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Tuesday, 12 March, 2002, 14:08 GMT
Uranium weapons health warning
DU, AP
A lot of effort has gone into assessing the risks
test hello test
By BBC News Online's Ania Lichtarowicz
line
A small number of soldiers and civilians might suffer kidney damage from depleted uranium (DU) if substantial amounts are breathed in, or swallowed in contaminated soil and water.


The main concerns are that children can ingest large amounts of soil when they're playing

Prof Brian Spratt
A report by the UK's academy of science, the Royal Society, recommends that soldiers who may have been exposed to DU should be tested for the presence of uranium in their kidneys and in their urine.

Written by some of the country's leading scientists, the report also suggests that DU may contaminate water supplies - putting civilians at risk.

The society's recommendations include annual water sampling in areas of high contamination and more research into the health of veterans who may have been exposed to DU.

Inhaled dust

DU is used in weapons designed to pierce the heaviest armour, such as in tanks. It is a by-product of nuclear fuel development and is slightly radioactive.

Gulf war veteran Brian Tooze was rushed into hospital with suspected meningitis four years after he returned from the conflict.

But instead of the brain disease, doctors found there was evidence of DU in his urine.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that now he suffers from skin cancer, kidney trouble, irritable bowel syndrome, constant headaches, tinnitus and problems with balance.

Testing

"It is impossible to work and I may now have to have my right knee replaced with a false one," he added.

Mr Tooze does not put all his symptoms down to DU exposure - he blames a combination of that and post-traumatic stress disorder, but he has backed calls for proper testing of UK soldiers.

A previous report by the Royal Society, published in May last year, suggested the radioactivity associated with DU might increase the risk of individuals developing lung cancer.

Those most at risk are soldiers who breathe in high levels of DU dust which often occurs when a person is caught close to a DU impact.

On penetrating a tank, the weapon breaks up to form a fine dust that can be inhaled.

The dust can also settle on the ground and cause further danger to the clean-up teams who move into an area to remove the wreckage of war.

Heavy metal

Depleted uranium is also a dangerous chemical that can have other effects on the body.

DU, AP
The Balkans: Wherever Nato has gone to war, the issue has been hotly debated
This latest report by the Royal Society suggests that most soldiers on the battlefield will be exposed to levels of DU that are unlikely to cause heavy metal poisoning.

But those who inhale large enough quantities may experience short-term kidney problems.

Currently there is not enough data to assess the long-term damage. The scientists predict that very high exposure could lead to kidney failure within days.

The UN is recording DU hot spots - areas where DU weapons have been used.

Children at risk

Professor Brian Spratt from Imperial College in London and one of the authors of the Royal Society report said that children could be particularly at risk

"The main concerns are that children can ingest large amounts of soil when they're playing and ingestion of the heavily contaminated soil could give them high levels of uranium in their kidneys which could cause them some kidney damage," he told BBC News Online.

Another problem is water contamination. Local civilian populations could be at risk if DU leaked into water sources. Tests show this has not happened.

But Professor Spratt suggests that water sampling is carried out every year as it could take up to 40 years for the DU to filter into the water.

Recent conflict

If that did happen and dangerous levels of DU were present then drinking water would be unsafe.

DU weapons were used in the Gulf War and in the Balkans. The British Ministry of Defence has confirmed that no DU weapons have been used by UK forces in the conflict in Afghanistan.

It is not yet clear whether the US has used DU weapons.

Professor Spratt is hopeful that screening of veterans will start by the end of the year so more can be learnt about the effects of DU on the body.


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See also:

22 May 01 | Sci/Tech
More research urged on DU
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