Depleted Uranium Weapons – a BBC investigation by Angus Stickler
A BBC investigation can reveal that the US and UK military have continued to use depleted uranium weapons despite warnings from scientists that it poses a potential long-term cancer risk to civilians. A former senior scientist with the United Nations has told the BBC that studies showing that it was carcinogenic were suppressed from a seminal World Health Organisation report. The US has refused to fund major research and has been criticised for failing to cooperate with UN attempts to conduct a post conflict assessment in Iraq.
Angus Stickler reports:
When depleted uranium bullets are fired, the rounds can rip through the tank armour. And once inside - on contact with air they combust exploding into a 10,000 degrees centigrade ball of fire.
Both the US and UK used depleted uranium in Iraq. The US fired 320 tons in Gulf War I – and possibly as much as 2,000 tonnes in Gulf War II. But its use is highly controversial - blamed as one of the possible causes of cancer and birth defects. It’s this that prompted the Untied Nations’ World Health Organisation to conduct a major assessment of the post conflict hazards. The findings were published in 2001. Dr Mike Repacholi retired as the Coordinator of the W.H.O. Radiation and Environmental Health Unit in June of this year. He oversaw the project.
He says, “Depleted uranium is basically safe - you can touch depleted uranium for hours and not cause and radiation damage you can ingest it and it’s excreted through the body - 99 per cent of it goes within about a day - you would have to ingest a huge amount of depleted uranium dust to cause any adverse health effect.”
The W.H.O. assessment warns that children should be restricted from going into post conflict areas. The monograph - as it is called – is now used by some as the definitive document on the potential health hazards of depleted uranium. But now this BBC investigation has been told - its findings may skewed.
Dr Keith Baverstock – now retired - was a senior radiation advisor with 12 years experience at the W.H.O - part of Dr Repacholi's editorial team at the time. He came across research indicating that depleted uranium is a potentially dangerous carcinogen:
“When you breathe in the dust the deeper it goes into the lung the more difficult it is to clear. The particles that dissolve pose a risk - part radioactive - and part from the chemical toxicity in the lung - and then later as that material diffuses into the rest of the body, and into the blood stream a potential risk at sites like the bone marrow for leukaemia, the lymphatic system and the kidney” according to Dr Baverstock.
Health warnings suppressed
This is called genotoxicicty says Dr Baverstock, it could take decades before evidence of cancer starts to emerge. As part of the W.H.O. team he submitted these findings - based on peer reviewed research conducted by the United States Department of Defense - for inclusion into the monograph. It received short shrift. Dr Repacholi says this was with good reason.
It was the committee's general conclusion that this data did not substantiate that there was a health effect at this stage. Was the science that was in that report - which was research that came effectively from the US Department of Defense - was it wrong?
DR REPACHOLI: We want a comprehensive report - we want to include everything that we can - but we don't want fairytale stuff - it wasn't collaborated by other reports - that was felt to the level that science would say this was established.
ANGUS STICKLER: My understanding is that at the time that there were eight published peer reviewed research studies - attesting to the genotoxic nature of uranium - all of which could have been included in the monograph?
REPACHOLI: Yep - these - er - papers were speculative at the time and W.H.O. will only publish data that they know is established.
STICKLER: Shouldn't the World Health Organisation err on the side of caution?
REPACHOLI: W.H.O is a conservative organisation there's no doubt - it's not a leader in this sort of thing - it's not out there saying wow we should be concerned about this, this and this - it's not there to do that.
Dr Baverstock disagrees. He says the W.H.O stance that this is inconclusive science is not safe science. He attempted to take the issue further.
DR BAVERSTOCK: When it wasn't included in the monograph - I with two other colleagues prepared a paper for the open literature and the W.H.O did not permit me to submit that paper for publication.
ANGUS STICKLER: Why not - what reasons were you given?
BAVERSTOCK: Well ha - I still have not had a reason as to why that paper was not allowed to be published.
STICKLER: Could it be the case that the science you're talking about is unsafe - in that you're - as a scientist - a bit miffed that they didn't include what you wanted them to include?
BAVERSTOCK: No I'm not miffed about it at all - we use this kind of laboratory testing in many systems to screen chemicals and to know whether things are going to be dangerous or not.
STICKLER: Why do you think your study was - as you say - suppressed?
BAVERSTOCK: It is naive to think that in institutions like the United Nations one is free from political influences - the member states have their own agendas.
