Distinguished guests and fellow Legionnaires, I
greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today about
a very important topic, the health of the men and women who protect
us all by their service in our armed forces. The issue has been
raised, Could the unexplained illnesses affecting many of those
who served in the Gulf War be the result of exposure to depleted
uranium (DU)? In addition, by implication, the question has been
asked, " Is it safe to continue to use depleted uranium as
shielding in our tanks and, offensively as armor piercing rounds."
The best answer I can give you is based on testing conducted
prior to fielding depleted uranium, testing after the war of the
environment on the battlefield of Kuwait, and medical research
and monitoring after the Gulf War of those we know who have been
injured. The best answer is the actual exposure to depleted uranium
is not medically significant. Let me be precise, to date DU exposure
has not produced any medically detectable effects.
The only soldiers on the battlefield who should be
concerned about DU are the Iraqi soldiers, not because it might
have a long term effect on their health, but because their tanks
and armored personnel carriers provided them with no protection
from our DU munitions. DU rounds ripped through their tanks like
a hot knife through butter, and their guns were totally, and I
mean totally, ineffective in penetrating American armor protected
with DU shielding. DU did have an effect on the battlefield. It
undoubtedly saved thousands of American lives. Just ask any
American tanker if he wants to face the Republican Guard in battle
without every advantage we can provide him, including DU shielding
and DU SABOT rounds.
There are several pieces of information concerning
DU you need to know to make an informed judgment about DU.
First, you need to know what DU is and what it
Depleted uranium is exactly what its name implies.
It is what is left after enriched uranium is extracted from uranium
ore. Enriched uranium is used as nuclear fuel and in nuclear
weapons. DU is approximately 40% less radioactive than
natural uranium. In fact, because DU has very low radioactivity,
its major hazard is as a heavy metal, much like lead. Unfired
DU rounds pose virtually no radiological hazard because it is
shielded in a thin metal jacket. After DU hits a target it may
burn and form DU oxides. This may pose a potential hazard if
it is inhaled, or ingested, or absorbed in a wound. The problem,
of course, depends upon the exposure and dose received.
Second, you need to know about the extensive testing
done on both the effectiveness of DU shielding and rounds, and
DU munitions were developed in the mid-1970s when
it became clear that tungsten carbide rounds could not defeat
the latest generation of Soviet armor. Extensive testing of DU
has established the level of safety for those who work around
DU. For example, a tank driver who was inside a fully loaded
tank all year long would not exceed the occupational limit. The
current dose limit for skin would only be exceeded if unshielded
DU remains in direct and continuous contact with the skin for
more than 250 hours. While these tests concluded that DU did not
appear to be any more toxic than lead or other heavy metals, it
was noted that in combat situations, there was a potential problem
from inhalation, ingestion and implantation of fragments.
Third, you need to know about our efforts to fully
report to you on the use of DU during the Gulf War.
Following the well regarded health risk assessment
model, my office is sponsoring three coordinated efforts. We
will report later in the spring on our detailed reconstruction
of the conditions and circumstances surrounding thirteen DU exposure
scenarios. The RAND Corporation is providing a comprehensive review
of the scientific and medical literature. And, CHPPM - the Army's
Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine - has undertaken
an assessment of potential doses associated with each scenario.
I can tell you now that we have categorized the thirteen
scenarios into three Tiers or groupings based on exposures.
Fourth and finally, you need to know about
The Department of Veterans Affairs at their facility
in Baltimore Maryland has been monitoring the health status of
thirty-three Tier 1 soldiers who were directly engaged in the
friendly fire incidents. This includes sixteen soldiers with
DU fragments still in their bodies. Formal publication of results
by the VA will be made through the scientific peer review process,
but only those with retained DU fragments show any elevated levels
of uranium in their urine. The Kidney is the most sensitive organ
for DU exposure. None have any evidence of Kidney damage to date
You also should know that we have been working with
VA Headquarters, the VA in Baltimore, and the Army as the DOD
executive agent to extend the medical assessment and monitoring
program to the remainder of Tier 1 and then to Tier 2. In fact,
this week the VA is sponsoring nation-wide training for their
staff that will be used for the new screening.
I think you will also be interested in knowing that
we have been monitoring the former battlefield in Kuwait to evaluate
the potential occupational and environmental hazards to personnel
currently deployed to the region. This directly relates to speculation
by the group Swords to Plowshares and the National Gulf War Resource
Center that DU on the battlefield might be the cause of illness
in the Iraqi and Kuwaiti population. In late 1994, a 16
member medical team was deployed to Kuwait and examined the "Boneyard,"
where DU-destroyed Iraqi vehicles are stored. They tested the
destroyed vehicles for radiation at the point where DU rounds
penetrated, at other parts of the vehicles and took wipe samples
inside and outside the vehicles, as well as soil samples in the
drainage pathways on the site. They also used personal lapel
breathing zone samples to monitor personnel exposures during sampling
activities at the site. While the area around the entry and exit
holes exhibited radioactivity above background, the wipe samples
measuring removable contamination were within regulatory limits.
The soil and air samples were at background levels.
Many have been critical of DOD because we have not
adequately carried out the required DU education program. Last
January, Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre directed the Services
to provide DU training. All of the Services have responded.
The Army will add a new DU task to the Soldiers Manual of Common
Tasks Skill Level 1. This task will target every soldier, active
and reserve, in the Army. The Navy and Marine Corps will include
DU awareness through medical safety training and during fleet
readiness training. The Air Force will include DU awareness in
their readiness training packages, and all personnel on mobility
status and those deployed to high threat areas will be trained.
Let me summarize:
A final comment: As I noted in the beginning, DU
did have an effect on the battlefield. It undoubtedly saved thousands
of American lives. Just ask any American tanker. Moreover, the
extensive testing before the war and monitoring of those most
exposed to DU after the war, shows that exposure to DU on the
battlefield is not medically significant.
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