The bones of Joseph Terry Riordon, a former military policeman with the Canadian Forces who served in the 1991 gulf war and then battled mysterious and painful symptoms until his death last April, have been tested and studied by a U.S. doctor.
Asaph Durokavic, an expert on Persian Gulf war syndrome and a former research scientist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, told CBC Radio yesterday that he did not anticipate finding such high levels of uranium isotopes in Mr. Riordon's bones nearly a full decade after the war. Dr. Durokavic has also documented traces of uranium in the urine of living veterans.
The new findings are expected to fuel the controversial argument that depleted uranium -- used as a coating to harden weapons and tanks -- is the cause of the mysterious illnesses that have beset veterans of both the gulf war and the conflict in Croatia.
In separate reports in the past two years, the U.S., Canadian and British governments have dismissed the theory that depleted uranium could be linked to the illness.
"If the government doesn't want to admit it, then this report will do nothing," said Larry Black, 43, from his home in New Minas, N.S.
Upon returning from Croatia in 1993 after a six-month stint during which he took care of his outfit's ammunition, Mr. Black immediately began to experience shaking and profuse sweating. Today he is nearly blind, extremely sensitive to light, and suffers from depression and agoraphobia (fear of public places).
Samples of his blood and urine are now being examined to see if they test positive for depleted uranium.
"There is no way you're going to get a government official to say these cases are similar," he said. "But my symptoms are similar [to Terry Riordon's]. . . . When I have my answers, people will know.''
An estimated 320 tonnes of depleted uranium -- which is largely uranium 238, a byproduct from the refining of uranium 235 -- was used for the first time during the gulf war as a hardening agent on the tips of missiles and artillery shells, allowing them to penetrate tanks. It was also used by munitions manufacturers to armour-plate military vehicles.
The uranium coating is safe to the touch, but becomes dangerously radioactive inside the human body, according to some experts. They argue that when uranium-coated weaponry exploded during warfare it created clouds of toxic particles that were sucked into soldiers' lungs. These heavy metal particles decomposed over a long time internally, migrated to the soldiers' bloodstreams and bones, and left them fighting ever-worsening constellations of symptoms.
"The kind of radiation given off by U-238 is alpha radiation. It's not considered a threat outside of the body, but what it does inside it is debated," said Gordon Edwards, president of the Montreal-based Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and a consultant on radiation-health issues. "However, it is well recognized that it is dangerous inside the body, as much as 20 times more damaging per unit dose than gamma radiation or X-rays."
The posthumous studies on Mr. Riordon were made possible by his widow Susan Riordon, who lives in Yarmouth, N.S. She has become a tireless activist for the estimated 100 other official Canadian victims of Persian Gulf war syndrome, and dedicated his body to research. She also declined a military funeral for her husband last year because of the government's refusal to recognize the illness. Mrs. Riordon was in North Carolina yesterday at a conference on Persian Gulf war syndrome.
Reached in Yarmouth yesterday, her daughter Tracy Riordon said her father "lived and breathed the military," but in the end became very frustrated with his illness and the lack of answers. She said she hopes the results of these latest tests on his bones will help other soldiers.
"The message it should send to the Canadian Forces and the government is that they should do some studies first and then speak, rather than speak and do studies," said Harold Leduc, president of the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans' Association in Victoria, B.C.
In Ottawa yesterday, Defence Minister Art Eggleton said that gulf-war veterans who fear that exposure to depleted uranium dust might have made them sick should contact the federal government to arrange for medical tests.