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Thursday, 4 January, 2001, 22:20 GMT
Q&A: Depleted uranium weapons
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

What is depleted uranium, and why are people worried about it?

Depleted uranium (DU) is what is left over after natural uranium has been enriched, either for weapons-making or for reactor fuel.

It is mildly radioactive in its solid form, and poses little if any cause for concern.

But it is a very heavy substance, 1.7 times denser than lead, and it is highly valued by armies for its ability to punch through armoured vehicles.

When a weapon made with a DU tip or core strikes a solid object, like the side of a tank, it goes straight through it and then erupts in a burning cloud of vapour.

The vapour settles as dust, which is chemically poisonous and also radioactive.

Both the US and the UK acknowledge that the dust can be dangerous if it is inhaled, though they say the danger is short-lived, localised, and much more likely to lead to chemical poisoning than to irradiation.

Many veterans from the Gulf and Kosovan wars, though, believe that DU has made them seriously ill.

What actual evidence exists that DU can be harmful ?

There is no scientifically proven evidence that it is harmful.

But the veterans point out that absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence, and they believe their own experience means there is serious cause for concern.

Almost all the published studies suggest there's no link between DU and cancer.

But there are hardly any published studies, none has ever been conducted (in the public domain anyway: Some exist but they're classified) on returning veterans, and none has ever been done on civilians.

Only one British Gulf War veteran has ever been tested by the Ministry of Defence over the past decade.

What research has been done on the ground?

In Iraq it is almost impossible to do any research that will satisfy Nato governments.

Sanctions mean the equipment needed cannot be imported, and although Iraqi and foreign doctors report serious health problems in which they think DU may be implicated (much higher rates of some forms of cancer, birth defects, etc.), Nato says pre-war record keeping was not good enough to allow any firm conclusions to be drawn.

In Kosovo, Nato did finally admit that it was using DU weapons, but refused for a long time to give details of where and in what quantities.

Even when it finally came up with some details, these were initially too imprecise to allow a UN task force to assess whether there was a problem, and if so how big it was.

What do veterans themselves report ?

One UK Gulf veteran is Ray Bristow, a former marathon runner.

In 1999 he told the BBC: "I gradually noticed that every time I went out for a run my distance got shorter and shorter, my recovery time longer and longer. Now, on my good days, I get around quite adequately with a walking stick, so long as it's short distances. Any further, and I need to be pushed in a wheelchair."

Ray Bristow was tested - in Canada - for DU. He is open-minded about the role of DU in his condition. But he says: "I remained in Saudi Arabia throughout the war. I never once went into Iraq or Kuwait, where these munitions were used. But the tests showed, in layman's terms, that I have been exposed to over 100 times an individual's safe annual exposure to depleted uranium."

Doug Rokke, a former US army colonel who served in Vietnam, was sent to the Gulf in 1991 to advise on cleaning up radioactive debris.

He says almost every member of the team of 30 experts he took with him is now seriously ill, and three have died of lung cancer.

Others say they have children born with defects.

What do doctors sympathetic to the veterans' fears say ?

They say they have found levels of DU in the urine of the few Gulf veterans who have been tested which are surprisingly high as so much time has passed since they were exposed.

Another former US army colonel, Dr Asaf Durakovic, says he has found a "significant presence" of DU in two-thirds of the 17 veterans he has tested.

"Some of those particles were inhaled, and if they were too big to be absorbed they stayed in the lungs, and there they can present a risk of cancer," he said.

So veterans of both wars may be at risk?

The circumstantial evidence suggests that they may, though there is no proof yet.

But several European countries supplying peacekeeping troops to serve in the former Yugoslavia have told them not to eat local produce or to drink the water.

Several years ago a report by the US Army Environmental Policy Institute said: "If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences. The risks associated with DU in the body are both chemical and radiological. Personnel inside or near vehicles struck by DU penetrators could receive significant internal exposures."

It is not clear whether this warning reached all the troops serving in Kosovo, during and after the war, or whether it was intended to reach them.

It certainly did not reach civilians there or in Iraq. Yet they are as exposed to any harmful effects of DU as the troops themselves.

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04 Jan 01 | Europe
04 Jan 01 | Media reports
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