STICKLER: What you seem to be saying there is that the W.H.O. was pressurised by the likes of the United States to come to the right conclusion?
BAVERSTOCK: I think that could be the case - yes.
It’s ironic that the major player that Dr Baverstock believes was behind the decision block publication of his study – was the nation state that conducted the research he was citing: The United States' Department of Defence Armed Forces Radiobiological Research Institute: a credible State laboratory. A point I put to Dr Repacholi.
DR REPACHOLI: The problem that W.H.O had and it went right up to the Director General's office that it was finally disapproved at that level was that on the basis of the evidence that we have - we can't conclude that it is harmful - and to have a paper from another W.H.O staff member that says we absolutely think it's harmful - makes W.H.O look a bit odd.
STICKLER: With the greatest respect - that's going to have very little truck with someone who may get seriously ill because of depleted uranium the fact that the W.H.O. may look a bit odd?
REPACHOLI: No the odd part is that it looks like W.H.O. is not in control of its shop.
There is undoubtedly a massive gulf between the views of these two scientists. Dr Repacholi - however - denies that pressure was brought to bear on the W.H.O.
The findings of the US Department of Defense research - are now in the public domain: depleted uranium is genotoxic - it chemically alters DNA and could be a precursor to tumour growth. Since 2001, there have been numerous studies supporting the findings.
We asked for an interview with the scientist who conducted these studies - Dr Alexandra Miller – the US Department of Defense refused. The BBC has been told that she applied to the US Army Research Programme to do further work on the effects of depleted uranium in 2004, five and six. All the applications were turned down.
Iraqi cancer increase
This is the Isotope Geo-science laboratory at the British Geological Survey. Its equipment has been used by the British Government to conduct the most extensive research so far - into depleted uranium contamination of UK troops. Professor Randall Parrish says there are worrying signals coming from Iraq – from civilian populations.
“I’ve been to several international conferences where I’ve heard Iraqi medical physicians summarise health statistics on the occurrence of birth defects and non Hodgkin’s Lymphomas and the rise in incidents in these kind of effects especially in the area of southern Iraq and the Basra area appears quite alarming on the basis of the figures that I’ve seen – significant data – that would suggest that we should be erring on the side of caution here – and it ought to be investigated” Professor Parrish told us.
Professor Parrish has recently completed another research study – as yet unpublished – but it shows that if inhaled – depleted uranium remains in high concentrations in the body - a potential hazard - for decades. The priority now, he says, is to ascertain whether it poses a real risk to humans – the people of Iraq.
PROFESSOR PARRISH: If we want to get to bottom of this issue as to whether populations and people are really suffering – we have to conduct environmental and health assessments – in places where people are exposed and we can I think solve this problem if sufficient resources and the will is there to actually address the problem.
AHGUS STICKLER: Do you think the will is there on the part of the politicians?
PARRISH: Unless we can conduct additional work – this issue of DU and the politics of it will continue to hang over many governments for years and years and years to come.
Professor Parrish is prepared to undertake research on behalf of any member state that wishes to fund him.
In the meantime the United Nations Environment Programme UNEP has trained a team of Iraqi scientists ready to carry out a detailed assessment. But despite having political allies in Washington Henrik Slotte chief of the UNEP post conflict branch – says his work can’t progress further without co-operation from the US.
HENRIK SLOTTE: Without the coordinates and clear information about what was used and when - it is impossible to start working on depleted uranium in the field - it's like looking for a needle in the haystack.
ANGUS STICKLER: Are they providing you with all the information you've requested?
SLOTTE: In the case of Iraq we have requested and the reply has been that this is an issue that concerns many parts of that administration and it will take some time for them to come back in writing.
STICKLER: You do now have a team of Iraqis now ready to go in - wouldn't it be helpful for them to have this information now?
SLOTTE: Yes it would.
STICKLER: Are there any indications that they are going to get this information shortly?
SLOTTE: There are no indications.
Depleted Uranium according to a growing body of scientists is carcinogenic – a health hazard not just to Saddam Husain’s republican guard – but Iraqi civilians for generations to come. It’s been used in other theatres of conflict too – Afghanistan and Lebanon – and calls for action are now gaining ground. Not just with fervent campaigners – but eminent scientists, academics, and lawyers too - depleted uranium munitions they say should be banned under international law as potential weapons of indiscriminate effect.
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