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Ottawa Citizen

Blast exposed troops to radiation

Gulf War rescue mission put soldiers' health at risk

David Pugliese The Ottawa Citizen

Military says testing would only cause soldiers undue stress

At least 50 Canadian soldiers may have been directly exposed to depleted uranium debris and ashes after a massive 1991 explosion at a Persian Gulf ammunition dump.

But Canadian military officials say there is no need to specifically test those troops, as well as another 250 who were in the area, for exposure to depleted uranium, saying that would cause undue stress among the soldiers. That stress, in turn, could cause other illnesses, military medical specialists say.

The little-publicized incident at the U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment's base at Doha, Kuwait, may have sent up in flames as many as 660 depleted uranium ammunition shells, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses was told in 1996. Another 14 tanks, which some defence analysts believe were outfitted with depleted uranium armour, were also destroyed in the blast, which sent a cloud of thick black smoke over the U.S. base and an adjacent Canadian Forces compound.

As the ammunition depot burned, Canadian troops from 1 Combat Engineer Regiment worked to save American soldiers and were later credited with outstanding bravery by U.S. officials for their actions following the July 11, 1991, explosion.

But they also may have been exposed to depleted uranium or DU.

Depleted uranium is mildly radioactive and is used in tank ammunition because of its density and ability to pierce heavy armour.

The concern over the ammunition centres on the fact that when such a projectile hits an armoured vehicle, it explodes and burns, producing a fine dust. Some scientists believe this debris is dangerous if inhaled or ingested and could be linked to cancer.

About 50 Canadian soldiers were in the camp when the ammunition dump exploded, sending debris raining down on their compound. Another 250 Canadians, who returned to the base shortly after the blast, were at work in the desert or on scheduled rest and relaxation trips. The Canadian soldiers were in Kuwait to defuse landmines and other explosives left over from the Persian Gulf War, which began 10 years ago today.

Depleted uranium ammunition has created controversy in Europe because of its alleged link to the cancer deaths or illnesses of 20 NATO soldiers who served in the former Yugoslavia.

DU ammunition was used by the American military in Bosnia and Kosovo over the past several years as well as in the Persian Gulf War. U.S. officials acknowledge depleted uranium ammunition can pose a health risk if it is inhaled or ingested.

Canadian Forces spokesman Navy Lieut. Yves Vanier said there are no plans to specifically test the Canadian combat engineers who were at the Doha compound. Col. Ken Scott, the Defence Department's director of medical policy, has recommended against isolating a certain group for testing or instituting a Forces-wide test.

"According to him, just telling people we're going to do a study on (them) because of this may cause some health problems (and) undue stress," said Lieut. Vanier. "Undue stress brings out other ailments."

Canada's Department of National Defence has started a voluntary testing program for depleted uranium, but it has not found any indication the substance has been absorbed by those tested. The department has tested 104 veterans of the Persian Gulf War and missions in the former Yugoslavia.

Lieut. Vanier said one of the veterans tested was at the Doha compound, while another travelled in the area. "It's up to the others, if they feel that there's something wrong with them and they think it might be related to DU, that they can come forward and asked to be tested for DU," he added.

But Scott Taylor, publisher of Esprit de Corps military magazine, said he has already been contacted by at least one Canadian combat engineer involved in the explosion who is concerned about his exposure to depleted uranium.

"These guys were exposed to a DU meltdown, and the Canadian Forces medical people are more worried that they'll be stressed out by a test?" said Mr. Taylor. "That is simply unbelievable." Mr. Taylor and journalist Brian Nolan uncovered details of the heroism of the Canadian engineers at the Doha compound for their book Tested Mettle.

Canadian Forces medical officials do not believe DU is linked to health problems among soldiers. They believe stress is behind many of the unexplained illnesses suffered by Canadian soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf War and peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia and other areas.

The U.S. military does not believe its personnel at Doha at the time of the explosion were at risk for DU and has not conducted any tests on those soldiers, noted Lieut. Vanier.

The Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veteran's Illnesses was asked to recommend medical tests on the 1,700 American soldiers who were at the Doha base, but it did not do so. While it found that many soldiers who served in the Gulf were ill, the committee suggested stress may be the main culprit.

It did, however, acknowledge in its final report that military personnel may have been exposed to depleted uranium. "U.S. service personnel also could have been exposed to DU if they inhaled DU dust particles during incidental contact with vehicles destroyed by DU munitions, or if they lived or worked in areas contaminated with DU dust from accidental munitions fires," it found.

But the report said it is difficult to test for DU exposure. The time that has elapsed since the Gulf War is long compared to the body's retention rate of uranium, so it would be difficult to detect DU even with more specialized tests.

Other researchers have called into question the validity of the Canadian Defence Department tests.

Fifty American and six British soldiers were injured when an accidental fire ignited the ammunition dump. Canadian Forces officials never publicized the bravery of the engineers, even though the unit received praise from an American general and one of the Canadian officers received a rare Chief of the Defence Staff commendation.

Even when the bravery of the Canadian engineers was revealed in a Citizen article in 1998, military public affairs officials downplayed the incident. "This was no big deal," said Lt.-Col. Rejean Duchesneau at the time. "This sounds dramatic, but stuff like this was happening over there all the time."

-- Rachel Gibson (, January 17, 2001

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