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Response to the Royal Society Report on the Health Hazards of Depleted Uranium (DU) Munitions: Part 2

By Dr P. M. S. Monk, BSc PhD CChem MRSC

'It doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards'
Iago, Othello act 2, sc. 1, l. 295-7.

The Royal Society was established by King Charles II in 1660 to be the National Academy of Sciences - indeed, it is the world's first such academy. The Royal Society recently reported on the toxicity of depleted uranium (DU). The full transcript of the report runs to 138 pages. The report can be accessed through the internet, at http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/policy/du.htm. An informative eight-page summary should also be consulted at http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/files/statfiles/document-168.pdf.

One of the roles of the Royal Society is to inform public policy. In this context, Parliament asks a group of its Fellows to investigate the science underlying an issue, topic or concern, and then write an authoritative report. Parliament usually frames its legislation in the light of the report's recommendations.
It could be argued that legislation based on a single report is foolhardy, but it must be borne in mind that the Fellows of the Royal Society are scientists of the highest calibre. Indeed, anyone querying the quality of a Fellow's science is either brilliant - probably being a Fellow in their own right - or brave but seriously stupid. Your reviewer cannot claim membership of the first category, and vanity precludes boasts concerning the second.

This proviso means that this summary of the report is not an attempt to under-mine the findings of the Royal Society. Rather, it translates the Royal Society's own assess-ment of its shortcomings, etc. into every-day English. Interestingly, the results are rather different from the summary printed in the media.

Firstly, the Royal Society had access to MoD files, and says 340 tons of DU were dropped during the Gulf War in 1991 and 11 tons during the Balkans War in the late 1990s. They say this DU is 'toxic and weakly radioactive,' and the munitions containing this DU will contaminate wide areas, 'which may be hazardous to the health of com-bat-ants and of those entering the area later.' Each of these terms is then discussed. The prin-cipal concerns of DU poisoning relate to inhalation of fine DU dust, and (to a lesser extent) shrapnel and mechanical wounds during warfare.
Secondly, the radioactivity of DU is said to be low, so it should be classed as 'weakly radioactive'; this finding is demonstrably true.

But next there comes the weakest part of the report: right at the beginning of the Royal Society's own summary, they say, 'There are still uncertainties that need to be resolved, particularly in the estimates of DU intakes that could occur in different situations on the battlefield.' It goes further: 'Due to the lack of measurements of actual levels, our approach has been to estimate the typical levels of exposure . . .' The risks were then calculated from a series of hypothetic scenarios. In other words, no real results exist which relate to those exposed to DU, either with short-term contamination during military action or longer-term exposure of the indigen-ous populations. Soldiers returning from Kuwait with 'Gulf-War Syndrome' fall within the former category while the inhabitants of Iraq relate to the latter category.

Thirdly, several independent studies of those exposed to DU are reported (the data coming from occupational exposures and epidemiology rather than DU from munitions). The Royal Society says 'the parallels [with those subjected to DU in and after warfare] may not be precise.'

So much for radioactivity. What about the chemical toxicity of DU? It must be remembered that depleted and enriched uranium are chemically identical. Much of the report relates DU and cancer. The authors state 'except in extreme circumstances' the risk of contracting cancer is not enhanced following contact with DU. This result relates to soldiers i.e. only to those suffering short-term contact. It is a shame that the exact meaning of 'extreme' is never really discussed. Furthermore, 'A very small fraction' of soldiers will 'double' their chances of developing lung cancer. Again, an attempt at quantifying this qualitative statement would have been useful. Finally, the authors state that the chance of con-tracting other cancers, such as leukemia, are considered to be 'too small' to be statistically relevant.

Having waded through the report's fine detail, I felt like an elephant hunter, tiptoeing round in order not to attract the attention of a twenty ton elephant. The report never quite says what is clearly stated between the lines: the levels of chemical toxicity are higher than admitted by the politicians and military men, who all dismiss the concept of chemical toxicity by saying the non sequitur, 'the DU is not radioactive.'

Considering how these reports are sponsored by the intellectual might of the Royal Society, it would not be wise to question their findings; they explicitly state that the DU from weapons does spread toxic material over a battle site, and its environs. And this toxicity is hazardous to health.

Having discussed cancers, the report says that the organ regarded as most sus-cept-ible to uranium toxicity is the kidney. The wide range of susceptibilities for different creatures precludes the results of experiments on animals. Indeed, 'very few humans have had sufficiently large, acute intakes of uranium compounds' to make predictions meaningful. Fur-ther-more, 'the [effects of uranium compounds in the kidney] for extended periods of time . . . are not well established.' The report wants to get round this problem by suggest-ing that doses will be so small that no injury is caused, or so large that drastic poisoning is apparent, yet the majority of contaminations will surely fall between these two extremes. Either way, the explicit ignorance remains: we simply do not know the long-term effects of uranium poisoning.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) also produced an 188-page report last year: Depleted Uranium in Kosovo: post-conflict environmental assessment (which can be down-loaded from http://balkans.unep.ch/du/reports/uranium.pdf). NATO helped with its compilation.
Their report does not mention explicit issues concerning health. Rather, they note approvingly that the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNEP itself have both comm-issioned toxicol-ogy reports.

This report limits itself to publishing data from major, extensive environ-men-tal monitoring. Their treatment is both rigorous and admirably thorough. In summary, they cite exhaustive detail from the 5 different laboratories which analysed 12 sites in Kosovo. 1 years after the conflict had ended, 'slightly radioactive material [was found] at many sites.' On the basis of their own results, the UNEP recommend that all affected areas - which are massive - be cordoned off, and that water quality be monitored continually.

Reports from UNEP or NATO are generally a model of clarity, precision and text-book methodology, so we can assume their findings were correct at the time the field tests were performed. This DU will not decompose; nor will it decay, because it is not radioactive. If the finding of the report can be faulted in any way, it is to say that they do not consider the way that toxins often spread as a result of movements in the atmosphere (wind, rain, etc.). The areas contaminated will probably widen with the years.

Whether the DU does spread or not, it is nevertheless crystal clear that contamination has spread far wider than the actual sites of warfare, so DU (and its compounds) are distributed over a massive area. Taken in tandem with the report from the Royal Society (above), we have yet more evidence to support a total ban on the use of DU in weapons.

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Page last updated: 6th December 2002