Did shells made from nuclear waste poison dozens of Canadian soldiers serving abroad?

Tom Fennell March 19 2001


Did shells made from nuclear waste poison dozens of Canadian soldiers serving abroad?

Tom Fennell March 19 2001


Did shells made from nuclear waste poison dozens of Canadian soldiers serving abroad?

Tom Fennell

Larry Black spends his days in search of darkness. It begins in the morning in his curtain-shrouded house, when he puts in black-tinted contacts and covers them up with sunglasses dark enough to block the glare from a welders torch. Then he struggles to drag his 270-lb., 47-year-old body into a wheelchair. Rarely leaving his home in Nova Scotia’s Annapo^ , p.

lis Valley, Black often wonders what really OD0Cl£tl Tv0POrt happened to the once-proud, younger soldier who went off to serve in Croatia as a peacekeeper in 1993. Back then, Black was a sergeant in charge of munitions. He thought he survived unscathed, but since returning he has become ravaged by disease. He cannot stand the sunlight, his legs have given out and at night he perspires, filling the bedsheets with what he calls a “toxic sweat.”

Years of medical tests have failed to diagnose what exactly

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is wrong with Black, who served in Croatia with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Others are in a similar situation. Hundreds of Canadian soldiers who took part in the Persian Gulf War and peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo say they have been mysteriously devastated by illnesses, including cancer. Now, a small group of Canadian scientists led by Patricia Horan, a geochemist at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., say they may have found the answer—a claim that has landed them in the centre of an intense international debate. Tests run at Horan’s laboratory found traces of a specific isotope of uranium in 12 of 20 ill Canadian, British and American veterans. The scientists claim it can only come from one source: super-hard shells made from depleted uranium, which release a cloud of radioactive vapour on impact. Black, who was tested in late 2000, is now waiting for his own

results. “If they find it in me,” he says, “I’d like to walk up to Prime Minister Jean Chrétiens desk in the House of Commons and ask, ‘What are you going to do now, Jean?’ ” Black’s question may soon become more than rhetorical. Some European Union politicians, increasingly worried that radiation released by exploding depleted uranium shells may have triggered cancer and other diseases in their own Gulf War and peacekeeping veterans in Bosnia and Kosovo, want to ban the weapons. That demand has deeply divided NATO, whose Canadian, American and British representatives, backed by dozens of scientific studies, claim radiation levels associated with the weapons are safe. While they received a measure of support last week when an EU panel concluded that depleted uranium did not cause cancer in soldiers, the research conducted at Memorial, 3 which is scheduled to be preI sented to an EU panel on I April 4, has raised disturbing | questions. And more will be I known later this month when % the United Nations finishes its I investigation into radiation I levels at bombing sites in Kosovo. But Horan, whose work will soon be duplicated at laboratories in France, told Macleans she is sure of only one thing. “I can’t tell you how the depleted uranium got in the soldiers,” she said. “But I can tell you it’s there. Period.”

Horan, working under a system developed by Asaf Durakovic, a Croatian-born Canadian radiobiologist, found traces of depleted uranium in the veterans by using a $1-million mass spectrometer, one of the most advanced machines of its kind in Canada. It can detect isotopes of uranium that has been enriched in nuclear plants, and, scientists say, its presence in veterans could only have resulted from exploded shells made from nuclear waste. But Durakovic, who presented his work to the European Association of Nuclear Medicine conference in Paris last September, maintains that civilians are also at risk because the radioactive cloud produced by the weapons can be carried into cities. “We have storms in the desert,” says Durakovic, who is now head of

nuclear medicine at King Faisal hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “The dust is very fine and very soft. It can easily be carried for 100 km.”

The controversial shells, which have been phased out of the Canadian arsenal, contain depleted uranium manufactured from waste taken from nuclear reactors and atomic weapons facilities. An extremely dense substance, it burns on impact, bursting through a tank’s armour and engulfing its target in a radioactive fire while spewing a vapour of radioactive dust into the air. Canadian Alliance party defence critic Peter Goldring believes there should be a moratorium on its use.

“Think about it,” he says. “You are able to dump nuclear waste into foreign battlefields and leave it there?”

Many of the ill Canadian soldiers believe they came into contact with the radioactive cloud and that it may have triggered many of the diseases that afflict them. But the department of national defence’s own exhaustive studies have failed to link radiation to the veterans’ illnesses, including cancer.

DND tested 130 veterans for the presence of depleted uranium, but found none.

And the level of cancer in the soldiers, DND says, was no higher than that in the general population. Instead, Dr.

