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MoD knew of ammo risks for 10 years

6 January 2001

By Michael Smith, Defence Correspondent and Christian Jennings in Pristina

THE Ministry of Defence admitted last night that it had known for 10 years that there were health risks from the depleted uranium ammunition used during the Gulf war and the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Politicians and representatives of soldiers around Europe called yesterday for investigations into what they claim to be links between use of the radioactive metal and illness, including leukaemia. Despite a number of British soldiers who served in the Balkans appearing to have symptoms similar to those of the so-called Gulf war syndrome, the MoD insisted that there was no cause for concern.

The admission that defence chiefs were aware that there were risks involved in the use of depleted uranium came after the Telegraph obtained a copy of regulations issued to German troops in Kosovo warning of a potential long-term hazard.

The document told soldiers not to approach any locations or equipment which had been hit with depleted uranium (DU) ammunition "except for life-saving purposes and/or measures indispensable to the mission accomplishment".

Ammunition or other contaminated material should not be touched. "It must be assumed that not only the interior but also the surrounding area of an armoured vehicle destroyed by DU ammunition is contaminated. There is a potential health hazard in the form of DU exposure stemming from ammunition parts and destroyed DU-contaminated vehicles. Long-term hazards may also result from drinking water and soil contamination."

Both Nato and the EU have launched investigations into the effects of depleted uranium amid concern over a number of suspicious deaths and illnesses among soldiers from France, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Portugal after their return from the Balkans.

Gen Carlo Cabagiosu, the Italian commander of Kfor, the Nato-backed force which polices Kosovo, admitted yesterday that it was still not known whether there was a link to depleted uranium. Gen Cabagiosu said: "There has been a lot of scientific research to establish a direct link between this and soldiers with cancer. But the statistics have to be examined to see if this has to be taken seriously."

The MoD said it was waiting for the results of a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) investigation in Kosovo and an independent study by the Royal Society which is due to report in the summer. An MoD spokesman said: "At present we see no cause for concern. From everything we know about depleted uranium, we have no reason to believe there is any significant risk to UK personnel."

There were no plans to screen British troops who had served in the Balkans, he added. "Obviously if anyone comes up with any new evidence that suggests there is cause for concern then we will look at it again." Asked about the German regulations, the spokesman said that the MoD had issued similar instructions to its troops in Bosnia and Kosovo. He said: "That is just a sensible precaution. Our understanding of the levels of radioactivity is that they are so low that they pose only minimal risk to health."

However, the Berlin-based Tageszeitung says today that an interim report by the UNEP team showed much higher levels of radioactivity than expected in areas where depleted uranium was used. Tageszeitung says that the UNEP team had made an urgent call for all 112 sites to be closed off after finding considerable concentrations of uranium dust in eight of a sample study of 12 bomb craters.

The National Gulf War Veterans and Families Association said that a number of former soldiers who had served in the Balkans had come forward exhibiting similar symptoms to those reported among sufferers from Gulf War Syndrome.

Shaun Rusling, the association's chairman, attacked the MoD for describing the debate over the use of depleted uranium as "a red herring".

He has written to John Spellar, the Armed Forces minister, demanding an explanation. Mr Rusling asked Mr Spellar if an MoD alert over the dangers of depleted uranium was also a red herring. The warning, signalled to the HQ British Forces in Riyadh on Feb 25, 1991, pointed out likely health risks.

It said: "Two potential health risks from DU oxide dusts exist. First. Irradiation from alpha particles. Levels are extremely low but ingestion and inhalation should be avoided. Second. Heavy metal oxide, treat as for exposure to lead oxides."

The MoD signal warned that troops operating in areas where depleted uranium was present should wear gas masks and nuclear, biological and chemical protection suits. Mr Spellar admitted last November, in a written answer to a question from Tam Dalyell MP, that a number of British troops who might be exposed to depleted uranium, including the tank crews firing the ammunition, were not warned.

The MoD says British tanks fired fewer than 100 depleted uranium rounds during the Gulf War compared to the 860,000 fired by US troops and aircraft.

British troops are not thought to have used depleted uranium rounds in the Balkans but US aircraft fired 10,800 rounds in Bosnia and about 31,000 during the Kosovo conflict.


*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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