Traversing harm's way - depleted uranium, Gulf War illness, and dusty VX
This story evaluates through the eyes of a Portland Gulf War veteran the potential threats coalition forces could face in the impending war with Iraq. It addresses questions concerning the possible ill-effects of depleted uranium weapons, and draws on two government documents suggesting there are serious shortcomings in the protective wear soldiers would don if attacked with unconventional weapons.
It rained Will Campbell's first week in the desert, and grass sprouted in patches over the beige earth. But if the unexpected showers were faintly reminiscent of his native Oregon, Campbell soon would see rain of another, alien kind - not clear but black, not of the sky but of the earth. And grass did not grow in its wake.
It was petroleum that fell on his rambling caravan, black gold launched from oil well fires that raged at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Suspecting the air was toxic, Campbell put a bandana to his face and breathed gingerly. But it is not these breaths that haunt him today. It is those he took for weeks on end when the air seemed so benign.
"I'm afraid I'm going to wake up one day with a golf ball-sized tumor in my head from breathing in too much depleted uranium," he says.
Used in American ammunition during the Gulf War, depleted uranium, a chemically toxic by-product of uranium enrichment and an evident carcinogen in laboratory studies, remains at large in the Persian Gulf. The Iraqi deserts still cradle mildly radioactive DU rounds and harbor the fine, breathable dusts that were shed to the wind when such munitions struck enemy tanks. This legacy, the continuing mystery of Gulf War illness, and the prospect of chemical or biological attacks on U.S. forces beg a somewhat overlooked question as America prepares for a second war with Iraq: How lethal are the harms in "harm's way"?
The U.S. Department of Defense says that 320 tons of DU ammunition were spent during the Gulf War, the majority discharged from American A-10 aircraft over southeast Iraq and northwest Kuwait.
When incorporated into projectiles, DU, which has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, can pierce and disable enemy tanks because it is almost twice as dense as lead. It has thus been called "the silver bullet" in military circles. Part of the projectile, however, vaporizes on impact into a fine, breathable dust that can travel dozens of miles downwind. In 1979, for example, DU
particles from the National Lead Industries plant in Colonie, New York, were found in filters at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory 26 miles away.
In this way was DU dust scattered about the battlefields of the Gulf. As Helen Caldicott wrote last year in The New Nuclear Danger: "The geographical areas of the Gulf that are now contaminated with uranium will remain radioactive for the rest of time, the inhabitants being at risk for cancers and congenital deformities forever more."
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported last November that cancer rates in southern Iraq have risen about 18 percent since 1988. Rates of birth defects have risen roughly 11 percent since 1989. The P-I, however, did not cite sources for these figures and at least one expert says they should be viewed critically.
"There's definitely an element of Iraqi propaganda," said Dan Fahey, an independent DU researcher who has authored two chapters in the forthcoming book International Law and the Use of Depleted Uranium Weapons. "There's some truth to these numbers, but they have to be viewed with caution."
But even if one regards the cancer numbers as anecdotes only, a study published in 1998 in Environmental Health Perspectives found that human cells exposed to DU produced tumors when they were inserted in mice. In addition, a study published last year in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry found that DU causes damage to DNA that can initiate and promote tumor growth.
Tumor mechanics are mere abstractions to Campbell, a 31-year-old veteran who served as a private first class in the army during the Gulf War. The images in his memory, however, are far from abstract. They are concrete. They, not DNA damage, are the things of which tumors are made.
"Two enemy vehicles ... I don't know if they were coming in to surrender or what," he recalls. Some tanks doubled back, flanked the two vehicles and just obliterated them pretty much.
It was kind of like using a hammer to squash an ant. Those tanks have amazing capabilities. I could compare it to swatting a fly with a hand grenade. It was just one big explosion."
If the rounds that "obliterated" the approaching vehicles were "silver bullets," Campbell fears, he could have inhaled a volume of DU exceeding recommended limits. But even if he had never seen the hammer hit the ant, he has other memories to haunt him. They concern more innocent affairs - a hunt with fellow soldiers for enemy souvenirs, for example - which he wishes now he'd never taken part in.
"Probably just curiosity," he said, when asked why he entered disabled enemy tanks. "And also I wanted to collect some memorabilia."
"Did you find anything?"
