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Friday, March 19, 1999 Published at 12:45 GMT


Health

Depleted uranium 'low risk' for Gulf veterans

Gulf war veterans are worried about the health risk of depleted uranium

A toxic, radioactive material used in the Gulf War is unlikely to have contributed to Gulf War Illness, according to a government report.

Depleted uranium (DU) was used in anti-tank shells in the 1991 Gulf War.

It is the by-product of the process of converting natural uranium for use as nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons.

Some veterans believe it could play a part in Gulf War Illness, the symptoms of which include extreme fatigue, respiratory problems and muscloskeletal disorders.

But the Ministry of Defence report finds that the risks of DU are small.

"It is judged that there is a low risk of any radiation effects from these possible exposures contributing to the illnesses currently being experienced by some Gulf veterans," says an MOD statement.

Gulf War veterans are sceptical about the report's findings.

Radiation and toxicity

It concludes that DU presents two hazards - a radiation and a chemical toxicity risk.

It says the radiation risk is low because DU is defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency as a low specific activity material.

Its chemical toxicity is "similar to that posed by other heavy metals such as lead".

The report says the kidney is the organ most susceptible to the toxic effects of DU as it flushes out the poisons.

But only a few veterans who have been examined as part of the government's Medical Assessment Programme for Gulf War veterans have displayed the symptoms of chronic kidney damage associated with poisoning.

The report also states that damage is unlikely to show up in the first 10 years of exposure and few veterans will have come into contact with it for long enough to do any long-term harm.

The main method of exposure is through breathing in DU dust caused when shells hit a hard surface like a tank.

The MOD says this would only affect people in the tank or those who came into the contact afterwards, such as personnel investigating Iraqi tanks which had been hit by DU shells.

Armed Forces Minister Douglas Henderson said: "I am not aware of any UK Gulf veteran who is suffering from a Depleted Uranium-related illness."

He added that any veteran who thought their health had been damaged by DU should contact the Medical Assessment Programme.

US defence forces began a programme for testing DU exposure last year.

It only applies to a small group of veterans, including those who were in or on top of vehicles hit by DU shells or those who investigated vehicles hit by DU shells.

The MOD says only 350 of the 697,000 US Gulf veterans are likely to qualify.

It believes none of the 53,000 UK personnel were exposed to DU in this way.

Scepticism

Gulf War veterans are sceptical about the report.

They say several of their members have chronic kidney damage and many have developed cancer, but a large number have not been through the Medical Assessment Programme.

Tony Flint of the National Gulf Veterans' and Families' Association said many veterans were too sick to travel to London to be assessed.

And many others distrusted its results. "They think that all the programme is doing it trying to build up the MOD's defence records for when we take them to court," he said.

The association is calling for a public inquiry into the programme and wants medical tests to be carried out by an independent body.



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