Canada

Legacy of a Sick War

John Geddes August 9 1999
Canada

Legacy of a Sick War

John Geddes August 9 1999

Legacy of a Sick War

Canada

John Geddes

Everybody agrees it was a dirty job. When Canadian peacekeepers arrived in Croatia in 1993, many had to work near abandoned industrial sites destroyed during the war that had torn apart the old Yugoslavia.

Some got covered in reddish grit while filling sandbags. Others recall that the locally supplied bottled water was often cloudy. Last week, Defence Minister Art Eggleton and Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Maurice Baril established a board of inquiry to look into claims that grimy conditions left some peacekeepers chronically ill— and how a doctors note warning of possible exposure to toxic substances came to be removed from the medical records of up to 1,000 soldiers.

But many of those who served in Croatia are skeptical that the inquiry means their health worries are finally being taken seriously by the top brass. “I’m sorry I didn’t get my leg blown off on the beaches of Normandy,” says Kelly Carter of Calgary, who was a master corporal in Croatia and is now retired from the army. “But there are new types of injuries they are going to have to learn to deal with.”

Baril has promised that answers will come soon. The board expects to discover who altered medical records, and make the findings public in an interim report in October. A final report might take a few more months. But some embittered rank-

and-file veterans doubt the inquiry will get to the bottom of the controversy. “I certainly don’t trust the military to investigate itself,” says Sean Breckenridge, a former army reservist in Calgary who served as a radio operator in Croatia. Opposition politicians, too, are demanding outside investigators. On the inquiry’s other key aim—finding out if soldiers were exposed to toxic hazards—political pressure will be less intense but the scientific challenge is daunting. Doctors have been stymied in the past when faced with trying to sort out the

With medical notes missing, the military investigates itself and a mystery malady

Carter at home in Calgary; Eggleton on his way to a cabinet meeting (top): the problems from the Croatian cleanup were flagged a year ago but investigators were too busy to deal with them

causes of elusive medical syndromes associated with troops who came home from tough overseas assignments like Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.

The inquiry’s credibility was being questioned within minutes of its five members being announced at a July 29 news conference. Col. Howard Marsh, the officer named to lead the board, turned out to be one link in the long chain of delays and indecision that left Baril apologizing for the military’s lax handling of the affair up to now. Questioned about when he learned of the issue, Marsh said he was told about it by Col. Jim Calvin in late May, 1998. Calvin commanded Canadian peacekeepers in Croatia and later wrote an internal memo raising both the health question and his own grave concerns about the apparent altering of medical records. About three months after his chat with Calvin, Marsh took over as the army’s command inspector, but said that for a few months he was too busy to look into what Calvin had told him.

The panel’s legal counsel, Lt.-Col. Roger Strum, resigned citing a conflict of interest—

he was prosecutor in a controversial court martial of Lieut. Eric Smith, a military doctor and key figure in the health controversy. But Marsh shows no inclination to bail out of the mission. Bristling at the suggestion that he could not properly probe a process in which he played a small part, he vowed to follow his investigation wherever it leads—even if his findings cause embarrassment in corner offices at department of national defence headquarters in Ottawa. In a brief interview with Macleans, he predicted that “central agencies” of the Canadian Forces will have some explaining to do. Marsh downplayed the importance of documents, released to the Reform party under the Access to Information Act, that have prompted speculation that a military lawyer in Calgary might have given the key advice to remove the notes from soldiers’ medical files. He believes the final decision must have come from higher up. “I would

surmise that it came from a central agency,” Marsh said, suggesting the top medical officers in the Forces as possible targets for investigation. “If it goes to the surgeon general, that’s where I’ll go.”

