DU test is no fishy tale

February 2, 2001

The military denies it but depleted uranium has been discovered in veterans' bodies. Philip Fine reports.

It was 3am when Pat Horan emailed her colleagues to let them know the final test results. She had been in her laboratory since 9am the previous morning but had refused to quit until she found the chemical signature she suspected might be there.

The material she was looking for had been extracted, isolated and measured and, through a reading of isotope ratios, she could see she had successfully detected depleted uranium (DU) in the bone sample of a dead Canadian soldier. It was not the first time Horan, a geochemist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, had found traces of DU, but this time it was from one of those who had gone from decorated patriot to dying veteran in just a few post-Gulf war years. This was significant.

Horan is the first scientist to discover DU in samples of sick soldiers who fought in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo. Long before that 3am discovery, Nato countries were denying DU from the tips of tank-incinerating weapons had found its way inside the bodies of military personnel not hit by shrapnel. That official position has not changed.

Sick veterans who breathed toxic and radioactive dust particles that are capable of free-falling as far as 26 miles, have been told their tests were negative and their despair was unfounded. Despite firing 300 tonnes of DU during the Gulf war alone, the United States, British and Canadian militaries say they cannot detect it in urine samples. They conclude that there is no link between the DU and the deaths of veterans - notwithstanding early epidemiological reports in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq that point to a high incidence of cancer.

The war-room spin has even reached the laboratory at Memorial. The Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) publicly discredited Memorial's findings saying that, since other labs had not detected DU, there must be something wrong with its work. But Memorial's lab tests are simply better than the government's, finding traces of DU in more than half of the first 16 urine samples sent in by mostly British veterans who had fallen ill.

While this island off the east coast of Canada might be better known for its troubled fisheries than its chemical-testing prowess, the earth sciences department at Memorial is no fisherman's outport. Scientists there use a mass spectrometer that is more sensitive than those found in the labs that this country's military brass depended on. They have dedicated many months to proven isotopic procedures that extract DU from urine, a method that one of the DND's science consultants at the Royal Military College did not seem to understand when quizzed by an academic.

Throughout, Horan has shown grace under fire. "I'm just proud of the scientific work," she said, standing in front of the mass spectrometer that has helped to reveal the contamination. The million-dollar, stainless steel machine handles the final process of a 40-step, two-day procedure to find DU. Horan deposits a deadly sample into the spectrometer. A stream of minuscule, charged particles or ions is drawn off the sample, passes through the machine at high speed and then gets pulled to one side by a three-quarter tonne magnet. Ions of different weights get deflected by different amounts, flying off separately. A powerful vacuum then gives them a trip to the detector. A characteristic pattern of ion weights betrays the presence of DU.

Horan's senior colleague, Greg Dunning, worries little about the military's criticism. He is confident in his peers' acknowledgement that Memorial's geological work emerges from one of the country's foremost laboratories, with the most sensitive techniques available.

"You won't hear uranium isotope analysts question our results," he said. Jim Wright, head of the earth sciences department, went further with two rhetorical questions: "What would Memorial have to gain by fudging its numbers? What would the DND have to gain by discrediting us?" Horan refused to make any medical statements based on her results, and said she is just testing for the presence of DU. She explained how foolhardy it would be to comment, how she is not qualified to make such statements and how it is outside her area of expertise.

But the samples in her laboratory seem to say much more. White hospital jugs, the size of windscreen washer fluid containers, line up along the length of a counter. Filled with daily samples from several veterans, it is striking how little most actually resemble urine. The liquid is the colour of strong tea, possibly due to the increased sediment and tissue excreted by a person with damaged kidneys. Written in black marker on one jug:

"Please test for depleted uranium."

There are other laboratories that can do this work, and Dunning and Horan are willing to share their techniques. But they know that most labs of this type are busy enough with dating rocks for geological surveys, let alone having the time and patience to deal with such a political hot potato. One Spanish university with a mass spectrometer has, however, expressed an interest in replicating the Memorial experiments. The despair felt by the veterans who call the lab to ask if Horan's arduous process has been applied to their sample yet, may be softened by some good news. The researchers at Memorial do not feel like threatened whistleblowers. They are in a university that supports their work and that allows them the independence and time to carry out this challenging science.

Organisations such as the Uranium Medical Project, the feisty non-profit group trying to bring these results to the fore, and the better established International Depleted Uranium Study Team, are both pushing for independent epidemiological studies that would show if there was a correlation between DU and sick war veterans.

That would be a job for the next researcher willing to stay up until 3am waiting for that crucial result.

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