THE USE of depleted uranium (DU) containing munitions in the Gulf war, the Balkan conflict and more recently in Iraq has provoked intense controversy. Depleted uranium (DU) contains less concentration (0.2 to 0.4 per cent) of uranium-235. It is a relatively cheap product left when the proportion of U-235 atoms found in natural uranium is increased by a process called `enrichment.' DU is 1.7 times denser than lead and is used at the tip of armour-piercing shells. Noting that DU contamination has potential health consequences, the World Health Organisation (WHO), prepared and released an independent report on the topic in 2001.

Studies suppressed

Dr. Keith Baverstock who was one among the 15-member review and oversight group claimed that WHO deliberately suppressed research indicating the carcinogenic risk from DU munitions. Dr. Mike Repacholi, the WHO scientist who oversaw the production of the report refused to include any mention of the research emerging from the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute of the US Department of Defence (The British Medical Journal ), he complained.Dr. Repacholi told BBC on November 1, this year that he had excluded the research because other reports did not corroborate the findings. In 2004, in an interview given to Rob Edwards, Dr. Baverstock claimed that while he was a member of the staff, WHO refused to give him permission to publish a study with Professor Carmel Mothersill from Macmaster University and Dr. Mike Thorme, a radiation consultant (Sunday Herald, 22 April).Baverstock believed that WHO censored and suppressed the study because they did not like its conclusions. WHO officials were bowing to pressure from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a pronuclear agency, he felt.

WHO's reactions

WHO dismissed the allegation. "The article was not approved for publication because parts of it did not reflect accurately, what a WHO-convened group of international experts considered the best science in the area of depleted uranium" Dr. Repacholi clarified.(Sunday Herald, 22 April 2004). Professor Allen Brodsky, Adjunct Professor of Radiation Science, Georgetown University, who wrote a seminal book titled `Review of radiation risks & uranium toxicity' responded thus to my e-mail: "I do not think that the depleted uranium has been shown to have any effects on troops or citizens, as a result of the research that I reviewed in my book."

Impact of DU munitions

The British and US forces fired about 320 tonnes of DU munitions in the Gulf war and may have used up to 2000 tonnes during the Iraqi invasion in 2003. The BMJ noted that reports from southern Iraq have documented a steep rise in the incidence of cancers since the 1990s especially in children."There is no scientific or medical evidence to link DU with the ill health of people living in the Gulf region" BBC quoted the UK Ministry of Defence."Although 90 per cent of the inhaled or ingested uranium is excreted within 24 to 48 hrs, about 10 per cent remains to form a long term radiological hazard" Sir Hugh Beach formerly Master General of the Ordnance and Warden of St. George House, Windsor Castle wrote in a candid report to the International Security Information Service (ISIS),UK.

K.S. PARTHASARATHY
FORMER SECRETARY, AERB

(ksparth@yahoo.co.uk)