WASHINGTON — Veterans groups are demanding that the military inform as many as 400,000 troops that they may have been exposed to hazardous depleted uranium from shells fired by U.S. tanks and aircraft during the Persian Gulf War.
The National Gulf War Resource Center, in a study released Monday, estimates at least 400,000 service men and women had contact with depleted uranium either during combat, while recovering contaminated weapons or while visiting the battleground after the conflict.
“Veterans have been left twisting in the wind for seven years,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of the center that oversees 45 veterans groups. “We firmly believe this is a conservative estimate of those exposed.”
The Defense Department has not yet reviewed the report, but a Pentagon spokesman on Gulf War illness issues said the amount of exposure varies greatly.
“Because it is a heavy metal, there is a certain danger,” said Maj. Tom Gilroy, “but at the levels folks were exposed to, we are not aware of it being a significant danger in most cases.”
Some veterans, however, say they may have had high levels of exposure during combat.
Jerry Wheat, a Gulf War veteran, suffered shrapnel wounds when a friendly missile pierced his tank in February 1991. Soon after, Wheat began experiencing severe weight loss and abdominal pains. He now believes the fragment that struck him contained uranium and contaminated his wound.
“The Army never bothered to tell me I was hit with radioactive and toxic ammunition,” Wheat said.
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.
It is relatively harmless when sealed in artillery shells or bombs. 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.
Short-term symptoms include nausea, vomiting and weakness, the study indicated. Ingestion of large amounts of dust can cause kidney and liver damage, a depressed immune system and cancer.