"Yeah," he said. "There were even competitions for stuff to find. Bayonets were a pretty hot item. Tanker helmets - those were a pretty big deal to look for."
Campbell came away with the latter. He said that, while superiors told them it "probably is not a good idea" to go in disabled enemy tanks, such entry was never prohibited by direct order. So he and his colleagues became some of the thousands of soldiers who, according to the Department of Defense, could have inhaled DU during forays into crippled tanks.
Campbell says he'd never heard of depleted uranium in training or combat - it was never raised. His account is echoed by a 1993 report from the General Accounting Office of Congress, which criticized the army for not educating soldiers about the hazards of DU in combat.
The soldiers who would invade Iraq in the days ahead, however, are better prepared. The
GAO, at least, gave the army improved marks in a subsequent report. But DU dust that remains from the Gulf War will of course be harder to identify on the battlefield than disabled tanks. And there are several indications suggesting the military might use DU munitions in a second war with Iraq. The U.S. used them in post-Gulf War conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo,
maintains contracts with industrial DU manufacturers, and has asserted in legal reviews the nation's right to use DU weapons under international humanitarian law. U.S. Central Command, however, will not discuss whether such munitions would be deployed in a second war with Iraq, even though American soldiers could be stationed there indefinitely in a post-war peacekeeping effort.
The Pentagon and the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defense have denied a connection between exposure to DU and cancer in humans. And while a 2002 study funded by the U.S. Army found that DU fragments caused soft-tissue cancers in rats, the authors warn that the results are not directly applicable to humans.
Still, there is cause to be weary. The Ministry of Defense released a paper last summer showing that Gulf War veterans were more than one-and-a-half times more likely to die of lymphatic cancers than were non-Gulf War veterans.
While the ministry emphasizes that it does not link DU with human cancers, its finding is harmonic with a U.S. Institute of Medicine assessment stating that "the lymphatic system is an important potential target for uranium radiation because ... uranium oxides can remain up to several years in the hilar lymph nodes of the lungs."
At least one person examined in 1999 in a U.S. government study of 50 Gulf War veterans exposed to DU had a lymphatic cancer. This assumes added importance in light of the fact that Pentagon spokesman Michael Kilpatrick has publicly denied its existence.
"We have seen no cancers or leukemia in this group, which has been followed since 1993," he said at a NATO press briefing in January 2001, when Europeans were expressing deep concern about the use of DU munitions. Yet, according to minutes from an October 1999 staff meeting, Kilpatrick was present when the existence of this cancer was discussed.
"This raises a big red flag," said Fahey, the DU researcher who uncovered the apparent inconsistency. "It says they're willing to lie about the health of veterans to achieve the goal of
downplaying concerns about depleted uranium. What else are they lying about? How many other cancers exist in this group that aren't publicly reported?"
Fahey also says that the decision to monitor so few veterans when the Department of Defense says "thousands" may have been exposed to DU "is part of the effort to downplay the whole thing from the beginning."
The uniform Campbell wore as a soldier in the Gulf now attires a life-sized marionette he created at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon, where he performs maintenance and paints. A steel and plaster affair, the puppet also has Campbell's face and hands, casts of which emerge white from the beige and brown camouflage. It is perhaps a self-portrait from his soldiering days, a reflection in the pond that doesn't mimic but rather moves on strings at its master's command.
Before it came to dwell in a closet, the doll once served in an installation Campbell created in the school's atrium. He arranged the space to resemble the inside of a cathedral where visitors could find his marionette lying in an open casket. A few weeks later, the puppet could be found clinging to a column above the box, as though it had risen from the dead and was clasping to life itself.
"He's escaping his fate," Campbell said.
The dark element in Campbell's work owes in part to a letter he received in 1997 from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
"I am sending this letter because we have determined that your unit was near Khamisiyah, Iraq in early March 1991," the note began. "My purpose is to update you on our
investigation of the U.S. demolitions of Iraqi weapons at Khamisiyah and what this may mean for you."
The letter went on to say that Campbell may have been exposed to the nerve agents sarin and cyclosarin, but that a Pentagon analysis "shows that the exposure levels would have been too low to activate chemical alarms or to cause any symptoms at the time." When asked if this analysis made him feel better, Campbell had one word: "No."
Since returning from the war, he has suffered from headaches, acute muscle fatigue and nightmares, but he has not experienced the more severe symptoms emblematic of Gulf War illness - chronic fatigue, muscle and joint pain, memory loss, respiratory problems, and skin lesions, among others.
