Depleted uranium tests for US troops returning from Iraq

US troops returning from Iraq are for the first time to be offered state-of-the-art radiation testing to check for contamination from depleted uranium – a controversial substance linked by some to cancer and birth defects.

Campaigners say the Pentagon refuses to take seriously the issue of poisoning from depleted uranium (DU) and offers only the most basic checks, and only when it is specifically asked for. But state legislators across the US are pushing ahead with laws that will provide their National Guard troops access to the most sophisticated tests.

Connecticut and Louisiana have already passed such legislation and another 18 are said to be considering similar steps. Connecticut’s new law – pioneered by state legislator Pat Dillon – comes into effect on Saturday.

“What this does is establish a standard,” said Mrs Dillon, a Yale-trained epidemiologist. “It means that our Guardsmen will have access to highly sensitive testing that can differentiate between background levels of radiation.” DU – a heavy metal waste-product of nuclear power plants – has been used by the US military since the 1991 Gulf War. It is used to tip tank shells and missiles because of its ability to penetrate armour. On impact DU burns at an extremely high temperature and is widely dispersed in micro particles.

The science surrounding DU remains hotly contested though the majority of studies have concluded there is no genuine risk from battlefield contamination. One 2001 study by the Royal Society, concluded: “Except in extreme circumstances any extra risks of developing fatal cancers as a result of radiation from internal exposure to DU arising from battlefield conditions are likely to be so small that they would not be detectable above the general risk of dying from cancer over a normal lifetime.”

But, campaigners such as the British-based Campaign Against Depleted Uranium (CADU), cite other studies which suggest a risk. In 2003,New Scientist reported that a study by the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, found that human bone cells could suffer genetic damage when exposed to DU, even at levels deemed to be non-toxic.

Gerard Matthew has no doubts about the effect of DU. The former member of the New York National Guard served in Iraq from April to September 2003. On his return he was not offered testing until a New York newspaper offered to arrange it for him and some friends. “[With the military] it never came up. They suppressed the whole DU thing,” he said.

Mr Matthew, who said he was found to have considerable radiation exposure, said two years on he suffers from migraines, erectile dysfunction and a swollen face – conditions that have developed since he returned from Iraq. But his conviction about the dangers of DU was fixed when his daughter, Victoria Claudette, was born with only two digits on her right hand.

Whatever debate may be going on among scientists, Mr Matthew is convinced his daughter – conceived the month after he returned from Iraq – suffered because of his own exposure to DU.

“It’s concealment,” he said. “We have 18 and 19-year-old coalition forces out there fighting and they should not be exposed to this.” Dr Doug Rokke, a health physicist who was part of a Pentagon team that studied DU in the mid 1990s, concluded that there was no way DU weapons could be used without the risk of contamination. He said the Pentagon responded to his conclusions by denouncing him.

He told the In These Times newspaper: “DU is a war crime. It’s that simple. Once you’ve scattered all this stuff around and then refuse to clean it up you’ve committed a war crime.”