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U.S. Soldiers Contaminated With Depleted

Four N.Y. Daily News articles by Juan Gonzalez on uranium contamination in U.S. soldiers who have served in Iraq over the past year. This topic was dealt with on Democracy Now! on Monday (See link below).
Poisoned?: Shocking report reveals local troops may be victims of america's high-tech weapons
Saturday, April 3rd, 2004

Four soldiers from a New York Army National Guard company serving in Iraq are contaminated with radiation likely caused by dust from depleted uranium shells fired by U.S. troops, a Daily News investigation has found.

They are among several members of the same company, the 442nd Military Police, who say they have been battling persistent physical ailments that began last summer in the Iraqi town of Samawah.

"I got sick instantly in June," said Staff Sgt. Ray Ramos, a Brooklyn housing cop. "My health kept going downhill with daily headaches, constant numbness in my hands and rashes on my stomach."

A nuclear medicine expert who examined and tested nine soldiers from the company says that four "almost certainly" inhaled radioactive dust from exploded American shells manufactured with depleted uranium.

Laboratory tests conducted at the request of The News revealed traces of two manmade forms of uranium in urine samples from four of the soldiers.

If so, the men - Sgt. Hector Vega, Sgt. Ray Ramos, Sgt. Agustin Matos and Cpl. Anthony Yonnone - are the first confirmed cases of inhaled depleted uranium exposure from the current Iraq conflict.

The 442nd, made up for the most part of New York cops, firefighters and correction officers, is based in Orangeburg, Rockland County. Dispatched to Iraq last Easter, the unit's members have been providing guard duty for convoys, running jails and training Iraqi police. The entire company is due to return home later this month.

"These are amazing results, especially since these soldiers were military police not exposed to the heat of battle," said Dr. Asaf Duracovic, who examined the G.I.s and performed the testing that was funded by The News.

"Other American soldiers who were in combat must have more depleted uranium exposure," said Duracovic, a colonel in the Army Reserves who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

While working at a military hospital in Delaware, he was one of the first doctors to discover unusual radiation levels in Gulf War veterans. He has since become a leading critic of the use of depleted uranium in warfare.

Depleted uranium, a waste product of the uranium enrichment process, has been used by the U.S. and British military for more than 15 years in some artillery shells and as armor plating for tanks. It is twice as heavy as lead.

Because of its density, "It is the superior heavy metal for armor to protect tanks and to penetrate armor," Pentagon spokesman Michael Kilpatrick said.

The Army and Air Force fired at least 127 tons of depleted uranium shells in Iraq last year, Kilpatrick said. No figures have yet been released for how much the Marines fired.

Kilpatrick said about 1,000 G.I.s back from the war have been tested by the Pentagon for depleted uranium and only three have come up positive - all as a result of shrapnel from DU shells.

But the test results for the New York guardsmen - four of nine positives for DU - suggest the potential for more extensive radiation exposure among coalition troops and Iraqi civilians.

Several Army studies in recent years have concluded that the low-level radiation emitted when shells containing DU explode poses no significant dangers. But some independent scientists and a few of the Army's own reports indicate otherwise.

As a result, depleted uranium weapons have sparked increasing controversy around the world. In January 2003, the European Parliament called for a moratorium on their use after reports of an unusual number of leukemia deaths among Italian soldiers who served in Kosovo, where DU weapons were used.

I keep getting weaker. What is happening to me?

The Army says that only soldiers wounded by depleted uranium shrapnel or who are inside tanks during an explosion face measurable radiation exposure.

But as far back as 1979, Leonard Dietz, a physicist at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory upstate, discovered that DU-contaminated dust could travel for long distances.

Dietz, who pioneered the technology to isolate uranium isotopes, accidentally discovered that air filters with which he was experimenting had collected radioactive dust from a National Lead Industries Plant that was producing DU 26 miles away. His discovery led to a shutdown of the plant.

"The contamination was so heavy that they had to remove the topsoil from 52 properties around the plant," Dietz said.

All humans have at least tiny amounts of natural uranium in their bodies because it is found in water and in the food supply, Dietz said. But natural uranium is quickly and harmlessly excreted by the body.

Uranium oxide dust, which lodges in the lungs once inhaled and is not very soluble, can emit radiation to the body for years.

"Anybody, civilian or soldier, who breathes these particles has a permanent dose, and it's not going to decrease very much over time," said Dietz, who retired in 1983 after 33 years as nuclear physicist. "In the long run ... veterans exposed to ceramic uranium oxide have a major problem."

Critics of DU have noted that the Army's view of its dangers has changed over time.

Before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, a 1990 Army report noted that depleted uranium is "linked to cancer when exposures are internal, [and] chemical toxicity causing kidney damage."

It was during the Gulf War that U.S. A-10 Warthog "tank buster" planes and Abrams tanks first used DU artillery on a mass scale. The Pentagon says it fired about 320 tons of DU in that war and that smaller amounts were also used in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

In the Gulf War, Army brass did not warn soldiers about any risks from exploding DU shells. An unknown number of G.I.s were exposed by shrapnel, inhalation or handling battlefield debris.

Some veterans groups blame DU contamination as a factor in Gulf War syndrome, the term for a host of ailments that afflicted thousands of vets from that war.

Under pressure from veterans groups, the Pentagon commissioned several new studies. One of those, published in 2000, concluded that DU, as a heavy metal, "could pose a chemical hazard" but that Gulf War veterans "did not experience intakes high enough to affect their health."

Pentagon spokesman Michael Kilpatrick said Army followup studies of 70 DU-contaminated Gulf War veterans have not shown serious health effects.

"For any heavy metal, there is no such thing as safe," Kilpatrick said. "There is an issue of chemical toxicity, and for DU it is raised as radiological toxicity as well."

But he said "the overwhelming conclusion" from studies of those who work with uranium "show it has not produced any increase in cancers."

Several European studies, however, have linked DU to chromosome damage and birth defects in mice. Many scientists say we still don't know enough about the long-range effects of low-level radiation on the body to say any amount is safe.

Britain's national science academy, the Royal Society, has called for identifying where DU was used and is urging a cleanup of all contaminated areas.

"A large number of American soldiers [in Iraq] may have had significant exposure to uranium oxide dust," said Dr. Thomas Fasey, a pathologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center and an expert on depleted uranium. "And the health impact is worrisome for the future."

As for the soldiers of the 442nd, they're sick, frustrated and confused. They say when they arrived in Iraq no one warned them about depleted uranium and no one gave them dust masks.

Experts behind News probe

As part of the investigation by the Daily News, Dr. Asaf Duracovic, a nuclear medicine expert who has conducted extensive research on depleted uranium, examined the nine soldiers from the 442nd Military Police in late December and collected urine specimens from each.

Another member of his team, Prof. Axel Gerdes, a geologist at Goethe University in Frankfurt who specializes in analyzing uranium isotopes, performed repeated tests on the samples over a week-long period. He used a state-of-the art procedure called multiple collector inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry.

Only about 100 laboratories worldwide have the same capability to identify and measure various uranium isotopes in minute quantities, Gerdes said.

Gerdes concluded that four of the men had depleted uranium in their bodies. Depleted uranium, which does not occur in nature, is created as a waste product of uranium enrichment when some of the highly radioactive isotopes in natural uranium, U-235 and U-234, are extracted.

Several of the men, according to Duracovic, also had minute traces of another uranium isotope, U-236, that is produced only in a nuclear reaction process.

"These men were almost certainly exposed to radioactive weapons on the battlefield," Duracovic said.

He and Gerdes plan to issue a scientific paper on their study of the soldiers at the annual meeting of the European Association of Nuclear Medicine in Finland this year.

When DU shells explode, they permanently contaminate their target and the area immediately around it with low-level radioactivity.

