November 21, 2004
|By Thomas Williams|
LEGISLATOR TAKES UP VETERANSí CAUSE - Will Back Depleted Uranium Tests
By THOMAS D. WILLIAMS
Courant Staff Writer
Eddie Milesí legs were blown off in Vietnam. Despite his injuries, the Army veteran spent much of the rest of his life obtaining artificial limbs for Vietnamese and Cambodian children injured by the landmines the war left behind. Inspired by the work of Miles, a high school friend of hers, state Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, says she is committed to helping those Connecticut National Guard veterans who were exposed to depleted uranium during the wars in Iraq.
"What [Miles] taught me," Dillon said, "was that the war never ends, because the people who are affected by it continue to suffer, but the politicians forget about it."
Dillon, Democratic deputy majority whip in the House, will propose a bill in the General Assembly to provide for independent laboratory health screening of service members from Connecticut who may have been exposed to depleted uranium munitions dust. The bill probably would have to go through the health and appropriations committees.
During the past three years, Dillon has obtained documents and searched the Internet to find what she considers proof of the health dangers those exposed to depleted uranium, or DU, dust can face. The dust is a byproduct of exploding DU munitions used by the United States and Great Britain in Iraq. As a legislator and community activist, Dillon, 56, has been involved with financial and other issues for the veterans hospitals in Rocky Hill and West Haven. Her husband, Dr. Jack Hughes, teaches at the Yale University School of Medicine and is an internist and part-time physician at the VA hospital in West Haven.
Dillon said she decided to get involved because veterans hospital administrators and veterans advocates constantly discussed the health crisis faced by veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, including illnesses they believed were related to depleted uranium dust. As planning began for the present war in Iraq, Dillon said, she began to worry that more soldiers would be exposed. In April, Dillon said, she read in the New York Daily News that independent tests determined that four soldiers from a New York Army National Guard unit probably had become contaminated with dust from the depleted uranium shells fired by U.S. troops in Iraq. When her legislative aides called New York Guard officials to find out what was wrong with the soldiers and what the state was doing about it, Dillon said, they "hit a brick wall of silence and bureaucracy."
The same month she read in the British newspaper The Guardian that British soldiers returning from the war in Iraq were being tested for depleted uranium exposure. That convinced Dillon that Connecticut needs to do the same. Even though federal law requires blood and health tests for returning war veterans, Dillon said she is not convinced the Pentagon or the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is properly screening service members for possible DU poisoning.
Dillon said she plans to lobby hard for her bill when the legislative session opens in January because the health effects of depleted uranium are a "hot button issue." The U.S. Department of Defense has long ignored DUís toxic dangers just as it ignored landmines after Vietnam, Dillon said. The Defense Department insists the dust is only dangerous when inhaled in large quantities, usually an unlikely event.
The United States and Great Britain used tons of DU to destroy tanks and bunkers in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They continued to use it in the Balkans, Afghanistan and the present war in Iraq. The inhalation of DU dust by soldiers and civilians has long been suspected as one of the causes of the illness known as gulf war syndrome.
Depleted uranium is a toxic, heavy metal byproduct of uranium enrichment for use in nuclear weapons and reactor fuel. It is also used in munitions, ballast for airplanes, tank armor and other products. It has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. Its use on the tip of shells fired at tanks is lauded by the military because it ignites a fiery mass that can destroy or disable a tank with a single shot.
But the fine DU dust created by the blast can blow in the wind for many miles and if inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin in sufficient quantities can cause lung cancer or kidney ailments. In 2002 at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., researchers found that even though the alpha radiation from depleted uranium is relatively low, internalized DU as a metal can induce DNA damage and carcinogenic lesions in the cells that make up bones.
Last December at a national conference of state legislators, Dillon asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the statesí partnering with the Defense Department to pay for health care for returning troops. Rumsfeld, she said, promised to consider less wartime reliance on the National Guard, but did not comment on partnering with states on funding military health care. One urine screening test for depleted uranium exposure by an independent lab can cost as much as $2,500, said Tedd Weyman, who works for the Uranium Medical Research Center in Toronto. Because his center does not make profits from the tests, it charges $1,100 per test, he said. But if a state has an available mass spectrometer capable of measuring isotopes in parts per billion, he said, it could reduce that cost to $500. Federal urine tests presently performed on veterans are insufficient to do the job, he said.
More than 32,000 veterans of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are said to have illnesses many of whose causes have not been identified. Dillon is not convinced federal help is on the way. After talking to administrators in state hospitals and veterans advocates, she decided to offer the bill, which, if adopted, would require depleted uranium exposure screening for all state service members returning from the war.
Dillonís friend, Eddie Miles, died in January at age 60. An obituary in the Manhasset Long Island Press said Milesí quest for artificial limbs for the children took him throughout the world raising money, generating medical research and support and, in 1991, establishing a prosthetics clinic at Kien Khleang, outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Michael Bennett, a spokesman for Milesí organization, the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, said: "We certainly support any and all efforts to ensure the health and welfare of our troops as they return home. This [legislation would be] a great step toward recognizing the risks of depleted uranium on the battlefield."
Jose Llamas, a spokeswoman for the VA in Washington, said the VA does not screen veterans specifically for DU exposures, but its representatives and literature make the veterans aware of DUís potential health dangers. Dillon said the DU bill is in part dedicated to Miles. "I donít want this war to be like Vietnam, where public officials waved the flag and no one did anything about it [except the veterans]," she said. "We should learn from our mistakes."
Copyright 2004, _Hartford Courant_ (http://www.ctnow.com/)