Depleted uranium in tanks and ammunition used in the 1991 Gulf War “played no role” in the unexplained illnesses, known as Gulf War syndrome, that veterans faced in the years afterward, according to a new study.
The findings by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the University of Portsmouth in England counter decades of understanding by the military and Department of Veterans Affairs about potential causes for a host of ailments that collectively are now known as Gulf War illness.
“That depleted uranium is not and never was in the bodies of those who were ill at sufficient quantities to cause disease will surprise many, including sufferers who have, over the last 30 years, suspected depleted uranium may have contributed to their illnesses,” said Randall Parrish, a uranium isotope expert at the University of Portsmouth who developed the study’s methodology to scan veterans’ urine for traces of exposure.
The study looked at depleted uranium levels in the urine of 154 veterans, of whom 106 had Gulf War illness symptoms and 48 did not.
The findings may provide a definitive answer on whether there is a connection between depleted uranium exposure and Gulf War illness because of the level of precision used to detect any isotopes in veterans’ urine and the time involved in the study, Dr. Robert Haley, the director of epidemiology at UT Southwestern, a Dallas-based research hospital, told McClatchy in a phone interview.
The study took 20 years to shape, fund and review. Between 2008 and 2010, the researchers had each of the veterans come into the hospital for a week of controlled observation to rule out any other variables, Haley said. It will be published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports.
According to a 2000 Department of Defense report cited by the study, U.S. and coalition tanks, aircraft and artillery fired about 300 tons of depleted uranium munitions in southern Iraq during the 1991 ground invasion.
An estimated 500,000 U.S. service members deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Storm. About 25% of them have reported chronic symptoms including fatigue, headaches, joint pain, dizziness, respiratory disorders and memory problems, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
For years, Gulf War veteran and former Army officer Larry Chaney has suspected depleted uranium might have played a role in the tremors he suffers. Almost 30 years ago, on Feb. 27, 1991, Chaney was a 27-year-old lieutenant leading a platoon of M2A1 Bradley Fighting Vehicles when two of the vehicles were destroyed by friendly fire during one of the largest tank battles of the operation.
There was a “brilliant flash,” Chaney said in a phone interview with McClatchy. “A couple small pieces of depleted uranium hit me in the scalp and the shockwave knocked the wind out of me.”
Chaney became a participant in the study. He said he trusted the finding that depleted uranium was not a cause of what he said were milder symptoms of Gulf War illness. He said veterans he served with are more concerned that possible exposure to nerve agents in Iraq may have led to a number of cancers and thyroid issues.
The study also calculated the amount of depleted uranium that would be expected to be found in the bloodstream over time based on the level of exposure, such as whether a service member had been hit by shrapnel that would have likely embedded depleted uranium in their skin, or whether they suspected exposure through inhalation of air particles on the battlefield.
About half of the 48 participants who did not have Gulf War illness symptoms never deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Storm and did not experience depleted uranium exposure.
But for both those with Gulf War illness and the control group without illnesses, the results were the same, the study did not find significant traces of depleted uranium, Haley said.
“We found none, regardless of whether they had the Gulf War syndrome, one of the accepted case definitions, regardless of what kind of symptoms they had, and regardless of what kind of exposures they had,” he said.
The findings will be reviewed by the VA, Dr. Patricia Hastings, chief consultant for the agency’s post deployment health services, said in a statement.
“The research that depleted uranium is an unlikely cause of chronic multi-symptom illness will be reviewed by the scientists at VA’s Depleted Uranium Center in Baltimore, Maryland,” Hastings said.
The VA provided some of the initial funding for the research, she said.
Depleted uranium is also suspected in illnesses faced by veterans who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.
Coleen Bowman’s late husband, Army Sgt. Maj. Robert Bowman, was an Army Ranger who deployed to Iraq in 2004. His armored Stryker was hit by enemy fire at least 13 times during his 12 months overseas. Each time, depleted uranium in the Stryker’s armor would absorb the attack. He died in 2013 of bile duct cancer at age 44.
In his medical records, a doctor treating Bowman at the Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, documented in 2011 that the rare cancer was tied to environmental factors, including “burning depleted uranium from reinforced armored vehicles.”
“There are no other reasonable explanations for his condition,” the doctor concluded.
Coleen Bowman, who has spent several years connecting with other military spouses on the issue of toxic exposure, said she welcomed the study and its findings.
She hopes that the researchers of the Gulf War illness will consider also studying exposure in the new generation of veterans.
“For me, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to know what substance it was that caused Rob’s cancer,” Bowman said to McClatchy in a phone interview.
“But many veterans are showing up with high levels of depleted uranium in their urine post-9/11,” she said. “Even veterans in Rob’s unit.”
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