Originally published on April 3, 2004

Inside camp of troubles
Saturday, April 3rd, 2004

The soldiers of the 442nd Military Police never heard of depleted uranium before they went to Iraq.

They know only that inexplicable ailments have befallen them.

Last year, more than a dozen of the company's soldiers were transferred back to Fort Dix for treatment of a variety of maladies. Frustrated with how the military was handling their concerns, they gave extensive interviews to the Daily News about their experiences, and nine of them eventually volunteered to be tested by a team of experts headed by Dr. Asaf Duracovic.

According to the soldiers, most of them became sick last summer while stationed in Samawah, a town 150 miles south of Baghdad that was the scene of heavy combat in the first weeks of the war.

Their unit entered the town in June, following short stays in Diwaniyah, Karbala and Najaf. They pitched camp at a huge, dusty, vermin-infested train depot on the outskirts of town.

That's where, they claim, their problems began.

"One night, I had 10 or 15 people with temperatures over 103, unexplained night chills, all kinds of things," said Sgt. Juan Vega, the company's principal medic. About a dozen of the 160 soldiers in the company suddenly developed kidney stones, he said.

A 1990 Army study linked DU, to "chemical toxicity causing kidney damage."

"I told our commander, 'We need to get the hell out of this place, there's something wrong with it,'" said Vega, 34, an FDNY paramedic.

The soldiers recall that two Iraqi tanks, one all shot up, had been hauled onto flatbed railroad cars less than 100 yards from where the company slept.

Pentagon officials have confirmed that tanks hit by DU shells are the biggest potential sources of battlefield radioactivity because when DU penetrators hit a target and explode, a fine aerosol of uranium oxide, or radioactive dust, is formed. The closer the tanks are to people, the greater the danger of inhaling the dust.

In addition, a UN environmental report on Iraq warned last year of a "high risk of inhaling DU dust" within 150 meters of any target hit by DU shells "unless high-quality dust masks are worn." The soldiers never received dust masks.

Soldiers demand to know health risks
Saturday, April 3rd, 2004

Doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recently told Staff Sgt. Ray Ramos that a biopsy revealed his rash comes from leishmaniasis, a disease spread by sandflies and contracted by hundreds of G.I.s in Iraq.

Until last week, however, Army doctors refused requests by Ramos and a few others in the 442nd Military Police to have their urine analyzed for depleted uranium, a procedure that can cost up to $1,000.

Three of the nine tested in the Daily News investigation ? Sgt. Herbert Reed, Spec. William Ruiz, and Spec. Anthony Phillip - also were tested by the Army in November. But the results were withheld for months despite repeated inquiries.

Last week, after Army officials received press inquiries about the 442nd and discovered that a group from the company had sought independent testing, an administrator at Walter Reed told Reed and Phillip that their tests from November had come back negative for depleted uranium.

The News' tests also showed negative results for Reed and Phillip, but Ramos tested positive. The soldiers of the 442nd are not the only ones to raise questions about depleted uranium in Samawah.

In August, a contingent of Dutch soldiers arrived in the town to replace the Americans. Press reports in the Netherlands revealed that Dutch authorities questioned the U.S. beforehand about the possible use of DU ammunition in Samawah. According to Sgt. Juan Vega, senior medic for the 442nd, the Dutch swept the area around the train depot with Geiger counters and their medics confided to him they had found high radiation levels. The Dutch unit refused to stay in the depot, Vega said, and pitched camp in the desert instead.

And in February, after Japanese troops moved into the same town, a Japanese journalist equipped with a Geiger counter reported finding radiation readings 300 times higher than background levels.

"There'd been a lot of fighting in Samawah before we got there," said Staff Sgt. Ray Ramos, 41. "The place was dusty as hell, and the sandstorms were hitting us pretty good."

Felled at first by what he thought was the sweltering Iraqi heat, Ramos expected to recover quickly.

