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Tuesday, 22 May, 2001, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
DU screening 'on the way'
Kosovars greet British troops as they arrive on the southern outskirts of Pristina
The MoD promised a screening programme for veterans
The Ministry of Defence has defended its failure to implement a screening programme to check war veterans for exposure to depleted uranium (DU) weapons.

A report issued by the Royal Society called for more research to be done about DU exposure levels encountered by veterans in the Gulf War and the Balkans.

But it found that, for the vast majority of soldiers, the additional health risks of DU weapons would probably be negligible.

An MoD spokesman said the screening programme - announced four months ago - was still being planned.


Our proposals go beyond what the Royal Society is recommending

MoD statement
Depleted uranium is weakly radioactive and is used to tip armour-piercing shells and for tank armour.

But concerns have arisen over the potential harmful effects of inhaling DU dust, or suffering shrapnel wounds.

The Royal Society found that exposure to high levels of DU dust could double a soldier's risk of dying from lung cancer.

But this would only apply in a small number of cases, where soldiers had been in vehicles hit by DU shells.

'Test firing'

For most soldiers the additional threat of lung cancer, leukaemia and other cancers would probably be negligible, the scientists said.

But they highlighted an urgent need for more information on exposure levels suffered, and called for "realistic test firing" of DU shells to give better information on the dangerous particles produced.


There is no scientific or medical evidence to link DU with the ill health of some Gulf veterans or Balkans peace keepers

MoD statement
In response, a MoD statement said; "The report does not criticise the MoD for not yet having introduced a screening programme.

"Our proposals go beyond what the Royal Society is recommending and beyond what is currently planned by other nations.

"The tests do not exist in a suitable form and we need to develop them.

"We are taking a very open approach and it is better to take time to achieve a robust programme than to improvise a regime which might risk scientific criticism and lose the confidence of the veterans."

'Open minded'

The MoD's own research includes proposals which meet some of the report's recommendations, it said, such as biological monitoring in future conflicts.

"We remain open minded," added the statement. "So far there is no scientific or medical evidence to link DU with the ill health of some Gulf veterans or Balkans peace keepers."


Governments who wish to use DU weapons have a responsibility to understand the possible risks

Professor Brian Spratt
Royal Society
Professor Brian Spratt, chairman of the working group that prepared the report, said there was "limited information" on the amounts of DU soldiers had been exposed to on the battlefield.

"Without additional measurements, it is not possible to rule out a significantly increased risk of lung cancer among a small group of soldiers who may have been exposed to very high levels of DU in extreme situations," he said.

"Governments who wish to use DU weapons have a responsibility to understand the possible risks to their own soldiers, and to the soldiers and civilians within the countries where conflicts arise.

"It is essential that further information about exposures is obtained from the test firing of DU shells into armoured vehicles to find out if our worst case estimates are feasible."

'Improved monitoring'

The Royal Society will publish a second report examining the toxic properties of the metal and its environmental effects.

Prof Spratt said the urine of Gulf and Balkans veterans should be analysed for exposure, and called for "improved and timely monitoring" of DU exposure in future conflicts.

DU shell
The effects of shells has been a source of concern
The report said the biggest threat to soldiers was from small particles which might be inhaled and could lodge in the lungs.

It added that veterans' health should be monitored over several decades as the effects might only appear slowly.

The MoD spokesman added that there were "no plans at the moment" to suspend the use of DU weapons until further research was done on the health effects.


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