- WASHINGTON (AP) -- As many as 400,000 Persian Gulf War troops may have been
exposed to hazardous particles of uranium from shells fired by American
tanks and aircraft, according to a study released on Monday by a coalition
of veterans groups.
- The National Gulf War Resource Center
also alleged that the Defense Department was aware of the potential of
health problems from battlefield exposure to depleted uranium before the
1991 war but failed to alert the troops.
- "The U.S. Department of Defense
has engaged in a deliberate attempt to avoid responsibility for consciously
allowing the widespread exposure of hundreds of thousands of U.S. and coalition
servicemen and women," the group contended.
- Depleted uranium: Usually harmless, but
can be toxic
- Depleted uranium is a metal residue left
when natural uranium is refined. It is used in artillery shells and bombs
designed to penetrate the armor of tanks. It also is used as a protective
shell on armored vehicles.
- When sealed in armor or in a bomb or
artillery shell, depleted uranium exposure is relatively harmless. But
when a depleted uranium shell hits its target, some of the metal burns
and oxidizes into small particles. This creates an airborne dust that,
if inhaled or ingested, can be toxic in humans.
- Until just recently, the Pentagon office
investigating links between the mysterious ailments of Gulf War veterans,
known collectively as Gulf War Illnesses, and troop exposures to a variety
of toxins and chemical agents had insisted that only 27 soldiers had possibly
been exposed to depleted uranium.
- It also contended that the troops faced
no health risk from their exposures.
- 'These hazards well-documented' by Army
- But on January 8, in a report marking
the first year of its investigation, the Office of the Special Assistant
for Gulf War Illnesses made a sweeping -- but little noted -- admission
that thousands of troops may have been exposed.
- It acknowledged "serious deficiencies
in what our troops understood" about the health dangers of depleted
- "These hazards were well-documented"
by the Army, it said. "Unfortunately, this information was generally
known only by technical specialists," and combat troops and those
who scoured the battlefields in Iraq and Kuwait after the war were not
aware of dangers.
- "The failure to properly disseminate
such information to troops at all levels may have resulted in thousands
of unnecessary exposures," the Pentagon report said.
- The veterans coalition went further,
alleging that the Pentagon -- most particularly the Army -- purposely kept
soldiers in the dark and failed after the war to conduct immediate testing
of those possibly exposed.
- "They were aware they had a problem
on their hands, and they were looking to minimize the (public relations)
fallout from it," Dan Fahey, the principal author of the study, said
in a telephone interview.
- Fahey is with the Swords to Plowshares
Veterans Rights Organization, based in San Francisco.
- Pentagon unaware of study but welcomes
- A Pentagon spokesman on Gulf War Illness
issues, Air Force Capt. Tom Gilroy, said he was unaware of the report released
on Monday. "We welcome anything that can help," he said.
- The report's authors said they could
not make a firm estimate of the number of U.S. and allied soldiers who
were exposed to the depleted uranium particles because too little is known
about the circumstances of exposure incidents.
- They settled on a rough estimate of 400,000
troops exposed based on surveys that indicated about three-fourths of the
541,000 U.S. servicemen and women present during the war reported having
come in contact with destroyed Iraqi equipment either during the fighting
- 'Nobody ever told us to stay away'
- The vast majority of those who had physical
contact with destroyed Iraqi vehicles were on postwar missions to clear
the battlefield or to destroy what remained of Iraqi equipment to prevent
the Iraqis from collecting it later, Fahey said.
- If those U.S. troops had simply been
instructed to take proper precautions, the exposure problem would have
been minor, he said.
- Fahey's study quoted Victor Suell, who
was a radio operator with the Marines as they swept into Kuwait in February
- "We came across a lot of destroyed
vehicles and dead bodies as we moved up through Kuwait," Suell is
quoted as saying. "Nobody ever told us to stay away from the vehicles
that might have been contaminated with depleted uranium."
- Suell returned to Kuwait with the Marines
in 1992 and his unit again encountered destroyed Iraqi vehicles. "Lots
of people were climbing on those vehicles," he said. Suell now has
kidney problems and other ailments he thinks may be related to his Gulf