British coroner’s jury: DU killed soldier

British coroner’s jury: DU killed soldier

Verdict raises questions for Hawaii soldiers and civilians

By Alan D. Mcnarie
Wednesday, September 23, 2009 2:10 PM HST

As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers the army’s plan to leave depleted uranium shell debris in place at Pohakuloa Training Area and Schofield Barracks, it may have some new data from Britain to ponder. A coroner’s jury there has found that a British veteran named Stuart Raymond Dyson died from “colon cancer… caused by or contributed to by his exposure to Depleted Uranium in the 1991 Gulf war.”

Dyson had been healthy before serving in the Gulf. Within three years of his return, however, he developed a “whole range of symptoms” that the coroner’s report said were characteristic of “Gulf War Syndrome.” In 2008 he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He died of the disease within a year.

The “Report on Probability of Causation” that the coroner’s office released on the case noted that while colon cancer is a fairly common disease, deaths from it by persons in Dyson’s age group were only about six per million residents in England and Wales in recent years.

“This is an extremely low rate and so the first conclusion we can draw in Mr. Dyson’s case is that his death from cancer was very rare indeed,” wrote Chris Busby, the Ph.D. researcher who authored the report. Since “There is no report of colon cancer in Mr. Dyson’s parents,” he added, “It follows that we are looking for an aggressive carcinogenic or mutagenic substance to which Mr. Dyson’s colon must have been exposed at some period, maybe 10-20 years before the cancer was clinically evident. Was there such an exposure?”

Busby concluded that the “carcinogenic or mutagenic substance” was depleted uranium that Dyson had been exposed to during the Gulf War.

Faulty modeling?

Busby noted that the British military was basing its claims about the safety of DU on standards of exposure set by The Royal Society, the National Radiological Protection Board and the World Health Organization — but that those standards were all based on “a single risk model.” That model was created by the International Commission on Radiological Protection, which has close ties to the nuclear industry and receives funding from “governments of nuclear nations.”

“This ICRP risk model has been increasingly questioned by a number of organizations in the last 10 years particularly in its seeming inability to predict or explain a wide range of health effects reported following exposures to internal, that is, ingested and inhaled, radioactive material,” Busby noted.

DU is primarily an emitter of alpha radiation: heavy subatomic particles that can’t usually penetrate the skin, but can do enormous damage to cells and DNA if they can get inside the body via the lungs or digestive system.

While the ICRP model might be useful in predicting gamma radiation damage from a nuclear blast, Busby contended, it was not very good for predicting damage from DU in the lungs or digestive system. The difference, he wrote, was that between “warming oneself in front of a fire” and “eating a red hot coal.”

“In an environment where Mr. Dyson was cleaning vehicles and equipment which had been contaminated with DU dust it is inevitable that he will have been contaminated internally both through inhalation and inadvertent ingestion,” Busby contended. And the convoluted surfaces of the intestinal lining, he observed, “would be excellent catchers for such dust particles,” trapping and holding them until they damaged the surrounding DNA enough to trigger cancer.

The report finds another fault with the ICRP model. Other types of radiation, such as gamma waves, can easily penetrate the skin but do less concentrated damage internally. But Busby said higher-density elements absorbed exponentially more gamma rays, so uranium, the heaviest naturally occurring element, could also increase gamma radiation damage by trapping it and releasing the energy in the form of “photoelectrons of various ranges.”

A bit of DU trapped in colon tissue, he calculated, would absorb 201,000 times the background radiation of living tissue, and then release that energy into surrounding cells. As a result, those cells would get the equivalent of 70 years of normal background radiation in a single year, in addition to the damage caused by alpha particles from the uranium itself.

The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense produced its own counter-report for the coroner’s inquest. Its author, Ron Brown, who listed himself as Principal Scientist at the “DSTL Environmental Sciences Department, Institute of Naval Medicine,” attacked Busby’s report as “an extreme view of radiation risk held by a very small minority.”

Brown argued that the vast areas of the Middle East battlefields and the “dilution” of DU with battlefield dust and debris made the levels of contamination so low that “there is no current statutory requirement for the implementation of any health protection measure.”

