by Antony Barnett / The UK Observer –
LONDON (December 14, 2003) — Depleted uranium shells used by British forces in southern Iraqi battlefields are putting civilians at risk from ‘alarmingly high’ levels of radioactivity.
Experts are calling for the water and milk being used by locals in Basra to be monitored after analysis of biological and soil samples from battle zones found “the highest number, highest levels and highest concentrations of radioactive source points” in the Basra suburb of Abu Khasib — the center of the fiercest battles between UK forces and Saddam loyalists.
Readings taken from destroyed Iraqi tanks in Basra reveal radiation levels 2,500 times higher than normal. In the surrounding area researchers recorded radioactivity levels 20 times higher than normal.
Radiation Levels 20 to 2,500 Times Higher than Normal
Critics of these controversial munitions — used to penetrate tank armor — believe inhaling the radioactive dust left by the highly combustible weapon causes cancer and birth defects. It has long been alleged that depleted uranium (DU) used in the first Gulf conflict was responsible for abnormally high levels of childhood leukemia and birth defects in Iraq. Depleted uranium is also believed by some to be a contributing factor in Gulf War syndrome.
The disclosure comes days after the charity Human Rights Watch claimed hundreds of ‘preventable’ deaths of civilians have been caused by the use of cluster bombs by US and UK forces during the conflict. The latest research, based on a two-week field trip by scientists, was carried out by the Canadian-based Uranium Medical Research Centre (UMRC) led by a former US military doctor Asaf Durakovic.
Tedd Weymann, deputy director of UMRC, said: “At one point, the readings were so high that an alarm on one of my instruments went off telling me to get back. Yet despite these alarmingly high levels of radiation, children play on the tanks or close by.”
Children at Play on Contaminated Tanks
The amount of DU used during the Iraq war has not been revealed, although some estimate it was more than a thousand tons. Last week, Labour MP Llew Smith obtained from the Ministry of Defense a list of 51 map co-ordinates in Iraq where sites were struck by DU weapons. France, Spain and Italy claim soldiers who served in Bosnia and Kosovo, where DU shells were used by NATO, have contracted cancers.
Witnesses told the UMRC that a British Army survey team inspected Abu Khasib. “The UK team arrived dressed in white full-body radiation suits with protective facemasks and gloves. They were accompanied by translators who were ordered to warn residents and local salvage crews that the tanks in the battlefield are radioactive and must be avoided,” the report states, adding: “The British forces have taken no steps to post warnings, seal tanks and personnel carriers or remove the highly radioactive assets.”
Dr Chris Busby, who is a member of a government committee examining radiation risks, expressed concern. ‘There is no question that inhaling this radioactive dust can increase the risk of lymphomas,’ he said.
Professor Brian Spratt, who chaired a Royal Society working group on the hazards of DU, said: “British and US forces need to acknowledge that DU is a potential hazard and make inroads into tackling it by being open about where and how much has been deployed. Fragments of DU penetrators are potentially hazardous, and should be removed, and areas of contamination around impact sites identified. 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.”
British Military Officials Reject Report of DU Dangers
In a statement, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) said: “The allegations made by the UMRC are not substantiated by credible scientific evidence. They give no activity concentrations of the material concentrations on the ground or in the air, and their conclusions are not substantiated by readings taken by MoD’s own survey team…
“The MoD sent a small team of scientists to Iraq in June to perform a preliminary survey in order to identify issues… and provide safety advice to scientists in the field. This survey looked at a small number of locations where tanks had been defeated by DU and found limited contamination at localized points; the highest contamination was at the point of entry on a defeated tank and this was fixed to the metal and could not be rubbed off on the skin by touch, much less inhaled.
“The UMRC appears to consider a small, highly localized area of contamination to present a large health risk. Use of ‘worst case’ data to calculate risks to the population is inappropriate.”
Antony Barnett is the public affairs editor of the Sunday UK Observer
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