Radioactive regiments

Is Canada knowingly sending its soldiers off to Kosovo to die from uranium dust?

"We criticize other countries and cry genocide and ethnic cleansing," says Sue. "We're no different with our own people."

TORONTO (8 July 1999) -- In the movie Braveheart, there's a telling scene: the king orders his archers to fire at a battlefield where his soldiers are fighting Scottish rebels. But the arrows will kill some of their own men, an aide protests. Never mind, says the king, fire away.

In war, the ultimate game of life and death, victory is achieved at all costs -- including collateral damage to innocent bystanders and the random sacrifice of your own soldiers.

And there's no need to look back to 14th-century Britain for examples of this rule of conduct. You can find them in modern-day warfare: U.S. troops in Vietnam poisoned by the herbicide Agent Orange, and contamination of soldiers and civilians by depleted uranium (DU) in the current war in Yugoslavia and the Gulf War of 1991.

Depleted uranium, aka uranium-238, is the dirty and largely secret weapon of these modern conflicts, used mostly in shells and bombs by U.S. war planes attacking tanks, artillery and other armoured targets.

Depleted uranium is a dense, hard metal that burns when it explodes, allowing shells to pierce and destroy their targets. It also vaporizes on impact, creating airborne radioactive dust that is toxic to humans if it enters the body.

These tiny exploded particles put civilians and NATO ground troops currently in Kosovo at risk, says U.S. physicist Leonard Dietz, who worked at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, for 28 years . Deitz has testified before the U.S. Congress about the scientific properties and health effects of depleted uranium, which he has researched and written about extensively.

Double poison

Depleted uranium is a "double poison," dangerous to people because of its chemical and radiological properties, Dietz says. It enters the body through breathing, ingestion or a wound, and is still showing up in the urine of Gulf War vets more than eight years after that war.

"Uranium is bone-seeking. It will go to the marrow and damage blood-forming organs like the kidneys and the liver."

Gulf War troops who were exposed to depleted uranium were neither informed about the danger nor protected from radiological poisoning, says Dietz. "More than 100,000 vets who were exposed to it are sick. The cause could be a mixture of chemical poisoning and depleted uranium -- the witch's brew they were subjected to during the Gulf War."

During his lengthy career as a radiological worker, Dietz and his colleagues at the atomic power lab used strict precautions in approaching or handling potentially dangerous atomic material. "We would never breathe these particles into our lungs. We would suit up and wear a mask."

But the risks to unprotected soldiers and civilians in the aftermath of battle where depleted uranium has been exploded are far greater than those he and his co-workers faced in the atomic lab.

Just ask Sue Riordan of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, what she thinks about sending troops to a region where depleted uranium weapons have been used. Her husband Terry, a Gulf War vet, died April 29, just a few days after his urine was tested for depleted uranium.

"We criticize other countries and cry genocide and ethnic cleansing," says Sue. "We're no different with our own people."

Terry Riordan's urine was tested by Hari Sharma, a University of Waterloo chemistry professor. Sue Riordan says Sharma told her a few days before her husband's death that his samples tested positive for depleted uranium, but in an interview, Sharma was less definitive.

"The analysis is partial, so I would say neither yes nor no."

When asked if he had told Sue there was depleted uranium in the samples, he says, "I said there are indications, but they are not really definite."

A more definite answer is expected within the next few months, when tissues from Riordan's body will be tested by the Uranium Medical Project, an independent research team of scientists headed by Asaf Durakovic, former chief of nuclear medicine at the Veterans Affairs Medical Facility in Wilmington, Delaware.

Riordan was a military intelligence and security officer based in Dubai during the Gulf War. "This was a high-risk terrorist area, and Canada had to supply a security officer to ensure that all our countrymen and women arrived home safely," Sue Riordan says. "This was Terry's job."

Escape routes

He worked in "counter-intelligence, planning escape routes, escape houses," she says. Some of his workdays lasted 32 to 38 hours, with an hour off for rest. Sworn to secrecy, Riordan never told his wife all the places he served, so the specifics of his exposure to depleted uranium remain a mystery to her.

She does know he left for the Gulf a vigorous, athletic, well-adjusted man with a wife and two kids. When he arrived home after the war in February, 1991, "I was amazed at the man I saw -- pale, shaking, jumpy and experiencing his first-ever migraine."

She watched him slowly deteriorate over the next eight years of frustration and misdiagnosis. At one point, military doctors said he had epilepsy. Later, they included -- as a "notation,'' as they call it -- Gulf War Syndrome in one of their medical reports on Riordan. (The syndrome is a mysterious set of symptoms that have stricken U.S., Canadian and British soldiers who served in the war.)

In his final weeks of life, he was disoriented and had lost control of his bodily functions and his ability to walk.

His widow feels he was unsupported by the military he had served so faithfully, bounced from one section of the armed forces to another and never properly diagnosed or treated. As he weakened, she kept pushing for answers, lobbying the military, the prime minister and the House of Commons committee on national defence.

