McDermott-Cantwell Depleted Uranium Study Amendment Passes Congress

[Front paged NM. This is big news. The work of the author, DWE, was a key factor in making this possible.]

As part of the Defense Authorization bill (HR 5122), Congress passed on Saturday morning a depleted uranium study amendment sponsored by two Democratic members of the Washington delegation, Rep. Jim McDermott and Sen. Maria Cantwell. A hearty congratulations to them both!

As described in a previous diary, the amendment calls for the "Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary for Veterans Affairs and the Secretary of Health and Human Services," to conduct a "comprehensive study of the health effects of exposure to depleted uranium munitions on uranium-exposed soldiers and on children of uranium-exposed soldiers."

The language of the study is broad enough to cover exposure to aerosolized DU, which the Department of Defense's "Capstone Study" states is the largest data gap on possible long-term health effects of DU exposure. The amendment contains a one-year reporting requirement that directs the Secretary of Defense to inform the Congress of progress on the study. Funding for the study is expected to come from Department of Defense (DoD) discretionary funds.

Here is the full text of the amendment:


    (a) Study.--The Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary for Veterans Affairs and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, shall conduct a comprehensive study of the health effects of exposure to depleted uranium munitions on uranium-exposed soldiers and on children of uranium-exposed soldiers who were born after the exposure of the uranium-exposed soldiers to depleted uranium.

    (b) Uranium-Exposed Soldiers.--In this section, the term ``uranium-exposed soldiers'' means a member or former member of the Armed Forces who handled, came in contact with, or had the likelihood of contact with depleted uranium munitions while on active duty, including members and former members who--

    (1) were exposed to smoke from fires resulting from the burning of vehicles containing depleted uranium munitions or fires at depots at which depleted uranium munitions were stored;

    (2) worked within environments containing depleted uranium dust or residues from depleted uranium munitions;

    (3) were within a structure or vehicle while it was struck by a depleted uranium munition;

    (4) climbed on or entered equipment or structures struck by a depleted uranium munition; or

    (5) were medical personnel who provided initial treatment to members of the Armed Forces described in paragraph (1), (2), (3), or (4).

    (c) Report.--Not later than one year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense shall submit to Congress a report on the results of the study described in subsection (a).

Background on Depleted Uranium

I realize that some of you may not be familiar with the issues surrounding the use of depleted uranium munitions. The following contains summary-level excerpts from a position paper I wrote with the help of Dr. Tim Takaro, a toxicologist formerly at the University of Washington and now at Simon Frazier University:

The US military uses depleted uranium (DU), a low-level radioactive heavy metal with a half-life of 4.5 billion years, to harden various munitions because of its extreme density. The US military also uses DU to harden US tanks.

Among the characteristics of DU-hardened munitions are that they are pyrophoric, resulting in the munition burning upon impact, and that the impact of a DU-hardened munition on a target creates aerosol particles, which can be inhaled. Studies conducted by the Uranium Medical Research Centre have shown that inhaled DU particles can persist in the body up to at least ten years.

As confirmed by the US General Accounting Office (GAO), there is controversy surrounding a "possible connection between depleted uranium exposure and Gulf War illnesses."  The exact connection between exposure to DU shrapnel or inhaled DU and possible medical effects is not precisely determined. On the one hand, A. Durakovic of the Uranium Medical Research Centre asserts that the "recent literature abounds with the experimental evidence of adverse effects of DU, ranging from neurologic deficits, mutagenicity, and neoplastic transformation to renal damage and alterations of the immune system." On the other hand, the GAO asserts that reviews "of the scientific literature conducted by RAND and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry . . . concluded that current evidence suggests that radiation from inhaled or ingested depleted uranium is an unlikely health hazard." Finally, Iraqi researchers at the College of Medicine, Basra University, are reporting increased levels of childhood cancers and congenital malformations linked to DU exposure.

Whatever the case may be, even the GAO recommended "additional research efforts that could more fully assess the health effects of DU." Furthermore, T. Weyman, Deputy Director of the Uranium Medical Reseach Centre, has called into question the methodology and screening programs of government and government-contracted studies. In arguably the most comprehensive review of the health effects of DU munitions to date, a 2001-2002 Royal Society study made extensive recommendations for further research. In addition, the European Parliament has called on the European Commission "to monitor developments in relation to the possible serious widespread contamination of the environment, as well as any acute or appreciable long-term hazard to human health" and "to support independent and thorough investigations into harmful effects of DU weapons in areas where they have been used." With the advent of the current Iraq War, the United Nations Environment Program called for "an assessment of the effects of the use of DU in Iraq," and the Royal Society called for long-term environmental monitoring in Iraq and for testing of soldiers exposed to "substantial levels" of DU. Finally, the U.N. Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights has called for an "assessment of the effects of the [DU] weapons used on the affected populations, including veterans of the conflict."

