Health

The mysterious Gulf War illness

A doctor’s report prompts Ottawa to offer to test ailing vets for traces of depleted uranium

Barbara Wickens February 21 2000
Health

The mysterious Gulf War illness

A doctor’s report prompts Ottawa to offer to test ailing vets for traces of depleted uranium

Barbara Wickens February 21 2000

The mysterious Gulf War illness

A doctor’s report prompts Ottawa to offer to test ailing vets for traces of depleted uranium

Health

For Louise Richard, the Persian GulfWar is dragging on painfully. Since her return to Canada in 1991 after serving in a field hospital just 20 km from the Iraq-Kuwait border, the Ottawa woman has suffered a series of debilitating medical problems, including asthma, hair loss and excessive bleeding that led to a hysterectomy. “I went to the Gulf a healthy 29-year-old captain,” says Richard, a registered nurse who left the Canadian Forces on medical discharge in 1996. “I’m now a 38-year-old casualty of war.” Last week, she and thousands of other victims of what has come to be known as GulfWar syndrome heard what many interpreted as a possible cause of their illnesses— depleted uranium.

Some 2,500 Canadians were deployed in the Gulf for the 42-day war to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. About 150 Canadians, most of whom served in field hospitals or were attached to U.S. units in Saudi Arabia, have since reported problems with virtually every bodily system—immune, reproductive and musculoskeletal included. They and their supporters have suggested numerous possible causes: smoke from burning oilfields in Kuwait; pyridostigmine bromide, a drug used experimentally to combat the effects of nerve gas; heavy doses of bug repellents; antianthrax vaccinations; or a toxic cocktail of many such ingredients. But so far, the sufferers and the military have never agreed. The department of national defence in Ottawa concluded in July, 1998, that the symptoms of GulfWar syndrome are related to the psychological stresses of war.

It was something of a mixed blessing for Richard when the widow of another Gulf War veteran made a startling revelation last week. Sue Riordon of Yarmouth, N.S., said a U.S. doctor had found traces of depleted uranium in the bones of her

husband, Terry Riordon, a former military policeman who died last April after a series of illnesses since the war. Depleted uranium, a byproduct of the manufacture of enriched uranium for nuclear fuel, was used for the first time in the GulfWar to harden tips of missiles and shells and to armour-plate military vehicles. That announcement, says Richard, was evidence that the illnesses “are not all in our heads.” On the other hand, it heightened some of her worst fears. “What,” she asks, “does this mean for the rest of us?”

For Defence Minister Art Eggleton, it meant an about-face. The DND has ruled out depleted uranium as an explanation for GulfWar illnesses. It also notes that few Canadians were stationed where they could have been exposed to any of its radioactive dust created by an explosion. Before last week, only two Canadian Gulf War veterans had been tested for depleted uranium. Those urine tests were negative. But last week, Eggleton said any soldiers who believe they may be victims of depleted uranium will be tested.

DND specialists, however, are not ready to change their conclusions about Gulf War syndrome’s cause. It is rela-

tively easy to test urine for depleted uranium. But tissue, as was used in Riordon’s case, is more difficult to analyze. That is in part because everyone’s body has at least trace amounts of natural uranium, which is hard to distinguish from depleted uranium. As a result, says Maj. Tim Cook, a Toronto-based internist and director of the DND’s six postdeployment regional health clinics, scientists need to know more about how the Washington analysis was done to properly interpret its results.

Dr. Asah Durakovic, the Washington nuclear medicine specialist who performed the analysis, has only told CBC Radio he found high levels of an isotope indicating the presence of depleted uranium. Durakovic has not published his methodology or results in a peer-reviewed journal, a step scientists in any field must take before their work is widely accepted. In any case, Durakovic does not suggest that his findings prove the metal caused Riordon’s death. Cook notes that studies of uranium miners worldwide have shown that humans can tolerate fairly high exposures.

Eggletons offer of tests will likely do little to lift the feelings of betrayal and

mistrust that have settled like a pall over many of the stricken vets. Whether they accuse the military of mere incompetence or an outright conspiracy, few now believe much of what Ottawa says about what they were exposed to in the Middle East. Much of the research into their illnesses has come from the United States, where some 80,000 of the 690,000 Americans who served in the Gulf have health concerns. Compounding the credibility gap, the Pentagon has occasionally contradicted itself, as when it denied, but later confirmed, that U.S. engineers were exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin, when they blew up a bunker.

It was in that charged atmosphere that Riordon’s family and friends watched him grow progressively sicker. DND doctors diagnosed him in turn with post-traumatic stress, a seizure disorder or hypochondria. Angered by those diagnoses, Sue Riordon declined a military funeral for her husband. According to his wishes, she had scientists collect tissue from his organs and bones. Now she says the results raise serious questions.

According to Cook, the surviving soldiers would do better directing their energies towards recovering. “If people are fixated on blaming something,” he says, “then they never get better.” Neither should they be so hasty to reject the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress, because, he adds, it by no means implies the illnesses are not real. Part of the problem, he says, is North American attitudes. “In Britain, a label of post-traumatic stress is a badge of courage,” Cook says. “It means you were out there on the front lines.” Still, he acknowledges the military could have done more and says it has begun to improve health care for the veterans. For Gulf War survivors like Richard, however, it is far from enough. “We have lost everything,” she says, “because we served our country.”

Barbara Wickens