Intended for healthcare professionals


Government agrees to screen war veterans for uranium exposure

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 20 January 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:130
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. London

    The UK government has agreed to screen veterans from the Balkan and Gulf wars for uranium exposure caused by depleted uranium munitions. The government had initially offered to screen veterans of the Balkan war only but eventually offered voluntary screening to Gulf war veterans too, after taking a severe public relations bruising from leaks that undermined the Ministry of Defence's stated position.

    The defence minister, John Spellar, told the House of Commons last week that the risk from depleted uranium munitions was “negligible,” but he was called back the next day to explain a leaked army draft report from 1997 that called for troops to wear protective clothing when operating near spent uranium rounds.

    “Inhalation of insoluble uranium dioxide dust will lead to accumulation in the lungs with very slow clearance—if any,” said the report. “Exposure to uranium dust has been shown to increase the risks of developing lung, lymph and brain cancers.”

    The government maintains that no British service personnel have been exposed to risk from depleted uranium munitions, and that the screening programme has been offered only to provide reassurance. The ministry is awaiting the results of a Royal Society study now under way before deciding what form the screening will take. A ministry spokesperson conceded that the first tests were unlikely to occur before the end of the year.

    The standard test, which measures urine excretion of uranium, is unlikely to satisfy the advocates of the existence of a “Gulf war syndrome,” who argue that the major risk comes from particles trapped in the lungs. Confusion also exists about whether the main threat to health comes from a radiation or from heavy metal toxicity.

    The story that provoked the row over depleted uranium—about leukaemia among Italian soldiers—does not convince experts such as haematologist Professor Eric Wright of Dundee University. “If people had sufficient concentrations in the bone marrow to cause leukaemia, one would probably be picking up significantly higher levels in the kidney than we're seeing.”

    He added that the time elapsed since exposure was unusually short and that the numbers affected were not out of line with random fluctuations. He suggested, however, that nerve damage from heavy metals poisoning could conceivably account for the general malaise of which many veterans complain.

    Last Monday the chief prosecutor of the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal, Carla Del Ponte, said that her office was awaiting the results of various investigations by European governments into the use and effects of depleted uranium munitions with a view to possibly laying charges. The tribunal carried out an initial inquiry in 1999, but, she said, “there are new facts which could lead us to investigate the issue again.”

    The most alarming of these facts is that the very high cancer rates reported by Iraqi doctors, and long dismissed by NATO as propaganda, are now starting to be mirrored in Bosnia.

    NATO, like the Ministry of Defence, maintains that no evidence exists of a link between depleted uranium and cancer.

    Embedded Image

    Portugese experts examine a table for radioactivity in the Bosnian town of Visoko


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