by The Royal Society of England –
LONDON (April 24, 2003) — The Royal Society, the UK’s national science academy, today called on coalition forces to reveal where and how much depleted uranium was used in the conflict in Iraq, so that an effective clean-up and monitoring programme of both soldiers and civilians can begin. It also highlighted the need to obtain further data on the exposure levels that can occur on the battlefield and in residential areas.
Professor Brian Spratt FRS, chair of the Royal Society working group on depleted uranium, said: “About 340 tonnes of DU were fired in the 1991 Gulf war. The coalition needs to make clear where and how much depleted uranium was used in the recent conflict in Iraq. We need this information to identify civilians and soldiers who should be monitored for depleted uranium exposure and to begin a clean-up of the environment.
“Fragments of depleted uranium penetrators are potentially hazardous, and a recent Royal Society study recommended that they should be removed, and areas of contamination around impact sites identified, and where necessary made safe. Impact sites in residential areas should be a particular priority. Long-term monitoring of water and milk to detect any increase in uranium levels should also be introduced in Iraq. This would provide a cost-effective method of monitoring sensitive components in the environment, and provide information about uranium levels to concerned local populations.
“The question of who carries out the initial monitoring and clean-up is a political rather than scientific question. The United Nations Environment Programme, which is today launching a report on environmental hazards in Iraq, has much experience in this area and advised on the clean-up operation in the Balkans. Monitoring, however, is likely to be a long-term task, spanning many years, so it is vital that Iraq acquires the capabilities to undertake this itself.
“Although there are more pressing problems in Iraq currently, such as ensuring that civilians have access to fresh water, food, power and medical services, and removing unexploded shells, the coalition needs to acknowledge that depleted uranium is a potential hazard and make in-roads into tackling it by being open about where and how much depleted uranium has been deployed.”
The Royal Society’s recent study on the health hazards of depleted uranium found that most soldiers and civilians are unlikely to be exposed to dangerous levels of depleted uranium during and after its use on the battlefield, but concluded that some soldiers might suffer kidney damage and an increased risk of lung cancer if they breathe in substantial amounts of it, for instance inside an armored vehicle hit by a depleted uranium penetrator.
The study also concluded that soil around impact sites of depleted uranium penetrators could be heavily contaminated, and may be harmful if swallowed by children for example. In addition, large numbers of depleted uranium penetrators embedded in the ground might pose a long-term threat to civilians if the uranium leaches into water supplies.
The Royal Society today also called for soldiers exposed to high levels of depleted uranium to be tested for its levels in their bodies. In its latest report, the Society recommended that in any future conflict using DU munitions, measurements of uranium in urine and modern biochemical tests of kidney function should be carried out on soldiers exposed to substantial levels as soon after exposure as practical and at subsequent intervals thereafter.
Prof. Spratt continued: “It is only by measuring the levels of DU in the urine of soldiers that we can understand the intakes of DU that occur on the battlefield, which is a requirement for a better assessment of any hazards to health. It is vital that this monitoring takes place and that it takes place within a matter of months.”
Prof. Spratt also proposed that a sample of soldiers from across the battlefield should be monitored for uranium levels. This would give scientists better data and enable them to determine more accurately the risk to health posed by depleted uranium munitions. In previous studies scientists have relied on mathematical modelling owing to lack of hard data from the battlefield.
Prof. Spratt said: “There are few, if any, validated measurements of the exposures to DU from previous conflicts where DU munitions were used. It is highly unsatisfactory to deploy a large amount of a material that is weakly radioactive and chemically toxic without knowing how much soldiers and civilians have been exposed to it.
“In order to more accurately assess the health risks, it is essential that we measure exposures in a sample of soldiers across the battlefield, not just those who may have had substantial exposures, but also foot soldiers and field hospital staff across Iraq. We also need to know the exposures of Iraqis living in any residential areas where DU munitions were deployed. We believe that exposures to DU will be low for most individuals but we need to take measurements.”
1. This statement coincides with the launch of the report of United Nations Environment Programme’s ‘desk study’ on Iraq’s environment, which also looks at the clean-up of depleted uranium munitions.
2. The Royal Society has published two reports on the health hazards of depleted uranium:
• The health hazards of depleted uranium Part I, published in May 2001 and covering likely exposure levels, radiological effects and epidemiology.
• The health hazards of depleted uranium Part II, published in March 2002 and covering effects from chemical toxicity and environmental impact.
Both reports are available on the Royal Society website: