POLITICS
11/02/2011 03:48 EDT | Updated 01/02/2012 05:12 EST

Hunger-Striking Veteran Pascal Lacoste Says Military Wouldn't Show Him His Own Troubling Medical Records

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MONTREAL - A former soldier battling a series of health problems says the Canadian Forces failed to inform him that medical tests showed he was carrying an unusually high level of uranium.

Pascal Lacoste eventually filed a request under the Access to Information Act to see his own medical files, which revealed his hair samples contained "abnormally elevated" amounts of the metal.

The federal government has expressed doubt about cases like Lacoste's and, in an interview, one independent medical expert questioned the reliability of using hair samples to test for uranium levels.

But Lacoste blames his declining health, including chronic pain and a degenerative neurological disorder, on depleted-uranium poisoning he believes he contracted while serving in Bosnia in the 1990s.

He says despite multiple requests over the last decade, the government has refused to treat him, even though the military has had two separate reports in its files since 2001 that show his hair contained high levels of uranium.

Lacoste is now planning to go on a hunger strike outside the Quebec riding office of Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney — until he gets medical help, or until he dies.

After the government wouldn't voluntarily release his medical records, Lacoste filed requests under access-to-information laws to obtain them.

The 2001 lab results, copies of which were supplied to The Canadian Press by Lacoste, were performed two years before tests conducted by a civilian doctor also found high levels of uranium in his hair.

He said the military never told him about the 2001 lab results — which he only received in 2008 via access to information.

"I only found that out thanks to the fact that I requested my records," said Lacoste, who thinks his current state of health would be better if his condition had been treated a decade ago.

"Because of the hypocrisy of the system, today my life is hell."

Veterans Affairs Canada, however, maintains that Canadian vets are not at risk of depleted-uranium poisoning because few, if any, troops have ever come into contact with it while in service.

A high-ranking official with the department says that toxicology tests were conducted a decade ago on a limited number of returning soldiers, but they did not find any toxic levels of depleted uranium.

The military also disputes the notion that soldiers need to file access-to-information requests to see their own records. It says the National Defence health-records section should be able to respond to such requests.

Blaney has said his own department will ensure that Lacoste gets the services and benefits he's entitled to receive.

When asked about Lacoste's case Tuesday by the NDP in the House of Commons, Blaney said: "As soon as I was informed about this situation, I told my officials to take the necessary measures."

Veterans Affairs has declined to discuss Lacoste's case, citing privacy concerns.

Depleted uranium, the leftovers from uranium processing, has been used to make some types of military armour and munitions.

It is only believed to be harmful if dust from spent ammunition or damaged armour is ingested or inhaled.

The dense, low-cost metal was used in conflicts in the 1990s where Canadian troops were present: in the Balkans and the first Gulf War.

Concern that soldiers may have been contaminated with depleted-uranium has been a controversial topic for years.

A Canadian radiation expert says that major organizations, like the United Nations and the World Health Organization, have published reports saying there is no scientific evidence to link depleted uranium and health problems.

At the same time, McGill University radiation specialist Christian Janicki notes that many independent groups dismiss these findings.

"That's a very big debate," Janicki said. "It's a very complex issue."

He also questioned the reliability of testing for uranium with hair samples, calling them a "waste of time."

"It's not a test that is very useful to determine concentration of uranium in the body," said Janicki, who noted that test scores can be skewed by things like shampoo and dirt.

He said urine samples are much more trustworthy when looking for uranium; but since so many years have passed since Lacoste's alleged contamination, it's unlikely the metal would still be present in high quantities in Lacoste's system.

If the veteran's body does contain uranium, it probably would have already collected in his bones and other tissues, he added.

Lacoste, meanwhile, believes he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

On Saturday, he plans to sit in his parked SUV in front of Blaney's office and stop eating until the government provides him with additional medical treatment — or until he starves to death.

His fight is also directed at helping other ex-soldiers he believes might be suffering from the health effects of depleted-uranium exposure, but might not even be aware of it.

Lacoste compares the pain he feels all over his body to hitting his funny bone against the corner of a table every 15 to 20 seconds.

"I should be dead by Nov. 11 — and I'm sure they're going to let me die," he said.

"I'm not a suicidal person — far from it. But, if I've decided to go on a hunger strike, it's because I've been going in circles for 12 years and it's given me absolutely nothing."