Thursday 17 April 2003
Royal Society spells out dangers of depleted uranium
Hundreds of tonnes of depleted uranium used by Britain and the United States in Iraq should be removed to protect the civilian population, the Royal Society said yesterday, contradicting Pentagon claims it was not necessary.
The society's statement fuels the controversy over the use of depleted uranium (DU), which is an effective tank destroyer and bunker buster but is believed by many scientists to cause cancers and other severe illnesses.
The society, Britain's premier scientific institution, was incensed because the Pentagon had claimed it had the backing of the society in saying DU was not dangerous.
In fact, the society said, both soldiers and civilians were in short and long term danger. Children playing at contaminated sites were particularly at risk.
DU is left over after uranium is enriched for use in nuclear reactors and is also recovered after reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. There are thousands of tonnes of it in stores in the US and UK.
Because it is effectively free and 20% heavier than steel, the military experimented with it and discovered it could penetrate steel and concrete much more easily than convential weapons. It burns at 10,000C, incinerating everything as it turns to dust.
As it proved so effective, it was adopted as a standard weapon in the first Gulf war despite its slight radioactive content and toxic effects. It was used again in the Balkans and Afghanistan by the US.
DU has been suspected by many campaigners of causing the unexplained cancers among Iraqi civilians, particularly children, since the previ ous Gulf war. Chemicals released in the atmosphere during bombing could equally be to blame.
Among those against the use of DU is Professor Doug Rokke, a one time US army colonel who is also a former director of the Pentagon's depleted uranium project, and a former professor of environmental science at Jacksonville University. He has said a nation's military personnel cannot wilfully contaminate any other nation, cause harm to persons and the environment and then ignore the consequences of their actions. He has called on the US and UK to "recognise the immoral consequences of their actions and assume responsibility for medical care and thorough environmental remediation".
The UN Environment Programme has been tracking the use of DU in the Balkans and found it leaching into the water table. Seven years after the conflict it has recommended the decontamination of buildings where DU dust is present to protect the civilian population against cancer.
Up to 2,000 tonnes of DU has been used in the Gulf, a large part of it in cities like Baghdad, far more than in the Balkans. Unep has offered to go to Iraq and check on the quantities of DU still present and the danger it poses to civilians.
Professor Brian Spratt, chairman of the Royal Society working group on depleted uranium, said that a recent study by the society had found that the majority of soldiers were unlikely to be exposed to dangerous levels of depleted uranium during and after its use on the battlefield.
"However, a small number of soldiers might suffer kidney damage and an increased risk of lung cancer if substantial amounts of depleted uranium are breathed in, for instance inside an armoured vehicle hit by a depleted uranium penetrator."
He said the study also concluded that the soil around the impact sites of depleted uranium penetrators may be heavily contaminated, and could be harmful if swallowed by children for example.
"In addition, large numbers of corroding depleted uranium penetrators embedded in the ground might pose a long-term threat if the uranium leaches into water supplies.
"We recommend that fragments of depleted uranium penetrators should be removed, and areas of contamination should be identified and, where necessary, made safe."
He added: "We also recommend long-term sampling, particularly of water and milk, to detect any increase in uranium levels in areas where depleted uranium has been used. This provides a cost-effective method of monitoring sensitive components in the environment, and of providing information about uranium levels to concerned local populations."
Royal society Report on DU: http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/policy/cur_du.htm
When The Dust Settles
Ian Sample and Nic Fleming
Thursday 17 April 2003
Depleted uranium may be far more dangerous than previously thought - and we could be dealing with the fallout for many generations to come.
The change in wording seems innocuous at first. During the 1991 Gulf war, US army guidelines recommended surgeons do their best to remove fragments of depleted uranium (DU) shrapnel from soldiers struck by flying chunks of metal from armour-piercing shells. In practice, that meant smaller bits of shrapnel were rarely removed. Getting those out just caused more damage to surrounding muscle and other tissue. Today, the guidelines are different: surgeons should be "aggressive" in removing any fragments of depleted uranium.
The small change betrays a big leap in understanding the threat posed by depleted uranium. Evidence is building that DU causes more genetic damage than scientists suspected - even at levels deemed so low as to be non-toxic.
Depleted uranium shells are designed to be lethal: the metal is so dense it can crash through the heavy armour of a modern battle tank. But those who escape the intended effect face other risks. When the depleted uranium rod inside an armour-piercing shell disintegrates, it showers toxic and weakly radioactive dust and fragments over a wide area.
It is not just soldiers who risk exposure. In Iraq, land where people once lived, and will doubtless return to, is now littered with the stuff. In 1991, armour-piercing shells containing around 340 tonnes of DU were fired at targets too tough to take out with standard shells. Hundreds more tonnes have been added to that during the past four weeks. People returning to places where the shells were used breathe in the dust as it is churned up by wind and traffic. The metal can also seep into water supplies, contaminating them for years.