Before he died at age 45, he asked that his body be used for medical science, to determine what caused his devastating illness. And his wife authorized the removal of 18 body parts, including most of his brain, his thyroid, lungs and kidneys, which were "harvested" by members of the Uranium Medical Project.

She says she's been told that some of his organs have already tested positive for depleted uranium, but Miriam Ripley-Guzman, coordinator of the project, says results of the tests won't be released until later this summer.

"We have had interference from people who don't want this out," says Ripley-Guzman. "The military try to downplay it -- they don't want to lose depleted uranium as a weapon."

After a week of requests for information about Terry Riordan's case, I was finally told by lieutenant-commander Denise Laviollette that his medical records are subject to privacy regulations and cannot be released. She refuses to answer other questions about his military service.

But Canadian officials are not concerned about the dangers of depleted uranium poisoning. "There's not a great deal to indicate it's a high health risk," says doctor Ruth MacKenzie, a medical adviser to Veterans Affairs. Scientific study has not yet proven that depleted uranium contamination is the cause of Gulf War Syndrome, but Canadian officials continue to monitor studies. "Our minds are open" to further evidence, MacKenzie says.

Marathon runner

The risk is apparently great enough to cause the Canadian military to stop using depleted uranium weapons. The armed forces disposed of their depleted uranium arsenal in January 1998, says captain Michel Mailloux, a national defence spokesperson. Weapons made with depleted uranium were part of the Canadian navy's close-range phalanx weapon system from the early 1990s until 1998, but were replaced with tungsten weapons. The navy stopped using depleted uranium because it cost more to handle and, as a radioactive substance, is potentially dangerous for troops and civilians, Mailloux says.

Ray Bristow, a British Gulf War vet and friend of Sue and Terry Riordan, says he has tested positive for depleted uranium radiation and suffers from symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome such as anxiety, chronic pain and fatigue. Bristow served as an operating theatre technician at a field hospital in Saudi Arabia near the Iraq/Kuwait border.

"I was a very fit marathon runner before the war. Now, each step I take is painful," he tells me in an e-mail message. "I have a DU level that means, in laymen's terms, in three months I was exposed to over 100 times what is considered the safe limit to which an individual can be exposed over a year."

He says he remained in Saudi Arabia throughout the war and was never on the battlefield. "Therefore, the DU contamination can spread in the atmosphere, contra to what the governments say."

He signs off his e-mail, "Ray Bristow, on DU Death Row."

Bristow's depleted uranium contamination was diagnosed by Durakovic, who travelled to Britain as part of his inquiry for the Uranium Medical Project. Durakovic refused requests to be interviewed for this article. Project coordinator Ripley-Guzman says he wants to avoid public comment until test results are completed and presented at a radiation conference in Dublin later this summer.

In both the Gulf War and in Yugoslavia, depleted uranium shells were fired from American A-10 low-flying bombers equipped with a seven-barrel Gatling gun that can discharge 3,900 bullets a minute.

Some 300 tons of depleted uranium was fired at Iraqi targets by A-10s and other aircraft. The U.S. is not releasing information about the amount discharged in the Yugoslav campaign, but it downplays any health risk.

"As far as we're concerned, depleted uranium does not pose a significant health hazard," says lieutenant-colonel Steve Campbell of the U.S. army. Pressed on the point, he adds, "There are 33 vets carrying DU shrapnel inside them, and they haven't developed serious illness."

Serious illness

But physicist Dietz says depleted uranium poisoning is generally the result of inhaling tiny particles of uranium dust, which is far more hazardous than carrying relatively inert shrapnel in the body.

Fred Knelman of Victoria, a physicist, author and longtime researcher of nuclear weaponry, is one of many international scientists who say depleted uranium is dangerous to human life and health and should be banned as a weapon.

"There will be thousands of people in Yugoslavia exposed to tiny particles of uranium-238, and they may get cancer," Knelman says. "They'll mainly get lung cancer, but it depends which organs are affected. It can also get lodged in the nasal passages or the throat."

Iraqi authorities have also claimed the fallout from depleted uranium has led to a sharp increase in cancer among civilians in that country. But at the Toronto-based International Institute of Concern for Public Health, experts on radiation, Willi Nolan says, "As far as I am aware, the effects on civilians haven't been attended to, except by a handful of doctors and scientists.''

Sue Riordan hopes her husband's lasting legacy will be greater awareness of the effects of depleted uranium on human health. The irony of his slow and painful death, she says, is that he always put his military service ahead of everything else, including his family.

"Terry really loved his country, and he trusted the military 100 per cent."

He can no longer demand an accounting for the tragedy that struck him, but his body parts may help unravel the story.

Sue Riordan is determined to see that happen. "I don't intend to let Terry's death pass unnoticed."

*With research assistance by Tara Atlurio.

NOW, a Toronto weekly newspaper, JULY 8-14, 1999

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