Depleted uranium, or DU, is a serious threat to health in Hawaii, where it was introduced through military activity.

During escalating tensions of the Cold War in the 1960s, the U.S. Army tested some forms of atomic weapons at Pohakuloa Training Area on Hawaii Island and at Schofield Barracks on Oahu.

The Army acknowledged testing the Davy Crockett weapon system, a battlefield uranium-based atomic bomb.  The part tested in Hawaii was a “spotting round,” fired to check the sighting accuracy of the main weapon. On impact, it detonated an explosive charge to release smoke. The spotting round was made of uranium in which some fissionable uranium had been removed, hence the term “depleted uranium,” or DU.

Today in Hawaii the Army is still allowed to possess DU only at Pohakuloa Training Area on the Island of Hawaii and Schofield Barracks on Oahu. The use of DU weapons in military practice exposes both military personnel and the public to health risks.

This 2014 training exercise at the Pohakuloa Training Area involved Marines firing a Howitzer. The training area also holds expended munitions containing depleted uranium. Wikimedia Commons/Lance Cpl. Aaron Patterson

“When DU is used as conventional weaponry, it burns rapidly upon impact, creating a ‘dust’ of inhalable DU oxides,” according to Lorrin Pang. “The specific hazards of inhaled DU oxides are that: 1) radiation is internalized beginning in the lungs, and 2) DU oxides have a slow clearance from the body that is about 50 times longer than clearance of DU non-oxides.”

Mike Reimer, a retired nuclear geologist, adds that health messages to the public have not always differentiated between risks of radiation exposure to naturally occurring forms of uranium as opposed to man-made products of DU. This is important because an aerosol derived from natural materials may lodge deep in the inner region of the lung for weeks to years and yet contain only a few atoms of uranium. Yet a similar aerosol derived from a DU source, such as a Davy Crockett spotting round, can contain millions of DU atoms, increasing radiation exposure to lung cells perhaps a million fold. Consequently, there is a markedly elevated health risk from DU exposure.

Doug Rokke, a retired Army major who served on the DU Assessment team during the Gulf War says, “Once DU is released into the environment, it will never be safe at all, no matter what is done.”

According to Rokke, “DOD documents confirm that a broad spectrum of potential health effects include: lung cancer, respiratory, eye, skin, and genetic abnormalities.”

The VA reports DU has also caused sleep problems, neuropsychological and respiratory tract symptoms, chronic fatigue, immune system dysfunction, skin rash, hair loss, aching joints, headaches, abdominal pain, light sensitivity, blurred vision, menstrual disorders, gastrointestinal symptoms, chemical sensitivity, and birth defects in children whose parents were exposed.

The Army has acknowledged that Davy Crockett spotting rounds were used in training at PTA and Schofield Barracks. Ongoing military operations, especially the use of high explosives, allow for re-suspension of DU particles.

The known hazards of DU and potential risks from re-suspension during additional military operations are the reasons why Army Regulation 700-48 requires that “any area containing any amount of contamination must be secured, identified, labeled, isolated, and steps taken to complete thorough environmental remediation.”

The regulation also states that the “identified area shall not be the site of any future military operations and no one shall be allowed to traverse through the area.” However, the Army is not following the regulation.

More than 50 years of bombing at PTA, increased traffic on the new Saddle Road passing through PTA, combined with strong winds in the area and occasional flash flooding have provided increased potential pathways of public exposure to DU aerosol particles and potential transport of DU around the island. Furthermore, military and civilian work forces are possibly exposed daily, families and visitors picnic in the area, and a county park and Girl Scout camps are nearby.

DU oxides, with their dangerously long half-lives, are created when DU munitions impact their targets and burn/explode. Also, in the cases of PTA and Schofield Barracks, unburned/exploded metallic fragments, including the original “spotting rounds,” will certainly burn/explode when impacted by fragments of conventional weapons and bombs.

Lack Of Transparency

For many years, the military denied any use of DU weaponry at Hawaii training sites. Then it was discovered that Davy Crockett spotting rounds, including DU to increase weight, were used in munitions to establish trajectory validation. Those spotting rounds were, in fact, used at Schofield Barracks on Oahu and Hawaii Island’s Pohakuloa Training Area since the early 1960s.

Since initial records were untrue, citizens asked for a survey of the area in case there was more extensive use not documented in records. Even if only non-incendiary DU spotting rounds had been used, subsequent conventional bombing of the DU metal bits could ignite them and create DU-oxide dust. There have been 2 fires on Hawaii’s military training sites in the past year, one of which was in the impact area.

Designing And Carrying Out Needed Actions

We advocate partnership in designing and carrying out preventive actions. Comprehensive, independent testing and monitoring should be done at military expense, in cooperation with groups wishing to cooperate with the Army and State to determine the full extent of radiation contamination related to training sites.

The military and state should offer 24 hour DU urine tests to military personnel and citizens, DLNR and other long-term workers working or traveling near training sites who are concerned about possible exposure.

We strongly urge that studies of excess relative risk from DU exposure, guided by sound scientific principles, be carried out; that health professionals be made aware of possible symptoms caused by DU exposure; that DOH actively participate in preparation of accurate training materials and alerts for health care professionals; that DOH take a firm position in requiring stringent and transparent testing, as well as monitoring and cleanup of DU on military installations in Hawaii in partnership with community members.

Further, investigation of other present and former military ranges in the state, such as Makua military reservation and Kahoolawe Island, should be carried out for possible exposure to DU. Partners must ensure that testing and monitoring is done by effective methods as agreed upon by representatives of affected communities, health professionals, and the military.

It should be noted that the Hawaii County Council in July 2008, by a vote of 8-1 passed resolution 639-08, calling for stopping all live-fire at PTA and cleaning up the DU present. The Army should comply with this resolution per AR 700-48 section 2-1a and Task number: 031-503, stating that federal, state and local laws have precedence during peacetime. We hope this article will assist in building partnership in addressing serious health impacts of DU.

The late Dr. Rosalie Bertell, well-known expert on health and environmental costs of militarism pointed out that in recent wars in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan, the U.S. and UK used weapons made with depleted uranium, “prolonging the mutilation and killing for generations after the war is over.”

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