Uranium 'risk to 90,000 UK Gulf troops'

Fresh research indicates that debris from Allied munitions poisoned our servicemen during the war with Iraq
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The Independent Online
THE MINISTRY of Defence is facing renewed pressure to commission fresh medical tests on Gulf War veterans following research by a leading United States scientist indicating that up to 90,000 British services personnel may have been poisoned by depleted uranium.

A study by the eminent nuclear physician, Dr Asaf Durakovic, contradicts the Government-supported view that depleted uranium posed little threat to Allied forces during the 1991 conflict.

Depleted uranium (DU), a super-hard material used in anti-tank shells and vehicle armour by Britain and the US, was said to be inert, except at the point of impact. The Government has repeatedly rejected claims that it has contributed to the family of symptoms known as Gulf War Syndrome.

DU poisoning is said to cause leukaemia, neuro-cognitive disorders, liver and kidney damage and a range of cancers. Contamination is through ingestion of dust carrying minute amounts of the heavy metal. Once contaminated, according to Dr Durakovic's research, the sufferer will also be affected at a genetic level and deformities can be passed from generation to generation.

Dr Durakovic, professor of radiology and nuclear medicine at Georgetown University, Washington, came to Britain hoping to convince MoD officials of the risks. He told them that tests carried out by Dr Hari Sharma at the University of Waterloo, Canada, had confirmed doses of DU in one British army medic of at least 100 times the naturally-occurring level.

A further six British soldiers with suspected DU poisoning will now be tested.

"Even by the Pentagon's own figures around 300 tonnes of depleted uranium deposit was left in the Gulf," said Dr Durakovic. "It only takes a small particle of DU to mutate one gene to cause cancer, so how can they say there is no risk when it was used in such large quantities?

"The uranium deposited in the Gulf would provide a toxic dose for the whole United States population 100 times over," said Dr Durakovic.

Veterans' groups and even some of the Government's own advisers believe a testing programme could be the first step in forcing the Government to acknowledge the risk posed by DU during the conflict.

Around 53,000 British personnel were posted to the Gulf and some 5,000 a year rotate through the region, meaning up to 90,000 by now may have been exposed to depleted uranium particles.

Professor Malcolm Hooper, who sits on the MoD's own scientific panel assessing Gulf War Syndrome, said he welcomed the new research and called on the MoD to pay for the testing of every soldier who had served in the region.

"There have been no tests done by the Ministry of Defence as part of the Medical Assessment Programme to establish DU exposure," he said. I think Gulf War veterans should be systematically looked at for DU contamination in the light of the preliminary findings of Dr Durakovic.

"DU has been identified through urine tests in at least one British soldier and I would expect it to be present in many more. It should be incorporated into the Medical Assessment Programme sooner rather than later," said Prof Hooper.

The fresh evidence has come as no surprise to Tony Benn MP, who first warned against the use of DU in munitions in 1979, when he was Secretary of State for Energy.

"The argument was that it had a very high penetrating capacity and that was why it was justified," Mr Benn said. "We used nuclear weapons against Iraq and that was crudely what happened. It had been presented as just a very strong bullet for going through tanks."

The Ministry of Defence said it had not seen any published evidence to suggest that DU had contaminated British soldiers. A 1993 study by the Defence Radiological Protection Service had found that British forces had not been contaminated.

The 1993 report said problems would be limited to "transient kidney damage" and concluded: "To date there is no indication that harmful overexposures to DU with respect to chemical toxicology or radioactivity have occurred either at the UK ranges or in the Gulf conflict."

But the MoD added it would not rule out any new evidence. "We understand that information will be available on his [Dr Durakovic's] work and we are looking forward to seeing it. However, what the Ministry wants to do is be open to any information that comes in. Once in, it will be subjected to the proper channels of independent scientific scrutiny."

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