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American Forces Press Service

Risks Low for Service Members from Depleted Uranium, DoD Says

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 3, 2004 - Depleted uranium poses very low health risks to U.S. service members, senior Defense Department officials said here April 29.

Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, pointed to a 10-year, joint DoD-Veterans Affairs study showing "that low levels of depleted uranium that our troops would be exposed to are neither a radiological or chemical health threat to our service members."

No evidence exists linking depleted uranium to radiation-induced illnesses like leukemia or cancers, Winkenwerder said to reporters during a Pentagon media roundtable.

Depleted uranium is a dense material produced from uranium processing that's used for armor and armor-piercing projectiles. High levels of the substance introduced into the human body, he noted, could cause kidney damage.

However, "there's no medical evidence that links low level of exposure to depleted uranium to any medical symptoms" among service members, Winkenwerder said. Only three of about 1,000 service members returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom duty tested as part of post-deployment health assessments have tested positive for elevated levels of uranium in their urine, Winkenwerder said.

Those service members, two from the Army and one from the Air Force, explained Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director, Deployment Health Support Directorate, were involved in combat operations in Iraq and have pieces of depleted uranium shrapnel in their bodies. Kilpatrick accompanied Winkenwerder at the roundtable meeting with reporters.

Such shrapnel can usually be removed surgically, Kilpatrick noted, unless doing so would damage surrounding muscle and other important tissue. The three service members continue to be monitored in a medical follow up program, he said.

Medical tests performed on Gulf War vets with depleted uranium shrapnel in their bodies, Kilpatrick noted, show "their kidneys are perfectly normal."

All people have some uranium in their bodies and bones that causes no ill health effects, Kilpatrick said. Urine testing first measures the amount of natural uranium in the system, he added.

"If it's in the normal range, we don't have a concern," he explained. "If the level is at all high, then we do a differentiation between natural and depleted uranium."

A reporter asked about a new report saying members of the 442nd Military Police Company, a New York National Guard unit, had become sick after exposure to depleted uranium in Iraq. Kilpatrick said testing has showed "those people all had normal levels of uranium in their urine."

People who inhale dust laced with depleted uranium, Kilpatrick noted, eventually eliminate the material from their bodies via urination.

"Service members should know that the potential health risks of depleted uranium are extremely, extremely low," Winkenwerder emphasized. "And, we have no evidence that there are health consequences after many years among people who had the highest levels of exposure after the Gulf War."

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