At last, ministers take depleted uranium seriously

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It has taken a while, but the Government is at last approaching the issue of depleted- uranium weapons, used in the bombing of Iraq and Serbia, in the way that it should have been approached from the start.

It has taken a while, but the Government is at last approaching the issue of depleted- uranium weapons, used in the bombing of Iraq and Serbia, in the way that it should have been approached from the start.

Depleted uranium is used for the tips of armour-penetrating shells because it is so dense. There is plenty of research that has failed to find any link between it and cancers or other illnesses suffered by Gulf War veterans or civilians in the former Yugoslavia. There is research that suggests that troops serving in the Gulf suffered particularly from ill health, but no similar effects have been reported among Bosnia veterans, which might be expected if exposure to uranium were a factor. There is some evidence that the vaccinations given to troops in the Gulf War to protect them against biological weapons might be responsible for some illnesses. But ministers have reacted for years to the concerns of veterans and others about depleted uranium by simply dismissing them out of hand.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Defence was forced to change tack when an internal report warning of the possible health risks of handling depleted uranium was leaked to The Independent. It tried to rubbish its own study, but then realised that it was making its public relations disaster worse. Instead, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, ordered that all services personnel who had been in contact with uranium should be screened.

However, this was still only an internal Government investigation. What was still needed, and what the Government now seems prepared to commission, was an independent study of the issue. A rigorous review of the evidence, carrying out new research if necessary, is what is needed to explain the puzzling aspects of the issue. For example, there is confusion over the problem of uranium's radioactivity, which in the case of the "depleted" kind is low, and its toxicity, because like most heavy metals, uranium is poisonous if inhaled as dust.

If this study had been commissioned as soon as concerns were raised, then, for all the difficulty of proving a negative, people might have accepted that the Government had a genuinely open mind on the subject, and thus might have been more inclined to accept its assurances.

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