Letter: `Poisonous' Gulf shells

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Sir: Robert Fisk reports ("The West's poisonous legacy", 28 May) that the depleted uranium (DU) based ammunition used by the UK and US forces during the 1990-91 Gulf conflict is suspected of causing an increase in cancers among Iraqi children. Coming from anyone other than Robert Fisk, this proposition would be regarded as a wilful perversion of reality.

The headline states that DU is treated as a hazard in the UK. In fact, DU has a number of applications in the civil sector: ranging from shielding against radiation in hospitals to counterbalance weights in yacht keels and aircraft. DU can constitute a significant health problem only if it has been inhaled in relatively large quantities. Its chemical toxicity, moreover, is similar to that of other heavy metals such as lead. Again, this toxicity only becomes a hazard to health if ingested.

The only form in which DU can be ingested/inhaled is as one of the dust particles produced when a DU shell penetrates an extremely hard substance such as tank armour. These particles are extremely small and are rapidly diluted and dispersed by the weather into the environment. They become difficult to detect, even with the most sophisticated monitoring equipment, no further than a few hundred metres from the point of impact.

With regard to the health concerns of Gulf veterans, none of those so far examined by the Medical Assessment Programme has displayed symptoms consistent with exposure to DU. As everyone knows, this government has, from its earliest days in office, been engaged in a full and open investigation of the possible causes of Gulf veterans' illnesses. The teams conducting epidemiological studies into the health of UK Gulf veterans and their families are, therefore, aware that DU is one of the many possible exposures during the Gulf conflict which have been put forward as a potential cause of Gulf-related illnesses and they will be taking this into account in their studies.


Minister of State for Defence Procurement

Ministry of Defence

London SW1