"My health just kept getting worse," he said. "I tried to work out each day to get through it but I kept getting weaker. A numbing sensation hit my hands and my face, and the migraine headaches became constant. I was afraid I was having a stroke."

He was sent first to a Baghdad hospital for treatment, but with no neurologist available, he was shipped out to Germany and eventually to the U.S.

"I had rashes on my stomach for four months," Ramos said. "And now, whenever I [lie] down, my hands fall asleep."

Doctors at Walter Reed have been stumped. They've given Ramos braces to wear on his arms at night to try to prevent his hands from falling asleep, and they've prescribed a host of muscle relaxants and painkillers, but nothing seems to work.

"I have four kids. What happens to them now if I can't work?" said Ramos, who was looking forward to a transfer from the NYPD Housing Bureau to the robbery unit in Brooklyn's 75th Precinct once he returns from active duty. "I need them to investigate what's going on with my body."

Cpl. Anthony Yonnone, 35, a cop with the Veterans Administration in Fishkill, N.Y., has the highest DU levels of the four soldiers who tested positive, said Dr. Asaf Duracovic, who performed the testing funded by The News.

Yonnone said his nausea, skin rashes and migraines began in Samawah. "The headaches are constant and they don't want to stop," he said. "The rashes seem to come and go.

"We were always passing blownout tanks when we were out doing patrols."

He recalled that American units in the town burned trash and waste each night in big drums near the train depot. "The combination of smoke and sand when we lit those fires covered everybody," he said.

Evacuated from Iraq in August for minor surgery, Yonnone was sent first to Germany.

"They gave us a questionnaire. I marked that I wasn't exposed to depleted uranium because nobody had even told us what it was back in Iraq," he said.

Army to test N.Y. Guard unit
Monday, April 5th, 2004

Army officials at Fort Dix and Walter Reed Army Medical Center are rushing to test all returning members of the 442nd Military Police Company of the New York Army National Guard for depleted uranium contamination.

Army brass acted after learning that four of nine soldiers from the company tested by the Daily News showed signs of radiation exposure.

The soldiers, who returned from Iraq late last year, say they and other members of their company have been suffering from unexplained illnesses since last summer, when they were stationed in the Iraqi town of Samawah.

Dr. Asaf Durakovic, a former Army doctor and nuclear medicine expert who examined and tested the nine men at The News' request, concluded four of them "almost certainly" inhaled radioactive dust from exploded depleted uranium shells fired by U.S. troops.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), after learning of The News' investigation, blasted Pentagon officials yesterday for not properly screening soldiers returning from Iraq.

"We can't have people coming back with undiagnosed illnesses," Clinton said. "We have to have a before-and-after testing program for our soldiers."

Clinton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she will write to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld demanding answers and soon will introduce legislation to require health screenings for all returning troops.

During meetings with Pentagon officials last year, Clinton said "one of the issues we raised was exposure to the depleted uranium that was in the weapons, and how they were going to handle it."

She was assured then that troops would be properly screened.

But the soldiers from the 442nd contacted The News after becoming frustrated with how the Army was handling their illnesses.

Six of them say they repeatedly sought testing for depleted uranium from Army doctors but were denied.

Three who were tested in early November for DU said they had been waiting months for the results. Two of those finally got their results last week - both negative.

Testing for uranium isotopes in 24 hours' worth of urine samples can cost as much as $1,000 each.

But late last week, after learning of The News' results, the Army reversed course and ordered immediate testing for more than a dozen members of the 442nd who are back in the U.S.

The rest of the company, comprising mostly New York City cops, firefighters and correction officers, is not due to return from Iraq until later this month.

"They ordered all of us who are here at Fort Dix to provide 24-hour urine samples by 1 p.m. today," one soldier from the company said Friday.

Late Friday, Pentagon spokesman Austin Camacho said he could not confirm or deny that new tests had been ordered for the soldiers of the 442nd.