About 80,000 veterans have complained of such symptoms, according to Peter Spencer, a researcher at Oregon Health Sciences University who, in a study published last year, found no evidence attaching events at Khamisiyah to health problems among veterans.
While some authors have found evidence linking Gulf War illness to other proposed causes - the anti-nerve gas pills known as pyridostigmine bromide and vaccines for plague and anthrax, for example - Spencer and his colleagues have found evidence that highlights the essential mystery of Gulf War illness.
They sent questionnaires to veterans whose time in the Gulf did not overlap - some were there only for Desert Shield, some only for Desert Storm, and some only during a post-combat mission. Yet members from each group had symptoms associated with Gulf War illness, even though they were exposed to unique sets of physical, chemical and biological factors.
While the sample sizes in the study were too small to allow definitive conclusions, Spencer's inclination is unnerving as American soldiers continue to mass in the Gulf in preparation for a second war with Saddam: "You can acquire this illness irrespective of whether
you saw a bomb go off or took pyridostigmine bromide or received a vaccination for botulinum toxin," he said.
Campbell recalls one frightful dawn during Desert Storm.
"One time, early morning - you know, they had started launching Scuds - first sergeant comes running out. He says 'Gas! Gas! Gas!' "
What followed for Campbell was an act of panic and empty faith - donning the gas mask and protective suit designed to shield him in a chemical or biological attack. One thought went through his mind as he did: "Ha - hope this works."
A declassified intelligence report from 1990 said tests indicate that, even in full protective attire, three to 38 percent of Gulf War troops could have died if attacked with dusty VX, depending on factors such as wind speed and the nerve agent's airborne concentration. Though the report adds that a poncho worn over protective suits could reduce casualties to "near zero," this assurance is not entirely relieving - it is made without reference to tests that would justify it. As Eric Croddy, a senior researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies who writes about the Iraqi chemical arsenal, said in a telephone interview: "It seems they sort of threw up their hands and said 'What else can we do?' "
If Campbell had any trust in his protective gear, it vanished the day he removed his suit and found himself powdered with carbon. "My whole body was covered with charcoal," he says. "All over, everywhere, every inch of it." The suit's layer of charcoal lining, designed to capture chemical and biological agents, had broken.
The Pentagon says that significant improvements have been made to protective gear since the Gulf War. The suits, it says, are lighter, washable, more durable, and utilize "carbon bead" technology to trap intrusive agents. But it will not discuss the permeability of the suits, and,
according to Croddy, "accumulations of fine dusts may defeat even full-body protective garments, and coupled with the dermal action of VX nerve agent, they represent a significant military threat."
The intelligence report said that, while Iraq had developed VX, it was not clear whether it had rendered a "dusty" form of the liquid agent. (Dusty weapons are breathable aerosols laced with liquid chemical agents.) The story may be different today, however. The New York Times reported in September that an Iraqi defector who said he was involved in Saddam's chemical weapons program alleged that Iraq is now producing a solid VX that could be a dusty agent.
Saddam had produced and used dusty mustard during the Iran-Iraq war, the report said. A typo, however, makes unclear the risk this weapon posed to allied forces during the Gulf War. Seven percent, 17 percent and "3U" percent of troops would have suffered "incapacitation from blistering" in a dusty mustard attack, according to the report, depending again on wind speed and the agent's airborne concentration.
Chuck Hoing, a Defense Intelligence Agency spokesman, said he could not clarify the matter because the actual percentage had been deemed "sensitive" and was erased from the document since it was originally declassified.
A separate concern with the protective suits was raised in a report last fall by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, which found that the Department of Defense "could not easily identify, track and locate defective suits" in its inventory. In May 2000, there were about 780,000 such garments. As of last July, up to a quarter-million of these "remained unaccounted for."
A military spokesman said through an email on January 28: "We believe that the services and the Defense Logistics Agency have identified all (defective suits) that still exist and that the 250,000 that cannot be accounted for have been consumed and disposed of."
Jack Hooper, however, DLA's head of media relations, said his agency can only "positively account" for 542,000 of the original 780,000. It is conceivable, then, that thousands of "defective" suits could be issued to American soldiers.
add a comment on this article
add a comment on this article