No soldier from a New York Army National Guard unit that returned from Iraq last month has so far tested positive for depleted uranium, Pentagon doctors claimed this week.
"None of the samples processed have measurable amounts of DU," said Lt. Col. Mark Melanson of the Army's Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine in Aberdeen, Md.
The test results are preliminary, Melanson said, and he is still waiting for complete written reports on each soldier whose tests have been analyzed. In total, 56 soldiers from the442nd Military Police Company submitted urine samples last month at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in Washington or Fort Dix, N.J., and the bulk have not yet been analyzed, Melanson said.
Even if some soldiers do show traces in their bodies, Melanson said, "There are safe levels of depleted uranium intake. An individual could [safely] breathe in up to a gram per year every year for 50 years."
"That's total nonsense," said Dr. Asaf Durakovic, a colonel in the Army Reserves and a former head of nuclear medicine at a veterans hospital.
Durakovic and a team of scientists tested nine soldiers from the 442nd at the request of the Daily News and concluded that four of them were contaminated with depleted uranium.
The four, Durakovic said, had "almost certainly" inhaled radioactive dust from exploded American shells manufactured from depleted uranium.
The first batch of soldiers tested by the Army includes the nine Durakovic screened.
"Their equipment is not able to accurately measure certain uranium isotopes," said Durakovic, who has reviewed the Army's preliminary lab reports.
Durakovic was the first Army doctor to discover that a group of soldiers from the 1991 Persian Gulf War had been contaminated with depleted uranium. He has since become an expert on depleted uranium and an opponent of its use in warfare.
Melanson is using a "faulty approach" that assumes radiation is spread out evenly over the whole body, Durakovic said.
"Depleted uranium dust that is inhaled gets transferred from the lungs to the regional lymph nodes, where they can bombard a small number of cells in their immediate vicinity with intense alpha radiation," Durakovic said.
Melanson's claim of a depleted uranium safety level also was questioned by Richard Leggett, a senior researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a member of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.
"There's a lot of uncertainty in where the hazard really starts with depleted uranium," Leggett said. "Nobody knows for sure."
Since depleted uranium is an extremely heavy metal, its "chemical toxicity" is an even bigger problem than its radioactivity, Leggett said.
"All I know is I'm still sick and the Army can't tell me why," said Staff Sgt. Ray Ramos, one of the soldiers caught in the crossfire of the experts.
Ramos and others have suffered from chronic fatigue, migraine headaches, urinary problems, severe joint pain and other unexplained ailments since last summer when they were stationed in the Iraqi town of Samawah.
"The Army says I'm negative and Dr. Durakovic says I'm positive, so now I want a third, independent test done," Ramos said.
The soldiers say the Army agreed to test them only after The News started reporting on their plight.
In a memo last week that specifically cited the publicity around the 442nd, Lt. Gen. James Peake of Army medical headquarters reminded all medical commanders of the existing depleted uranium monitoring policy.
"If ... a patient expresses a valid concern about potential exposure to DU and requests a urine bioassay, then one should be ordered," Peake said.
"It's been the policy for quite some time, but some people didn't take it seriously enough," admitted Col. Dallas Hack, head of preventive medicine at Walter Reed.
Still, the Pentagon's existing policy is not nearly as careful about depleted uranium as is Britain's. Every British soldier dispatched to Iraq is handed a wallet-sized card by the Defense Ministry that states:
"You have been deployed to a theater where depleted uranium munitions have been used. DU is a weakly radioactive heavy metal, which has the potential to cause ill health. You may have been exposed to dust containing DU during your deployment."
The back of the card advises each soldier: "You are eligible for a urine test to measure for uranium. ... Consult your unit medical officer on return to your home base."
© 2004 Daily News, L.P.