News

WHO suppressed evidence on effects of depleted uranium, expert says

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39027.603264.DB (Published 09 November 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:990
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. 1London

A World Health Organization paper on the risks to health from munitions that use depleted uranium has been called into question by a member of the editorial team that produced the report. Keith Baverstock, who worked as a WHO radiation expert, claims that research indicating a carcinogenic effect was deliberately suppressed.

Dr Baverstock said that he tried to submit research from the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute of the US Department of Defense that found evidence of genotoxicity from depleted uranium particles in the body.

But Mike Repacholi, the WHO scientist who oversaw the production of the 2001 report, Health Effects of Depleted Uranium, refused to include any mention of the research in the final report.

Dr Repacholi, who retired from WHO this summer, could not be reached for comment. But he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on 1 November that he had excluded the research because of a lack of corroboration from other sources.

He said that he had not wanted to include “fairytale stuff” in the monograph, which concluded that depleted uranium munitions posed few known health risks, although it advised that children be kept clear of contaminated sites.

Dr Repacholi said that the decision to exclude the research “went right up to the director general's office” (Gro Harlem Brundtland was director general at the time) and was based partly on the dissonance between its findings and the rest of the report. “To have a paper from another WHO staff member that says we absolutely think it's harmful makes WHO look a bit odd,” he said. “It looks like WHO is not in control of its shop.”

Dr Baverstock said that the findings of genotoxicity were already supported in 2001 by eight other studies and are now supported by about 20. But Dr Repacholi told Today that “these papers were speculative at the time.”

Dr Baverstock later planned to co-write an article in the International Journal of Radiation Biology discussing the findings but was prevented from going ahead under the terms of his WHO contract. He said, “I find it hard to rule out the possibility that member states might have exercised their influence.”

He said he kept silent at the time because he was negotiating the renewal of his contract as a WHO consultant. The Department of Defense's research was eventually reported by New Scientist magazine in 2003 (15 Apr, www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn3627).

British and US forces fired about 320 tonnes of depleted uranium munitions in the 1991 Gulf war and may have used up to 2000 tonnes in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Because of its extreme density it is used to make the tips of armour piercing shells.

Reports from southern Iraq have documented a steep rise in the incidence of cancers since the 1990s, especially cases in children.

Jawad al-Ali of the Basra Cancer Treatment Centre reported this August at the annual conference of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons in Hiroshima that the local cancer registry reported an incidence of 11 cancers per 100 000 people in 1988, rising to 75 in 1998 and 116 in 2001.

• The UK secretary of state for international development, Hilary Benn, has called for cluster bombs to be banned, after a report from the charity Handicap International found that 98% of 10 861 confirmed victims of these weapons were civilians. The total number killed and injured by cluster bombs around the world could be as high as 100 000, the report said.

Footnotes