"It's hard to imagine, theoretically, that these men could have harmful exposures," Camacho said, because none of them had been inside tanks during direct combat.

Army studies of depleted uranium have concluded that only soldiers who suffer shrapnel wounds from DU shells or who were inside tanks hit by DU shells and immediately breathe radioactive dust are at risk.

Even then, Camacho said, studies of about 70 such cases from the first Gulf War have shown no long-term health problems.

But medical experts critical of the use of DU weapons, as well as some of the Army's own early studies of depleted uranium, say exposure to it can cause kidney damage. Some studies have shown that it causes cancer and chromosome damage in mice, according to the experts.

Depleted uranium, a waste product of the uranium enrichment process, has been used by the U.S. and British militaries for more than 15 years in some artillery shells and as armor-plating for tanks. It is valued for its extreme density - it is twice as heavy as lead.

Amid growing controversy in Europe and Japan, the European Parliament called last year for a moratorium on its use.

'Every time I ran I felt my throat
burning and my chest tightening.'

Sgt. Agustin Matos, a member of the 442nd Military Police of the New York National Guard and a city correction officer in civilian life, has all-too-vivid memories of his stay in Samawah, Iraq.

"The place was filthy; most of the windows were broken; dirt, grease and bird droppings were everywhere," he said. "I wouldn't house a city prisoner in that place."

He recalled a mandated morning run of about 3 miles on a sandy track near a train depot.

"Every time I ran I felt my throat burning and my chest tightening," he said.

Now, Matos, 37, believes his symptoms may be the result of radioactive dust he inhaled from spent American shells made from depleted uranium.

The Long Island man is one of four Iraq war veterans who tested positive for DU contamination, according to a Daily News investigation.

The soldiers and other members of the 442nd say they are suffering from physical ailments that began last summer while they were stationed in Samawah.

Matos, who was assigned to the 4th platoon's 2nd squad, arrived in Samawah last June, two weeks ahead of the rest of the company.

His advance team had orders from Capt. Sean O'Donnell, their commander, to ready a huge depot in a train repair yard on the outskirts of downtown Samawah as a barracks for the unit.

Once the entire company arrived, each platoon was assigned its own space inside the depot, which was bigger than a football field.

A locomotive that straddled a repair pit and an empty train car sat in the middle of the sleeping area, with two platoons assigned to bed down along one side of the train and two others along the other side.

Just outside the depot, two Iraqi tanks, one of them shot up, had been hauled onto flatbed railroad cars.

The company was so short-handed, according to the soldiers, that the commander would evacuate a G.I. only if he could no longer physically function.

Matos was sent home last year for surgery for a shoulder injury suffered in a jeep accident.

Since his return, he has had constant headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, joint pain and excessive urination. After he recently discovered blood in his urine, doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center gave him a CAT scan and discovered a small lesion on his liver.

A 1990 Army study linked DU to "chemical toxicity causing kidney damage."

"Before I left for Iraq, they tested my eyes and I was fine," Matos said. "Now my eyesight's gotten bad, on top of everything else."

Another member of the company who tested positive for DU is 2nd platoon Sgt. Hector Vega, 48, a retired postal worker from the Bronx who has been in the National Guard for 27 years.

Since being evacuated to Fort Dix for treatment for foot surgery, Vega said he has endured insomnia and constant headaches. And like many of the sick soldiers, Vega said, "I have uncontrollable urine, every half hour."

One day, during a trip a few hours south of Samawah, he and another soldier stopped on the side of the road to photograph and check out two shot-up Iraqi tanks.

"We didn't think anything of walking right up to those tanks and touching them," he said. "I didn't know anything about depleted uranium."

As for the railroad depot where they slept, Vega recalls it as "disgusting. Oil, dirt and bird droppings everywhere, insects crawling all around us."

And then there were the frequent dust storms.

"They would blow all that dust inside the depot all over us when we were sleeping or eating. It was so thick, you could see it."

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