Brown based most of his argument on “accepted” or “legal” standards of radiation exposure — the very standards that Busby attacked as coming from a single unreliable model. But Brown defended the Royal Society’s standards of exposure, for instance, by saying they agreed with “independent studies,” including those by the U.S. Army and the U.S.’s Sandia National Laboratory.

“The scientific consensus is that DU intakes are only likely to be of concern for those in or on vehicles at the time they are struck by DU munitions or for those who enter immediately afterwards to rescue casualties,” Brown concluded.

The jury sided with Busby.

The U.S. Army and the ICRP

In its handling of DU contamination in Hawai’i, the U.S. Army is using some of ICRP-based standards that Busby questioned. In its presentation to the Hawai’i County Council on May 20, 2008, for instance, the Army cited World Health Organization standards to back up its contention that DU at Pohakuloa Training Area presented no immanent threat to public health. It also cited Nuclear Regulator Commission and Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

“Both the NRC and EPA limits are consistent with the ICRP recommendation of 100 mrem/year to the general public for all controlled sources of ionizing radiation.” wrote Loren Doan U.S. Army Hawaii Garrison’s chief media officer, in an e-mail to Big Island Weekly. But some of the details he gave suggested that the EPA and NRC guidelines were stricter than the IRCP’s.

“The NRC has a 25 mrem/year exposure limit for residual radioactivity under unrestricted release, and the EPA has a 15 mrem/year exposure limit for residual radioactivity for environment cleanup,” he wrote.

Spreading Nano-particles

In addition to the question of what constitutes a dangerous dose of DU, the coroner’s report contradicts the Army’s testimony on another count. In its application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to leave the DU shell fragment contamination on site, the Army asserted that “Available information indicates that depleted uranium metal generally remains in the immediate vicinity where initially deposited with limited migration over the periods that the materials have been present.”

To back up this contention, the Army cited the heaviness of the metal and its propensity for bonding with iron and other minerals in local soils and lavas.

Busby’s report maintained just the opposite.

“On impact, the DU burns to a fine aerosol of ceramic uranium oxide particles of mean diameter from about 1000nm (1I) down to below 100nm,” he wrote. “These particles are long lived in the environment (and in tissue), and can travel significant distances from the point of impact up to thousands of miles (Busby and Morgan 2005). They become resuspended in air, are found in air filters in cars at some distance from the attacks, and of course are respirable. Because their diameters are so small, below 1000nm, they are able to pass through the lung into the lymphatic system and in principle can lodge anywhere in the body.”

Different rounds, different threat levels?

Of course, there are some major differences between the radiation exposure a soldier like Dyson might receive and what civilians might get from the old shell casings at Pohakuloa. In the Gulf War, for instance, the U.S. and Britain fired off hundreds of tons of DU in the form of anti-tank shells and bunker-busting bombs. Anti-tank shells work by spewing a fountain of white-hot, liquefied, burning DU that literally melts its way through armor, creating Busby’s “fine aerosol of ceramic uranium oxide particles.” DU burns at about 600 degrees Fahrenheit, producing the DU-oxide particles that Busby believes are so dangerous.

According to the U.S. Army, the rounds fired at Schofield Barracks and Pohakuloa were not armor-piercing rounds, but spotter rounds for a weapon called the Davy Crockett: a Cold War-era cannon that fired small nuclear bombs. The spotter rounds were not bombs: they struck the target area and marked their point of impact with a plume of smoke.

Doan thinks that the Davy Crockett rounds are unlikely to create the ceramic DU nano-particles that the armor-piercing shells produce.

“The Davy Crockett does not work the same way [as armor-piercing rounds]. The type of metal that comes off of it is larger chunks,” he told Big Island Weekly. But when we asked him if the smoke-producing incendiaries in the spotter rounds reached 600 degrees, he said he didn’t know.

But if Busby and the sources he cites are right, then DU could have potentially profound health effects for thousands of current and former army personnel based in Hawai’i.

According to Doan, all U.S. military personal returning to Hawai’i from Iraq an Afghanistan undergo health assessments that include “evaluations of potential exposures to DU.” However, if those assessments are based on the ICRP recommendations, they may be inadequate.

Back in 2006, a bill was introduced that would make funds available to test for DU in Hawai’i National Guard members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. That bill is still languishing; the current legislature has put off action on it until 2010. The Dyson case may provide a new incentive for that bill’s passage.


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