DEPLETED URANIUM has been linked to increases in childhood cancers, birth defects and kidney damage.

DEPLETED URANIUM has been linked to increases in childhood cancers, birth defects and kidney damage.

Although most medical experts agree that it can cause kidney damage if inhaled or absorbed into the body, there is disagreement on whether its radiation causes ill effects.

Depleted uranium (DU) poses a potential threat to health because it emits radiation, and also because it is a heavy metal poison. It can be absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream through the skin, by inhalation or by ingestion with water. It then concentrates itself inside certain organs of the body, principally the kidneys.

However the levels of radiation emitted by DU are low. It has been estimated that personnel working with a fully-laden DU tank would need to remain in it for 1,500 hours before they would reach the recommended annual whole body dose limit.

However, some scientists warn that even low-level doses of radiation can have an effect. Dr James Morris, a consultant pathologist from the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, who has studied childhood eye cancer around Sellafield, said: "With very low levels of radiation there tends to be an assumption that there are no adverse health effects. But this is dangerous because radioactivity can concentrate itself in different parts of the body and cause damage."

After the Gulf War, an estimated 300 tons of depleted uranium was left on the battlefields, mostly in the form of radioactive dust.

Dr Siegwart-Horst Gunther, a German professor, believes that the depleted uranium dust has had severe effects on the immune systems of affected Iraqi people, which led to a rise in the prevalence of many infectious diseases in the area, including herpes.

Research from the department of pathology at the College of Medicine at the University of Baghdad showed a rise in the number of premature births. A high percentage - 26.8 per cent - of babies born in the post- Gulf War period had congenital abnormalities.

United Nations cancer statistics for southern Iraq between 1989 and 1994 revealed a sevenfold increase in cancer rates. In one district, the number of cancer cases rose from 72 in 1989 to 489 in 1994.