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Friday, 5 January, 2001, 15:47 GMT
No uranium tests for UK troops
Kosovo border guard AP
There may be hidden threats left in Bosnia and Kosovo
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Troops from the United Kingdom who served in Bosnia and Kosovo are not at present to be tested for the possible effects of depleted uranium (DU) weapons used in those countries.

We are not aware that the use of DU in either Bosnia or Kosovo has contributed to ill-health in UK or other troops

British MOD
The UK's decision contrasts with the approach of several of its European partners. Spain, Portugal, Finland, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece and the Czech Republic have all begun checks.

The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, has called for DU weapons to be banned if they pose any risk.

Six Italian Balkan veterans have died of leukaemia, and four French soldiers are being treated for the disease. Several cases have also been reported among Dutch troops who served there.

Depleted uranium is a heavy substance, 1.7 times as dense as lead, and used in armour-piercing munitions.

Routine checks

A spokesman for the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) told BBC News Online: "We have no plans to test British troops who served in the Balkans.

"But we are open-minded, and we'll be interested to see the results of the tests by the Italians and the others.

Vet PA
Some veterans blame their illnesses on DU
"We are not aware that the use of DU in either Bosnia or Kosovo has contributed to ill-health in UK or other troops, and so we're not at the moment planning to run a screening programme.

"Anyway, most UK Balkan veterans are still serving in the armed forces, and so they'll be getting routine health checks."

Backing for the Ministry has come from Brian Spratt, professor of biology at Oxford University, who is heading an inquiry by the Royal Society into DU weapons' long-term effects.

Independent tests

Professor Spratt told BBC News Online: "I welcome the attitude of other European governments. But I think the Ministry probably has some justification for waiting to see their results.

I believe someone knows the answers, but will not provide them

Terry Gooding, UK Gulf War Veterans' News
"With Gulf War veterans, though, where the circumstances were quite different, I think it's rather unfortunate that they are having great difficulty in getting themselves tested.

"The British veterans who were tested in Canada, and whose urine was found to contain elevated levels of uranium - the Ministry should be retesting them.

"The Royal Society is trying to broker a way forward so that they could be tested by an independent laboratory."

The Royal Society inquiry is due to report later this year, but Professor Spratt said he thought there were already "some concerns" about the inhalation of DU particles.

Cancer rates

"It may be that the risk means one or two extra cancer cases out of something like 100,000 troops exposed to high DU levels," he said.

"It's encouraging that studies of uranium workers appear not to show higher cancer rates. If inhaling had been incredibly dangerous, the studies would have shown that.

US plane on tarmac BBC
Many DU rounds are fired by aircraft
"My suspicion is that there may well be health consequences, they'll probably be fairly minor, but not absolutely zero. But there is considerable uncertainty."

But Terry Gooding, editor of the UK Gulf War Veterans' News, says troops from both conflicts should be tested. He told BBC News Online: "This is much bigger than the Ministry thought.

"The life expectancy of a Gulf veteran is 15 years, and I've had 10 of them. More than 500 of those who served with me are already dead. I believe someone knows the answers, but will not provide them, because dead men tell no tales."

Time running out

The Ministry's critics say that, as uranium is eventually excreted from the body, delaying tests is effectively a way of allowing evidence of damage to be permanently lost.

Pekka Haavisto, chairman of the UN Environment Programme's (Unep) Balkan DU assessment team, and former Finnish Environment Minister, led a mission to Kosovo last November, which found scattered DU fragments.

He said: "It was surprising to find remnants of DU ammunition just lying on the ground one and a half years after the conflict.

The ground directly beneath was slightly contaminated. So we paid special attention to the risks that uranium toxicity might pose to the groundwater around the sites."

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See also:

05 Jan 01 | Europe
Nato divided over Balkan syndrome
04 Jan 01 | Europe
EU presses Nato over uranium arms
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