I wrote the position paper before Dr. Takaro and I had had a chance to assess the October 2004 DoD-commissioned report (known as the "Capstone Study") on depleted uranium aerosol doses and risks. Here are excepts from the questions we formulated for Sen. Cantwell's office and the Senate Armed Services committee in response to the report:

(1) The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Army Center for Health Prevention and Preventive Medicine (USACHPPM) state that the dose contribution to DU radioactivity from trace contaminants, including transuranic elements, "is less than 1% of the total dose."

Are there DoD or other monitoring programs in place to determine if trace amounts of transuranic elements vary among DU batches used to produce DU armor and penetrators?

(2) The VA Follow-up study (sometimes referred to as the "McDiarmid study") is an ongoing medical surveillance project that has focused on ODS veterans with embedded shrapnel, a small subset of whom were exposed to aerosolized DU.

Beyond the McDiarmid project, are there any ongoing medical surveillance programs that provide data on possible incidences of pulmonary fibrosis and lung cancer among large numbers of ODS veterans exposed to aerosolized DU?

In addition, in an effort to detect early pulmonary effects, have there been any high-resolution CT scans of the lungs of a large number ODS veterans exposed 12 or more years ago to aerosolized DU?

(3) The Capstone Study recommends that epidemiological studies be conducted on servicemembers with positive DU bioassay results.

To what extent has this recommendation been implemented? If it has been implemented, which research group is conducting the study, and how is the study structured and funded?

The following is a brief timeline of Congressional action on the depleted uranium issue:

  • In March 2000, after the release of a GAO report on depleted uranium, Sen. Feingold criticized the lack of research on the medical effects of DU-exposure.
  • In October 2001, Rep. McKinney introduced the Depleted Uranium Munitions Suspension and Study Act.
  • In March 2003, Rep. McDermott introduced the Depleted Uranium Study Act.
  • In April 2004, Senators Schumer and Clinton called for screening and treatment of returning New York National Guard members who'd tested positive for depleted uranium exposure.
  • In January 2005, Rep. Serrano introduced the Depleted Uranium Screening and Testing Act.
  • In May 2005, Rep. McDermott introduced the Depleted Uranium Munitions Study Act.
  • In April 2006, Sen. Cantwell sent two letters to Sec. Rumsfeld, demanding answers on the depleted uranium issue.
  • In May 2006, Rep. McDermott introduced the Study of Health Effects of Exposure to Depleted Uranium amendment to the Defense Authorization bill. The House passes it unanimously.
  • In June 2006, Sen. Cantwell introduced a Senate version of Rep. McDermott's depleted uranium study amendment. The Senate passes it unanimously.
  • In September 2006, the House-Senate Conference Committee retained the depleted uranium study amendment in the Defense Authorization bill, and it passes through both chambers of Congress.

Note of Thanks

In February 2005, when a group of us in the 36th District decided to take on this issue, we realized that Rep. McDermott's depleted uranium study bill would never become law until it had a Senate sponsor. We deliberately set out to enlist Sen. Cantwell's help.

To Sen. Cantwell's credit, she listened to her constituents, studied up on the issue, and followed through with solid Congressional action. Her two letters to Sec. Rumsfeld precisely document her concerns about depleted uranium, and when Rep. McDermott's amendment passed in the House, Sen. Cantwell introduced a Senate version without hesitation.

There are a number of people I would like to thank for the help they lent in raising this issue and bringing it to the attention of Sen. Cantwell. In particular, I'd like to recognize Dr. Tim Takaro of Simon Frazier University, whose scientific expertise was invaluable. I'd also like to thank task force members Amy Hagopian and Aaron Katz (University of Washington) and Alice Woldt (36th District Democrats) for their support, advice and practical help.

In addition, I like to thank the following for their support: Kelley Bevans (36th District Democrats, Issues Chair); Peter House (36th District Democrats, Chair); Jason Bennett (36th District Democrats, Executive Board member); Ken Kadlec (Legislative Aide, Rep. McDermott's office, and 43rd District Democrats); Judith Shattuck (45th District Democrats, Executive Board Member); Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility; the 36th District Democrats; the 45th District Democrats; the 43rd District Democrats; the Washington State Democratic Central Committee and its Progressive Caucus; and Democracy for Washington.

I would also like to thank the hard-working members (current and former) of Sen. Cantwell's staff: Lisa Cipollone (former King County director); Bill Dunbar (former State director); Layth Elhassani (former Legislative Director for Foreign Affairs); Jennifer Griffith (Deputy Chief of Staff and Legislative Director); Kurt Beckett (Chief of Staff); and Jonathan Hale (Legislative Director for Foreign Affairs).

Finally, I would like to express my deep gratitude to Rep. McDermott and Sen. Cantwell for demonstrating their commitment to this critical issue.

Cross-posted on The English Teacher

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