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The BBC's Andrew Marr
"What we are seeing is the spectacle of a government being forced backwards"
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Friday, 12 January, 2001, 07:52 GMT
UK considers DU testing
tanks
DU tipped weapons were used to destroy tanks in Kosovo
The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, has said he would consider demands for the independent screening of British veterans who feared contact with depleted uranium (DU) weapons had made them ill.

The announcement was made as it become clear that the government was first warned of the possible danger of DU to its troops at least a decade ago. An even earlier warning is said to have been issued in the US, a close Nato ally, in 1990.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has already said it would offer testing to veterans of the Balkans and the Gulf who wanted it.

But speaking to the BBC on Thursday, Mr Hoon hinted the government might go further and offer screening independent of the MoD, something the veterans have been demanding.

Geoff Hoon
Geoff Hoon: "Taking the best scientific and medical evidence"
"I can't today, because the work is still underway, tell you precisely the nature of the screening and the work which will be done, but we are taking the very best scientific and medical evidence in order to produce a screening system that satisfies those who have concerns," he said.

Veterans like Shaun Rusling, of the Gulf War Veterans' Association, said forces personnel that believed their illnesses were the result of DU no longer trusted the MoD and were sending samples for testing in Canada.

"We felt that we wanted the tests to be independent of this country because many of the laboratories in this country that have got the ability to do it are influenced by grants which come from the state," he said.

The BBC has learned that out of 16 veterans tested in Canada, nine were found to have DU in their bodies which could only have been picked up during the Gulf War.

'Highly damaging'

Researchers in Canada say British tests have not been thorough enough. The UK Government denies being told of the dangers of DU to its troops in 1997.

A BBC radio investigation into DU, Costing the Earth, broadcast 18 months ago, gave details of these and other warnings.

Yet the armed forces minister, John Spellar, told Parliament this week that the conclusion of many years' research was that "there is no evidence linking DU to cancers or to the more general ill-health being experienced by some Gulf veterans".

However, Professor Malcolm Hooper, of Sunderland University, who advises a parliamentary group on Gulf War illnesses, said that despite what the government said, having DU inside the body could prove highly damaging.

"We're talking about years of continuous emission - alpha radiation from these small particles, which will go on and on and on," he said.

"There will be a cumulative radiological dose building up through time, and it's this that's the danger."

The 1991 warning came from an official at AEA Technology, the trading name of the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

He sent a document to the Royal Ordnance in London, the company that makes DU ammunition for the MoD.

Half a million dead

The document looked at what might happen if all the DU fired in the Gulf War by tanks - about 8% of the total DU used there - were inhaled.

If that happened, it said, the latest International Commission on Radiological Protection risk factors calculated that there could be half a million deaths as a result by 2000.

The Royal Ordnance and the MoD work closely together. An MoD spokeswoman told BBC News Online: "I think it's fair to say we are in day-to-day contact."

The MoD in fact knew that there were some risks associated with DU as long ago as 1979.

soldier and tank
Three hundred tonnes of DU were fired in the Gulf War
A spokesman told BBC News Online: "An MoD memo then was clear about both the toxic and the radioactive risks.

"We warned UK troops in the Gulf in 1991 about them, and since 1993 we have publicised our understanding of the risks.

"But this does not change by one iota our stance, or the statement by Mr Spellar two days ago.

"We've known for over 20 years that there are risks. But we don't think those risks are significant."

The 1990 warning came from the US-based Science Applications International Corporation.

It said the short-term effects of high doses of DU could end in death, and the long-term effects of low doses had been implicated in cancer.

There have been other warnings. A 1995 report from the US Army Environmental Policy Institute said: "If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences."

DU has been blamed for a number of leukaemia cases among former peacekeepers who served in the Balkans. Veterans also say it contributed to health problems suffered after the Gulf War.

And there is concern for civilians, especially in Iraq, where a huge increase in some forms of cancer and birth defects has been reported since the war ended in 1991.

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See also:

11 Jan 01 | Europe
Uranium sites 'should be sealed'
10 Jun 99 | Sci/Tech
A soldier's experience
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