfectly normal.” The kidneys are the principle organs affected by DU exposure.