Why, seven years after the Gulf War, are thousands of its veterans still suffering from mysterious illnesses, some dying, while the causes remain murky?
Two administrations have failed to find answers. President Clinton recently named a board headed by former Sen. Warren Rudman to monitor the government's ongoing efforts.
Mr. Rudman's board might well begin its mission by reading a report of the House Human Resources Subcommittee. After a 19-month investigation, the subcommittee concluded last November that "current approaches to research, diagnosis, and treatment (are) unlikely to yield answers to veterans' life-or-death questions in the foreseeable, or even distant future."
The report was adopted by the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, which charged that the federal government "too often has a tin ear, a cold heart and a closed mind." Its tin ear was in evidence when the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs told veterans who suffered undiagnosed symptoms that they were just experiencing stress. Its closed mind showed in its position regarding depleted uranium (DU).
DU is a little-known wonder weapon, a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process. United States tanks and planes that hit a majority of the 1,400 Iraqi tanks and trucks destroyed in the ground war fired DU-encased munitions. When a high velocity DU penetrator hits, its tip burns furiously. Target and crew are unlikely to survive. But the Army failed to inform its own troops that DU explosions release tiny particles of radioactive uranium oxide into the air. People downwind may breathe it in or swallow it. The unsuspecting can pick it up in the dust of destroyed tanks.
After the four-day ground war, Americans crawled all over Iraqi vehicles - and US tanks hit by "friendly fire" - that had been destroyed by DU penetrators. Some troops even gathered fragments of DU penetrators as souvenirs.
"We recognize that we were deficient in informing all soldiers of the risks associated with DU armor and munitions," Dr. Bernard Rostker, special assistant to the deputy secretary of defense for Gulf War illnesses.
While the troops in the Gulf didn't know about the radioactive effects of DU explosions, back at the Los Alamos National Laboratory officials were keenly aware of both environmental and political fallout. In a March 1, 1991 memo to the Studies and Analysis Branch, Lt. Col. L.V. Ziehmn wrote, in the jargon of his specialty:
"There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore, if no one makes a case for the effectiveness on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus, be deleted from the arsenal. If DU penetrators proved their worth during our recent combat activities, then we should assure their future existence...through Service/DoD proponency. If proponency is not garnered, it is possible that we stand to lose a valuable combat capability."
Proponency carried the day. DU weapons remain an integral part of the US arsenal.
LEONARD Dietz, a physicist who testified before the House subcommittee, first became concerned about DU in 1979 while working at the knoll Atomic Power Laboratory in Schenectady. DU aerosols from the National Lead plant 10 miles away were collecting in air filters at Knoll. National Lead was fabricating DU penetrators, and some of the plant's fallout particles were detected as far as 26 miles away. New York state shut down National Lead in 1980.
Mr. Dietz estimates that 300 tons of DU munitions were exploded during Desert Storm. Even if only 2 percent of the uranium burned up, he told Congress, 6 tons of DU aerosol particles were generated. This is more than 10,000 times greater than the maximum airborne emissions New York allowed over Albany in one month.
Thus far government research has revealed no ill effects of DU on Gulf War veterans. There are no current studies, however, on the effects of inhaled DU. Yet this is the means by which most of the veterans affected by DU would have become exposed.
DU was only one of the ingredients in the toxic Gulf War stew. The other possible causes of veterans' illnesses, the House Oversight Committee reported, include exposures to low levels of chemical and biological warfare agents, experimental vaccines and drugs, oil well fires, pesticides and infectious diseases.
Mr. Rudman's board faces a tough challenge in wading into that stew and recommending ways to cure the ailing veterans.
* Sanford Gottlieb, former executive director of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, is the author of "Defense Addiction: Can America Kick the Habit?" (Westview Press 1997).