The West's poisonous legacy

In Britain, depleted uranium is treated as a hazard. In Iraq, it still lies in the soil. By Robert Fisk
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The Independent Online
ACROSS the sands of southern Iraq, the residue of Allied depleted uranium (DU) shells lies untreated in the soil. But in Britain, the Government goes to enormous lengths to protect its people from the results of test firing the very weapons suspected of causing an increase in cancers among Iraqi children.

A Government document, published almost six months ago but virtually ignored, reveals that test-firing of DU shells in Britain is carried out into an open-sided concrete building called the "tunnel" and that radioactive residues are washed off, sealed in cement and transported to Cumbria for disposal.

Iraqi doctors have long suspected that the children suffering from a four-fold increase in cancer in the south of the country - revealed in The Independent on 4 March - contracted their sickness from the Allied use of depleted uranium shells in the 1991 war. Tens of thousands of these projectiles were fired at the Iraqis in February 1991 in the fields south of the city of Basra, the fertile lands from which millions of Iraqis acquire their food. Many of the children dying of leukemia and lymphoma cancer were not even born when the war took place.

There has been no attempt by the US or Britain to find out the cause of the cancer outbreaks in Iraq, though US veterans' groups suspect DU shells, made of hard alloys which are tougher than tungsten and which ignite inside armoured vehicles, are responsible for thousands of cases of "Gulf War Syndrome" (including lymphoma cancers) among American soldiers who fought in the war. The US National Gulf Resource Centre says40,000 US servicemen may have been exposed to depleted uranium dust on the battlefields. Tony Flint, acting chairman of the British Gulf War Veterans' and Families' Association says the same shells could be responsible for the death of 30 British veterans.

A review of the Ministry of Defence's radioactive waste and management practices, published by the Department of the Environment in December last year, however, shows government specialists here take the risk of contamination more seriously than imagined. According to the report by the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, depleted uranium shells tested at the range at Eskmeals, on the Cumbrian coast, are fired into a special tunnel fitted with a filtered extract system and pressure- washed with water to avoid contamination.

"The washings are transferred to collecting tanks for eventual disposal in cemented drums to Drigg," the report says. If the DU shell is fixed into armour plate, then the plate itself is sent to Drigg for disposal. So concerned are the British authorities about health hazards from DU shells that an on-site health physics laboratory exists to monitor the workforce on the Eskmeals firing range. The Department of the Environment report says firings involving uranium have been going on at the range since 1981, and "just over 90 per cent of the total weight of the shells has been recovered". On 1991 Gulf War battlefields, not a single attempt was made to recover contaminated residues.

The Eskmeals range possesses seven high-volume air samplers and 1,000 samples are taken annually. A special sampler operates to check what the document calls "the critical group within the public [sic] ... identified as those living in Monk Moors". Depleted uranium shells are also test- fired at Kirkcudbright in Scotland where 1.5 tonnes of the projectiles are targeted every year into the Solway Firth. The shells, the report says alarmingly, "remain on the sea bed where they will corrode with time to form an insoluble sludge composed of hydrated uranium oxide ... Unsuccessful attempts were made in 1993 to recover some of these shells in order to assess their corrosion state." A small amount of depleted uranium waste also occurs at the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency's site at Fort Halstead in Kent disposed of, like the contamination at Eskmeals, to Drigg in Cumbria.

According to another American Gulf veterans' association, Swords to Plowshares, when a depleted uranium shell strikes armour, up to 70 per cent of the round burns, scattering radioactive and chemically toxic dust in and around the target.

The group quotes a US army report as stating that "aerosol DU exposures to soldiers on the battlefield could be significant with potential radiological and toxicological effects ... short-term effects of high doses can result in death, while long-term effects of low doses have been implicated in cancer". A 1993 US General Accounting Office report stated that American soldiers of the 144th Supply Company of the National Guard were never told of radiation hazards when ordered to recover US military vehicles in the Gulf that were the victim of "friendly fire" attacks using depleted uranium projectiles.

Western evidence is, thus, beginning to bear out the claim by Iraqi doctors that the residues of Allied DU shells may be a grave health hazard on the Gulf War battlefields. Almost all farm produce consumed by residents of Basra is grown in lands in which thousands of depleted uranium shells were fired. When The Independent visited the area in February, local farmers complained of high levels of cancer in their families.

The effectiveness of armour-piercing ammunition principally depends on its density of the material from which is it manufactured, and the British government report says depleted uranium shows "significant performance advantages over other metals". Which is not much comfort to Iraqi cancer sufferers, or Gulf War veterans.