WASHINGTON — Depleted uranium in tanks and ammunition used in the 1991 Gulf War “played no role” in the unexplained illnesses, known as Gulf War syndrome, that veterans faced in the years afterward, according to a new study.
The findings by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the University of Portsmouth in England counter decades of understanding by the military and Department of Veterans Affairs about potential causes for a host of ailments that collectively are now known as Gulf War illness.
“That depleted uranium is not and never was in the bodies of those who were ill at sufficient quantities to cause disease will surprise many, including sufferers who have, over the last 30 years, suspected depleted uranium may have contributed to their illnesses,” said Randall Parrish, a uranium isotope expert at the University of Portsmouth who developed the study’s methodology to scan veterans’ urine for traces of exposure.
The study looked at depleted uranium levels in the urine of 154 veterans, of whom 106 had Gulf War illness symptoms and 48 did not.
The findings may provide a definitive answer on whether there is a connection between depleted uranium exposure and Gulf War illness because of the level of precision used to detect any isotopes in veterans’ urine and the time involved in the study, Dr. Robert Haley, the director of epidemiology at UT Southwestern, a Dallas-based research hospital, told McClatchy in a phone interview.
The study took 20 years to shape, fund and review. Between 2008 and 2010, the researchers had each of the veterans come into the hospital for a week of controlled observation to rule out any other variables, Haley said. It will be published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports.
According to a 2000 Department of Defense report cited by the study, U.S. and coalition tanks, aircraft and artillery fired about 300 tons of depleted uranium munitions in southern Iraq during the 1991 ground invasion.
An estimated 500,000 U.S. service members deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Storm. About 25% of them have reported chronic symptoms including fatigue, headaches, joint pain, dizziness, respiratory disorders and memory problems, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
For years, Gulf War veteran and former Army officer Larry Chaney has suspected depleted uranium might have played a role in the tremors he suffers. Almost 30 years ago, on Feb. 27, 1991, Chaney was a 27-year-old lieutenant leading a platoon of M2A1 Bradley Fighting Vehicles when two of the vehicles were destroyed by friendly fire during one of the largest tank battles of the operation.
There was a “brilliant flash,” Chaney said in a phone interview with McClatchy. “A couple small pieces of depleted uranium hit me in the scalp and the shockwave knocked the wind out of me.”