Monday, May 2
Panel supports testing veterans
Depleted-uranium test proposed
By MARK BALLARDmballard@theadvocate.com
Capitol news bureau
A House panel endorsed legislation Thursday that would require Louisiana veterans returning from Iraq to be tested for depleted uranium exposure, which some experts say they think is a primary cause of Gulf War syndrome.
House Bill 570 would allow any Louisiana soldier who believes he or she was exposed to depleted uranium in a combat zone to get a more aggressive test than is offered by the military, said Rep. Juan LaFonta, D-New Orleans, the measure's sponsor.
The wording of the proposed law does not specifically spell out who would give or pay for the test.
But LaFonta said the measure would give Louisiana soldiers more leverage to demand the tests from the federal Veterans Administration.
After the hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, LaFonta acknowledged that a state law would have little effect on the federal agency.
But the legislation's chief witness, Robert Smith of New Orleans, said the legislation would allow Gov. Kathleen Blanco to order the state's military department chief, Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau, to include the more-expansive testing as part of its annual funding request to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Landreneau's press aides did not return three calls seeking comment.
Depleted uranium is used nuclear power plant fuel. Because the metal is very dense, the military uses it in bullets, bombs and missiles to help penetrate armor protection.
It also is used as counter-weights in fighter jets and as protective armor on Abrams tanks.
The United Nations World Health Organization found that very low radiation can still harm people who inhale dust, drink water or eat food that had been contaminated.
"It looks more and more like what's causing Gulf War syndrome, primarily, is depleted uranium exposure," said Smith, a retired Green Beret who has worked helping injured veterans rejoin civilian society.
Gulf War syndrome is a constellation of symptoms, such as weak joints, headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, muscle pain, sleep disturbances and unusually frequent urination.
"You don't get those symptoms in 20-year-olds," said Joyce Riley RN, BSN of Versailles, Mo. The former Air Force captain is spokeswoman for the American Gulf War Veterans Association.
"I'm getting calls all day long from parents who are asking me, 'Why is my child sick?' " Riley said Wednesday. "Depleted uranium is one of the reasons these troops are coming home sick."
Riley said that, while the U.S. Department of Defense screens for depleted uranium, it refuses to do adequate tests.
Telephone inquiries for comment to the Department of Defense were not returned.
A spokesman with the Veterans Administration said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.
Members of the Louisiana House Committee on Judiciary asked few questions of Smith and LaFonta.
One member, Rep. Mike Powell, R-Shreveport, gave a short speech commending veterans and asked for the privilege of making the motion to refer the bill favorably.
But before that motion could be made, LaFonta was asked to explain why the bill's financial note indicates that the state would pay for those tests if the Veterans Administration finds that a test is not warranted.
LaFonta said that was a mistake. The legislation would not cost the state anything because the Veterans Administration would handle the testing, he said. The state's Military Department estimated the cost of the tests at $170 each.
LaFonta said at least four other states are considering filing a similar bill. Legislative committees of the Connecticut General Assembly approved similar legislation earlier this month.
The Louisiana bill now goes to the full House for consideration.