Warring team forfeits research

July 19, 2002

Canadian research into detecting depleted uranium (DU) in Gulf war veterans is being transferred to a laboratory in the UK after the original team broke up.

Following a series of clashes in the earth sciences department of the Memorial University of Newfoundland, project geochemist Patricia Horan resigned on July 5.

Last year, the university honoured her for "exemplary service" in successfully detecting DU in samples from sick veterans, much to the chagrin of the military.

Additional research was commissioned last summer by Canada's Department of National Defense. Ms Horan, the only person who could do the specialised work, was asked to take on the work but found that it interfered with tests she was pursuing for the Gulf veterans.

Greg Dunning, Ms Horan's supervisor, said that department head Jim Wright then asked him to resign. He said it was not completely against his will as he welcomed the opportunity to put more time into his core research.

Dr Wright said that Dr Dunning resigned voluntarily, and that the laboratory, which had apparently been putting much of its core rock-dating work on hold while it progressed the research into detecting DU, was to take on a wider mandate under new professor, Paul Sylvester.

Dr Dunning and Dr Wright confirm that after his appointment in February 2002, Professor Sylvester had several clashes with Ms Horan, who had been given a lot of independence to pursue her DU work.

Ms Horan told The THES that when she learnt from Professor Sylvester, while on disability leave for a knee ailment, that she would no longer manage the facility, she tried to establish what her role would be on her return. But Professor Sylvester's emailed response referred to discussions about immediate arrangements for staffing the newly amalgamated laboratory while keeping the long-term options open.

She said: "There were people sick and dying, and veteran autopsies waiting. I wanted to do my job."

In June, Ms Horan's office lock was changed after it was discovered her husband had entered the office alone while she was on leave. According to Dr Dunning, her husband was there to retrieve a pair of shoes.

Dr Dunning expressed dismay over her resignation. "A lot of people are in shock," he said. Ms Horan has left for a US university job, and the DU samples will be shipped to England for testing.

Dr Wright acknowledges that Ms Horan was the best person in Canada doing work on DU.

Malcolm Hooper, emeritus professor of medical chemistry at Sunderland University, commented that Ms Horan had been treated appallingly.

He added that the loss of the most experienced facility in detecting low levels of DU in Gulf war veterans would be welcomed by government and corporate interests with a "vested interest" in not conceding any connection between DU exposure and Gulf war syndrome.

"Her first-class, groundbreaking work will ensure that sooner or later these weapons can no longer be used by any respectable government or military," he said.

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