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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 April, 2003, 17:53 GMT 18:53 UK
UK to aid Iraq DU removal
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Farmer, cow and tank   AP
Local people may be at risk

The UK Government says it will help to clean up depleted uranium (DU) ammunition in Iraq.

The US has said it has no plans to remove DU debris, despite international recommendations for its retrieval.

There is widespread controversy over the use of DU, which some veterans believe has made them ill.

One UK adviser on DU welcomed the British announcement as evidence of a fresh approach.

A spokeswoman for the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) told BBC News Online: "Legally, we have no obligation to clean up the remains of the DU we used. It's the responsibility of the new regime in Baghdad.

"But morally we do recognise an obligation, as we have in the past. We helped in the removal of DU from Kosovo.

"We'll be helping in any way we can, specifically by providing money for the clean-up, and by making available records of where the ammunition was fired.

Silver bullet

"There may not always be any records, for instance where there was a skirmish - but insofar as we have them, we'll make them available."

Children play on tank barrel   AP
The evidence is piling up that DU is not benign at all
Professor Malcolm Hooper, Gulf Veterans' Association

DU, left over after natural uranium has been enriched, is 1.7 times denser than lead, and very effective for punching through armoured vehicles.

When a weapon with a DU tip or core strikes a solid object, like the side of a tank, it goes straight through before erupting in a burning cloud of vapour. This settles as chemically poisonous and radioactive dust.

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

Almost all the UK ammunition containing DU was fired from Challenger 2 tanks, the MoD says.

It is also used in "bunker-busting" bombs, in some naval armaments, and in the ammunition of A-10 anti-tank aircraft.

The MoD could give no figure for the amount of DU used in Iraq: one unconfirmed estimate suggests the total could be about 1,500 tonnes, five times more than was used in the 1991 Gulf war.

Long-lived hazard

A Pentagon spokesman said on 14 April he believed the US had no plans for a DU clean-up in Iraq. The British initiative is an unusual departure from a common Anglo-American approach.

Iraqi child with eye tumour   AP
Iraqis blame 1991 DU for many ills

The United Nations Environment Programme's Post-Conflict Assessment Unit has published a report on DU contamination found in Bosnia-Herzegovina up to seven years after the conflict there.

It recommends collecting DU fragments, covering contaminated points with asphalt or clean soil, and keeping records of contaminated sites.

Malcolm Hooper, emeritus professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Sunderland, is chief scientific adviser to the UK Gulf Veterans' Association.

He told BBC News Online: "I welcome what the MoD has said, because it suggests someone may now be starting to say: 'Hang on, perhaps this stuff isn't as benign as we thought'.

"And I think the evidence is piling up that DU is not benign at all. The inhalation of these fine dust particles represents a health hazard that was known to the military as long ago as 1974.

"The ministry is right to say it has a moral duty to act. I think it has a legal duty as well, in the light of the child cancers and birth defects we've been seeing in Iraq since DU was used in the 1991 war."

Many UK and US veterans of that war believe exposure to DU has damaged their health, and in some cases killed their comrades.

They also blame it for some of the health problems seen in southern Iraq, though many scientists say there is no known mechanism by which DU could have caused the damage.

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