Alexandra Miller at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, is due to complete an investigation into DU for the US department of defence next year. Already she has some insight into the damage it can do. Last year she showed that depleted uranium from pellets implanted in rats dispersed all over the animals' bodies, turning up in bones, muscles, kidneys and liver. Rats breeding six months later had fewer offspring than normal.
Her latest study reveals something even more unusual. When human bone cells are exposed to DU, some suffer immediate genetic damage. The type of damage varies but often fragments break off chromosomes, the strings of genes in almost every cell, and form tiny rings of genetic material. This much was expected. But as other cells evidently undamaged by the depleted uranium started to divide, creating new cells, Miller noticed the genes in some of these new cells were damaged. More than a month after the DU was removed, new cells were forming with broken chromosomes or other genetic damage. The DU was having a delayed effect.
More intriguing still is Miller's latest suspicion that DU punches above its weight in terms of the damage it does to genes. She knew that depleted uranium could damage genes not only by emitting radiation, but by its chemical make up - like nickel, it can switch on cancer genes by its sheer toxicity. But she found that tiny amounts of DU, too small to be toxic and only mildly radioactive, cause more genetic damage in cells than either the toxicity or radiation could explain. Her latest results suggest that the toxicity and radioactivity of DU reinforce one another, causing more damage than the two just added together. It's no small difference either. "You can get more than an eight-fold greater effect than you'd expect," she says. In other words, more than eight times as many cells suffer genetic damage than predicted. Without taking the effect into account, the health risk of DU could be grossly underestimated.
"People have always assumed low doses are not much of a problem, but they can cause more damage than people think," says Miller. It may be some time before the risk of DU is revised though. "None of these studies has yet impacted on the regulations."
Opinion among scientists is divided about the dangers of the genetic damage caused by DU. "There's a debate in the field. It looks like DNA damage in cells will make them weaker and more susceptible to becoming cancerous. But some say this could just be the cells adapting to the radiation," says Miller.
One person who is convinced DU-induced genetic damage causes real health problems is Albrecht Schott, a biochemist who recently retired from the Free University of Berlin. The day before the start of this Gulf war, he published a study carried out with scientists at the University of Bremen. The study, the first of its kind, looked at genetic damage in the white blood cells of 16 former soldiers who believed they had been exposed to DU in the 1991 Gulf war or in the Balkans. They found that damage to chromosomes in the white blood cells was on average five-and-a-half times higher in the veterans than the rest of the population.
Kenny Duncan, one of the soldiers tested, was 21 when he served with the Royal Corps of Transport, helping to shift Iraqi tanks destroyed by DU shells in the 1991 Gulf war. He believes his exposure to DU has left his family with a painful legacy. His eight-year-old son suffers constant headaches and has deformed ears and toes. His two other children also have deformed toes and both suffer bowel and bladder problems. One is also partially deaf.
The reason is likely to be down to DU, says Schott. "The high levels of genetic damage we observed do not occur naturally. I believe alpha radiation from DU to be the cause of these chromosome aberrations.
"Uranium molecules in the blood can travel to every part of the body, including the areas where sperm and eggs are. This, and the presence of chromosome aberrations, increases the probability of cancer and other genetic conditions significantly. They lead to a higher probability of genetic damage in the person's babies and then damage can be passed on to the children's children."
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence dismisses the study. "We consider the tests undertaken in Germany neither well thought out nor scientifically sound," he says.
Miller also has doubts about the Bremen study. The soldiers suspected they had been exposed to DU, but how could they be sure? "How do they know they weren't exposed to something else, like weapons cleaning fluid?" she asks.
Virginia Murray who heads the chemical incident response service at Guy's hospital, London, and contributed to the Royal Society's investi gation into DU last year says the effects of DU on people can only be assessed accurately if the amount they were exposed to is known precisely. The society's report recommended that in any future conflict when DU was used, levels of uranium should be regularly monitored in soldiers exposed to the metal and their kidney function checked to ensure it is not impaired.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence says soldiers who believe they have been exposed to DU in Iraq can have their urine tested on their return. If they test positive for DU, they can have follow-up checks on their kidneys.
Next week, the United Nations environment programme will publish a study into the environmental dangers posed by the war on Iraq, including those from DU. Pekka Haavisto, chair of Unep's Iraq task force said scientists would take soil, water and air samples and test them for traces of DU. "Based on previous experience, we have seen that in targeted areas, this type of ammunition poses possible environmental and health risks. We found that DU can corrode in the soil and exist for a long time in the dust." Without a clean up, and the Pentagon says they have no plans for one, people returning to DU hotspots might find themselves unwitting volunteers in testing just what effects depleted uranium really has.
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