Marsh clearly has his hunches. But he also stresses that the task ahead of him is far from straightforward. After all, the facts of the case stretch back more than six years; the trail is cold and the players are scattered. The saga began in 1993, when soldiers from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry were sent to Croatia. In June, 1994, Smith, then-senior medical officer with the peacekeeping contingent, was worried enough to note in a report his concern about polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that had leaked out of ruined electrical transformers in an old industrial plant where Canadian troops were deployed. By early 1995, Smith was urging that a note be put in soldiers’ files stating that they had been exposed to PCBs as well as bauxite—the mixture of minerals that is the main source of aluminum, and that was used to fill sandbags. Other officers persuaded Smith to soften his original

The red dust from the bauxite was everywhere— ‘soldiers lived in it, slept in it, ate their lunches in it’

wording on “exposure” to “potential exposure.” Some time later, the note was removed entirely from many files.

The order to take out the note—whoever issued it—may well turn out to be indefensible. But that does not mean the substance of Smiths warning was grounded in solid science. Some leading experts take issue with his assumptions. Much attention has focused on the now-infamous bauxite-filled sandbags, the source of the red dust that one military report says covered some soldiers for weeks on end while they served in Croatia. “They lived in it, slept in it, ate their lunches in it,” says Reform defence critic Art Hanger. Sounds unpleasant, but not necessarily harmful. Dr. Graham Gibbs, an Edmonton epidemiologist who has studied health risks in the aluminum industry, says bauxite poses no special threat. “There have been a sufficient number of miners involved in bauxite mining around the world that if there were indications of these kind of effects, we would have heard about them,” Gibbs says.

Canadians are more attuned to the notion that PCBs are extremely dangerous. Many remember the uproar when a transport truck spilled PCBs on the Trans-Canada Highway near Kenora, Ont., in 1985, and the panic when a warehouse full of stored PCBs exploded into flames in Saint-Basile-le-Grand, Que., in 1988.

Yet Prof. Allan Okey, chairman of the University of Toronto’s pharmacology department and an expert on toxic substances, says studies have not shown any clear health risk, beyond a skin condition similar to acne, among industrial workers who were routinely exposed to PCBs for decades before the substance was banned in 1979. “The majority of the published research doesn’t really support the notion of a high degree of toxicity,” he says.

Okey suggests one way to give soldiers quick answers— and perhaps peace of mind—would be to order immediate blood tests. He estimates that for $1,000 to $2,000 per person, the army could find out if peacekeepers who served in Croatia have higher than normal PCB levels. There is a strong chance the findings would be reassuring. Okey says that merely being near a PCB spill, which seems to have been the case in Croatia, suggests no reason to suspect the soldiers ingested much of the chemical. “From what I know of the situation, it is unlikely there has been sufficient exposure to constitute a major health problem,” he said.

Still, even those who doubt PCBs and bauxite are the culprits are not discounting the possibility of genuine health problems. Okey said military zones are notorious for

combining “the stress of combat, with infectious diseases, with the possibility of a lot of different chemicals.” Matt Stopford of Peterborough, Ont., a former platoon warrant officer who served in Croatia, insists the effects are all too real. He says he has lost most of the vision in his right eye and suffers pain and swelling of his joints, and knows of about 50 other soldiers who were in Croatia who now com-

plain of similar symptoms. Many others, like Carter and Breckenridge, feel fine now, but worry about the future. As well, RCMP Const. Tom Dolan, one of250 Mounties who served in Croatia in the same area as the military peacekeepers, went public last week with his concern that pain in his arms might be related to the ills soldiers are reporting. The RCMP launched its own review of the situation, and a member of the national police force was added to Marsh’s inquiry board as an observer.

Marsh dismissed PCBs and bauxite as likely “red herrings” for his inquiry. But he vividly described how conditions in Croatia in 1993 provided plenty of other candidates for causing future poor health. “It is fully possible that it is the scorched earth, the burning human flesh, the burning animals, it is the blown up sewers, it is the downed transformers, it is the incoming shells, that have created a toxic soup in the air,” he said. But then, the soldiers already know what they faced in the field. What they want to find out is what went on back home in the filing cabinets. IS]