In 2001, at the behest of John Spellar - the then Minister for the Armed Forces, an independent committee was established to oversee the testing of veterans for DU exposure.
As is the vogue in the UK when dealing with issues that are deeply contentious, the committee was to be 'oppositional', that is it contained members with a wide spectrum of beliefs on the issue. This included establishment scientists, veterans groups and campaigners. The same structure was also used for the Committee Examining the Risks of Radioactive Internal Emitters - CERRIE.
The scheme was briefly advertised in the UK tabloid press and in all 464 veterans were tested - out of a possible 50,000 who served in the Gulf and Balkan wars. Of the 464 veterans, none appeared to have had a detectable exposure to DU. Eight of the samples were found to have elevated uranium levels but these were blamed on environmental or dietary exposure to natural uranium.
Testing of the samples took place at two laboratories in the UK - Harwell Scientifics and the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory at Leicester University. The latter had developed a test able to discover uranium concenrations of as low as 2ng (two billionths of a gramme).
Dr Chris Busby of Green Audit, one of the NGO representatives coopted by the DUOB, praised the effective running of the board and was confident that testing had been completed without the intervention of the UK MoD, allaying fears from many veterans about interference.
However, he and others including Professor Malcolm Hooper of the Gulf War Veterans Society pushed for the inclusion of a Minority Report representing their dissenting views on the findings. They were concerned about several factors which they felt hadn't been properly examined.
Foremost was the worry that many Gulf War veterans were tested 12 years after exposure. Our knowledge of the biokinetics of uranium inside the body is still rather limited and it is unclear how much of the DU dust personnel inhaled is of a soluble nature. They felt it was possible that troops' initial exposure may have been much higher than the tests suggested and that much of the DU remained sequestered inside the lungs and bone.
Another concern was that UK veterans may be exposed to enriched uranium on a regular basis as a result of nuclear accidents and bomb testing. Should they be excreting enriched uranium, it would mask the telltale isotopic signtature of DU.
There were also worries that the study, because of the low numbers who took part, failed to be entirely representative of UK veterans.
Many lessons were learned from the process and the MoD have used some of them to test veterans from Operation Telic - the 2003 Iraq invasion. As yet they have only released data on personnel involved in friendly fire attacks and seem unwilling to publicise data from other troops.
The full report is available to download at the end of this article.
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Page last updated: January 28, 2003