Gulf War Illnesses:

Understanding of Health Effects From Depleted Uranium Evolving but Safety Training Needed

NSIAD-00-70: Published: Mar 29, 2000. Publicly Released: Mar 31, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the possible connection between depleted uranium exposure and Gulf War illnesses, focusing on: (1) the scientific understanding about health effects from exposure to depleted uranium; (2) whether the Gulf War veterans are experiencing administrative problems with the medical screening program for depleted uranium health effects; and (3) the extent to which the services have implemented programs to train servicemembers to safely operate in a depleted uranium-contaminated battlefield.

GAO noted that: (1) the scientific understanding of depleted uranium's effect on health is still evolving; (2) because depleted uranium is a low-level radioactive heavy metal, the potential for health effects can come from radiation or chemical toxicity; (3) two recent studies cited the kidney as the organ that would show the first adverse health effects, noting animal studies show that very high doses of uranium may cause kidney failure; (4) however, both reviews observed that studies of uranium miners and mill workers have not shown increased kidney disease even though they were occupationally exposed to elevated levels of natural uranium; (5) the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is evaluating 51 Gulf War veterans considered to have the highest exposure to depleted uranium; (6) evaluations in 1997 of 29 of these veterans, many of whom have embedded fragments, indicate that, to date, none of these veterans show any evidence of adverse kidney effects associated with exposure to depleted uranium; (7) most depleted uranium-exposed veterans with embedded fragments continue to have elevated uranium levels in urine, which were related to lowered performance on computerized tests assessing problem-solving efficiency and to high levels of the prolactin hormone associated with reproductive health; (8) the clinical significance and long-term health consequences of these findings are undetermined; (9) some Gulf War veterans experienced problems in fully participating in the medical screening program established to ensure that veterans with higher than normal uranium levels are identified for appropriate monitoring and treatment; (10) the problems encountered by 19 of the 128 veterans interviewed included not being contacted by the Department of Defense (DOD) or VA to arrange an appointment at a medical facility, not receiving the required urine test designed to detect elevated uranium levels, and not being able to understand the test results; (11) DOD and VA subsequently corrected or planned to correct each administrative problem GAO identified; (12) the military services have developed depleted uranium safety training, which instructs servicemembers on how to identify and safely deal with depleted uranium contamination; (13) the services have begun efforts to provide general awareness depleted uranium training to servicemembers on a more widespread basis; and (14) however, GAO's review showed that the required training was not being provided to all troops for various reasons.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2000, the OSD/Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses and the Deputy Secretary of Defense wrote letters to the services conveying displeasure over the continued shortfall in providing depleted uranium training and directing them to ensure that training requirements are met. In July 2001, a U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) representative stated that all active duty soldiers receive depleted uranium awareness training during the annual Common Task Training test. Reserve and National Guard soldiers receive the training every other year.

    Recommendation: To provide that both active and reserve component servicemembers receive depleted uranium safety training, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretaries of each military department to ensure, by appropriate monitoring and periodic reviews of training records, that active and reserve component servicemembers receive required annual or biennial depleted uranium safety training.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2000, the OSD/Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses and the Deputy Secretary of Defense wrote letters to the Director, Joint Chiefs of Staff emphasizing the importance of providing depleted uranium training to Kosovo-bound troops and directing that training requirements be met. The FORSCOM Special Forces support plan for operations joint guardian now explicitly requires depleted uranium awareness training as one of the individual tasks during required deployment training. This requirement was issued in August 2001.

    Recommendation: To provide that both active and reserve component servicemembers receive depleted uranium safety training, the Secretary of Defense should identify whether servicemembers currently deployed to Kosovo have received depleted uranium safety training, and if not, provide it promptly.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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