Ken Scott, the department’s director of medical policy, said there is clinical evidence, reaching back as far as the American Civil War, that suggests a percentage of soldiers returning from conflicts will suffer from a wide Iraqi mother with sick child: concerns variety of often unrelated illnesses. Many of the problems, including mental illness, he said, are related to stress or injuries suffered abroad that later result in complications.

But like dozens of Canadian veterans, Black believes he may have become ill after breathing in radioactive dust while serving abroad. He headed a 20-man team that transported and cleaned munitions—and was close to the fighting. While both the American and Canadian governments claim depleted uranium weapons were not deployed in Croatia, some military analysts believe Croatia’s army did use the shells. Whatever it was, something certainly affected Black.

He returned home from Croatia feeling fine, but soon began to exhibit devastating symptoms. His weight ballooned from 180 lb. to 270. He developed a sensitivity to light; his night sweats, he says, leave his bedsheets stained with a brown substance that is all but impossible to scrub out. His illnesses have left him feeling betrayed by his

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country. “I was discarded from the military,” said Black, “and that is exacdy how I feel.”

Like Black, Perry Holloway of Halifax became ill shordy after remming home and is now waiting for the results of his tests from Horans laboratory. Holloway served in the Gulf as a 24-year-old bosun aboard the Canadian supply ship HMCS Protecteur. DND says the only Canadian warships to carry depleted uranium weapons in the Gulf were HMCS Athabaskan and HMCS Terra Nova. Both were equipped with antimissile defence systems that used the shells; Holloway fears he may have breathed in radioactive dust when the two ships engaged in practice fire while his vessel was nearby. “We stood on the deck and watched,” recalls Holloway, who suffers from a number of debilitating conditions including fibra myalgia, marked by acute muscle pain and fatigue. “But no one told us they were firing depleted uranium.”

It was during the same conflict that British veteran Shaun Rusling believes he was poisoned by radiation.

Rusling, 41, was a medic in Britain’s parachute regiment and was stationed about 60 km behind the battle lines while Americans planes pounded Iraqi tanks with depleted uranium shells.

“The Iraqi wounded arrived in frightening condition,” said Rusling. “We had to cut their uniforms off with shears to get at their wounds.

That’s when I think I must have been exposed.” Eight years later, Rusling is passing depleted uranium in his urine—something Horan’s testing uncovered. “After all these years, I now have proof that there is something wrong with me,” he says. “And I have Pat Horan to thank for proving it.”

Rusling is chairman of Britain’s National Gulf War Veterans and Families Association, a body with 2,400 members who say they are suffering from mysterious ailments. James Moore is one. Now 34, he was a career British soldier, a sergeant who served in the Gulf War and later in Bosnia. “I finally had to leave in 1997 because of my health,” says Moore. “I just disintegrated over the years.” He does not yet have the results of his test from Horan, but he is sure they will indicate that he, too, has depleted uranium in his system.

Solving the mystery behind the diseases afflicting the veterans has pitted Horan and Durakovic against the military establishment. Their work has been partially funded by the Uranium Medical Project, a Toronto-


Depleted uranium is a waste product of the atomic age, mildly radioactive garbage left behind at nuclear-generating stations and weapons plants. In 1978, American scientists discovered that the material, of which there is almost 500,000 tonnes stockpiled in the United States, could be turned into a phenomenally potent anti-tank weapon. And with 50,000 Soviet tanks poised on the edge of Western Europe, America and its NATO allies prompdy embraced the idea.

Waste uranium is incredibly hard and nearly twice as dense as lead. Projectiles made from it can punch through a tank’s metal skin as if it were aluminum foil. But that is only part of its appeal as a weapon. As it penetrates, the shell ignites, scattering radioactive dust throughout the interior and engulfing the tank or other target in flames. Defence officials say the dust quickly dissipates. But critics say advancing ground troops and civilians downwind from the attack are at risk if they breathe the toxic dust—as are those who later visit the battleground. Depleted uranium ammunition was first used by the United

States in the Persian Gulf War, primarily by the Ml-AÍ Abrams tank and A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft. But the shells were also fired by Bradley armoured personnel carriers, British and American AV-8B Harrier attack jets and the powerful U.S. A10 Thunderbolt—a twoengine aircraft that uses a seven-barrel Gading gun to destroy tanks. It is estimated that the Abrams fired 14,000 120-mm rounds, while U.S. planes fired 940,000 30-mm rounds. British Challenger tanks also fired almost 100 120-mm rounds. In all, an estimated 270 metric tonnes of depleted uranium was fired off, leaving behind 1,400 smouldering Iraqi tanks.

