The ministry that hides from truth

Gulf war veterans deserve better treatment and we need honesty.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian, Thursday January 11, 2001.

On the 21st April 1999, I telephoned the Ministry of Defence and asked its press office whether NATO was using weapons tipped with depleted uranium in Kosovo. “Certainly not”, I was told. I phoned NATO on the same day, and was told that these weapons were in fact being deployed. Yesterday the MoD’s press officer confirmed to me that his department knew DU was being used at the time. So had the MoD lied to me? “You shouldn’t read anything into it,” he assured me, “it certainly it wasn’t intentionally misleading”. A definitive denial was issued by mistake.

Perhaps we should view the ministry’s current position paper on the testing of Gulf War veterans for depleted uranium as another unfortunate accident. Or perhaps we simply shouldn’t read anything into it. Otherwise we’d have no choice but to conclude that the mistakes it contains are a series of lies.

The fine particles of dust released when a DU-tipped weapon hits its target, are, the MoD insists, “rapidly diluted and dispersed into the environment by the weather”, soon becoming “difficult to detect”. Yet samples taken over Kuwait City in 1993, two years after the end of the Gulf War, found depleted uranium particles in the air. This result appears to have been corroborated both by the preliminary findings of the UN team in Kosovo and by the results obtained in Iraq by the researcher Dr Chris Busby. He found that levels of radiation in the air over the Gulf War battlefields were 20 times higher last year than the levels in Baghdad.

No one “other than those in an armoured vehicle penetrated by a DU projectile”, the MoD paper insists, would be exposed to enough uranium “to receive a radiation dose greater than 20-30 millisieverts”. In the most “extreme and unlikely cases”, such as working for 30 or 40 hours inside a tank which had been hit by one of these missiles, a serviceman might receive “a radiation dose of the order of 50 millisieverts.” Such radiation levels should present little cause for concern, the paper argues, as the “safe dose” for people working in the UK is calculated at 50 millisieverts a year. Servicemen receiving this dose from “extreme and unlikely” exposure “would be at a slightly increased risk of developing cancer.” For everyone else the risk would be “negligible”.

These conclusions, the MoD admits, are based on speculation, as “no UK Gulf veterans have so far been specifically tested for the presence of uranium” by the government. This is true, as far as it goes. But other Gulf veterans have been tested by independent researchers. And their findings, based not upon speculation but upon hard fact, suggest a very different level of contamination.

Urine samples taken from veterans and measured by mass spectometry have been analysed by the medical researchers Professor Hari Sharma and Dr Rosalie Berthell. Their results suggest that the doses received by soldiers inhaling the dust are in the order not of 20 or 30 or 50 millisieverts, but of 778.

As Malcolm Hooper, emeritus professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Sunderland has shown, fine particles of DU entering the lungs are likely to stay in the body for between 10 and 20 years. The fact that DU is still appearing in some Gulf veterans’ urine suggests he may be right. If this is the case and the samples taken so far are representative, then instead of a “negligible” or “slightly increased” risk of cancer, we could, he argues, expect between 1,500 and 10,500 of the UK’s 53,000 Gulf war soldiers to develop fatal cancers as a result of their exposure to DU.

Now no one can put her hand on her heart and say that the diseases beginning to emerge among both Iraqi civilians and ex-servicemen are the result of exposure to DU. But neither can anyone put her hand on her heart and say they are not. Yet this is precisely what the MoD has sought to do. Like certain other government departments, it has deployed not the precautionary principle, but the improvidence principle: shoot first, ask questions later.

It’s not hard to see why it should do so. Were the MoD to express any doubts about the safety of its procedures, the potential compensation claims would make the BSE disaster look cheap. DU dust is likely to have become so widespread that an effective clean-up operation in the Gulf and the Balkans would cost some trillions of pounds. The UK could also find itself firmly on the wrong side of the Geneva convention.

So we can expect the unfortunate mistakes the MoD has made to continue for as long as possible. Statistics, as far as government departments are concerned, will remain not a science, but an art.