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Laboratory Analyzes Shrapnel to Look for Uranium

By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md., April 19, 2012 – Military doctors here are examining shrapnel taken from service members and veterans, looking for depleted uranium and other metals.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Dr. Jose Centeno, director of the Joint Pathology Center’s Biophysical Toxicology and Depleted Uranium/Embedded Metal Fragment Laboratories, demonstrates the variety of shrapnel pieces removed from service members and veterans. DOD photo by Terri Moon Cronk

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The Joint Pathology Center’s Biophysical Toxicology and Depleted Uranium/Embedded Metal Fragment Laboratories branch is analyzing the embedded fragments and providing second opinions at military and Veterans Affairs medical centers to treat those who had retained shrapnel.

“Our goal is to improve the care of wounded warriors,” said Army Col. (Dr.) Thomas Baker, interim director of the Joint Pathology Center, the umbrella organization for the lab.

“We advise [doctors] how to follow up and what treatment is needed” to mitigate the potential effects of uranium and other metals, he said.

The lab analyzes all combat-associated metal fragments taken from DOD personnel that might pose a long-term health risk, such as depleted uranium, which can contribute to kidney damage over time, Baker explained. The lab also develops laboratory capabilities in metal toxicology to support the Defense Department, The Pathology Center and VA and Army programs that require exposure assessment to depleted uranium, embedded fragment analysis and analysis of certain metal alloys, officials said.

The only one of its kind in the United States, Baker said, the lab keeps a registry of the fragments for future re-evaluation. The register now includes 600 specimens.

The lab also has the only diagnostic equipment in the nation that can detect where the uranium originates in the body, noted Dr. Jose Centeno, the lab’s director.

A wide range of materials are packed in improvised explosive devices, the doctors said.

The metal fragments and alloys the labs analyze comprise common metals and alloys of steel, aluminum, copper and brass. Depleted uranium is contained in some fragments, the doctors said, noting that shrapnel specimens are tested in triplicate for accuracy.

Concerns about tainted fragments began in 1993 following the Gulf War, when evidence arose of kidney damage from uranium, the doctors said.

For 18 years, 75 volunteers have participated in a study as part of the depleted uranium program, Baker said. All but one, an Iraq War veteran, served in the Gulf War, said Centeno, a physical chemist with a background in the toxicology of metals.

While many service members and veterans have retained fragments because of high risks removing them would pose, Baker said, some alloys such as depleted uranium are not safe to leave in the body. Because of that potential risk, DOD and VA have comprehensive programs to reach troops and veterans for testing, he added.

Baker said service members and veterans who carry shrapnel but haven’t sought medical care should seek advice from a doctor or call the Baltimore VA Medical Center, which works with the laboratories here.

“Anybody with an embedded fragment who hasn’t been followed up or hasn’t seen a physician should [do so] … and talk to them to discuss their risks,” he said.


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Joint Pathology Center

Click photo for screen-resolution imageShrapnel removed from service members and veterans range in size from bullets to large pieces of metal that fit the palm of a hand. The Joint Pathology Center’s Biophysical Toxicology and Depleted Uranium/Embedded Metal Fragment Laboratories render second opinions on shrapnel left in the body. DOD photo by Terri Moon Cronk  
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