The weapons were also used by NATO in Yugoslavia and Bosnia. NATO officials estimate that approximately 31,000 rounds of depleted uranium ammunition were fired, primarily by American forces, against 112 sites in Serbia and Kosovo during the 78-day war in 1999. American planes also fired off as many as 10,000 rounds during bombing campaigns in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995. And even as the weapons’ radioactive properties have triggered a debate over whether they should be banned, depleted uranium shells have been purchased by a number of armies around the world, including those of France, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia and Greece. For now, the weapons’ destructive power will likely ensure that even more countries will acquire them.

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based advocacy group. Project director Mary Guzman, who addressed an EU panel investigating the issue last October, says DND officials have consistently tried to undermine the research, claiming it is unprofessional and out of step with numerous studies that have concluded the weapons are safe. But James Wright, head .« of the department of earth scif enees at Memorial, dismisses I DND’s attempts to discredit

Horan. “DND had been critical ® of Memorial’s work,” says Wright.

“But we have absolutely stuck behind Patricia Horan.” Durakovic is not surprised by the controversy. A graduate of Zagreb University, he came to Canada in 1970 to do postdoctoral research in radiobiology at the National Research Council in Montreal. He moved to the United States in 1977, where he held a number of posts with the Veterans Administration. He was studying Gulf War veterans at the VA Medical Center in Wilmington, Del., in the mid-1990s when he began examining them for radiation poisoning. When his superiors suddenly ordered him to stop his tests, he refused and left the military. “That is where the horror story started,” said Durakovic, referring to his discovery. “What I do know is that the veterans were exposed to radioactive dust. And we proved the presence of a specific isotope of uranium in the veterans.”

Durakovic says civilians as well as soldiers may have been poisoned by clouds of radioactive dust. Scott Taylor, editor and publisher of the Ottawa-based military magazine Esprit de Corps, visited the southern Iraqi city of Basra last May. He said doctors showed him pictures of babies born with their organs on the outside of their bodies. He also toured leukemia wards populated with dozens of children, cases that Iraqi doctors say were triggered by toxic clouds. “It was horrific,” Taylor recalls. “They were just waiting to die.” But DND’s Scott questioned Taylor’s assumption, pointing out that other countries near the fighting, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have not experienced an increase in leukemia levels.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, continues to build, test and stockpile the weapons. In midJanuary, then-Defence Secretary William Cohen compared the health risks of radiation from depleted uranium to those of lead paint. Dust from peeling lead paint should not be breathed, he said, but if used properly the paint is safe. That is a view shared by the Canadian military. In an operations update issued on Jan. 11, Lt.-Gen. Ray Henault, the deputy chief of defence staff, said: “There is no scientific

or medical evidence that links depleted uranium to cancer.” That aside, why have Horan’s studies shown the presence of depleted uranium in the veterans, while DND tests have not? Memorial’s Wright said DND has been unable to detect depleted uranium in the veterans because Memorial’s equipment is more sophisticated than that used by the military. Scott said DND hopes to end the standoff by doing a joint study with Memorial that could finally come to a definitive conclusion. But, Guzman says, “they told us about a joint study—Memorial has yet to receive a research proposal from them.” Durakovic also questions DND’s sincerity. “They would very much like to see negative results,” said Durakovic. “They do not want to find out that we are right.” European governments are also grappling for the truth. France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Italy all sent teams to Kosovo to investigate sites where depleted uranium weapons were used. The most ambitious effort so far has been launched by the United Nations environment program directed by Pekka Haavisto, a former Finnish environment minister. Haavisto has investigated 11 of the 112 separate locations where depleted uranium weapons were used in Kosovo. Samples of spent ammunition, soil, water and cow’s milk were sent to five laboratories in Europe.

In the meantime, Haavisto has expressed surprise at finding “DU ammunition just lying around the ground, P/2 years after the conflict.” At the same time, two of the European labs who received material from Haavisto—one in Switzerland and the other in Sweden—have issued interim reports, indicating that limited amounts of depleted uranium residue as well as very low traces of plutonium had been found in spent shell casings collected in Kosovo. Those findings will be added to the debate, which is likely to intensify in the coming weeks.

With Catherine Roberts in Toronto, Andrew Phillips in Washington and Barry Came in London

1 can’t tell you how depleted uranium got in the soldiers. But I can tell you it’s there’

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