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Climbdown on Gulf war syndrome

9 January 2001

Richard Norton-Taylor, Ian Black in Brussels and Peter Capella in Geneva

The Ministry of Defence is poised to announce a significant shift in policy by agreeing to conduct medical tests on tens of thousands of veterans from the Balkans and Gulf wars for signs of contamination by depleted uranium (DU) used in tank-busting shells.

The decision, which will reverse the position held by ministers over the past decade, follows mounting pressure from ex-servicemen, MPs and Nato allies across Europe. It is expected to be announced in a Commons statement by Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, on Thursday.

For years British veterans who fought in the 1991 Gulf war have pressed forward claims that conditions such as chronic fatigue, hair loss and various types of cancer may have been triggered by contamination from fragments of DU.

The government announcement is expected to maintain that there is no established link between DU and illnesses among former soldiers. But the MoD will concede that, as a precautionary measure to set minds at ease, it will commence screening veterans in the near future.

The MoD and Gulf veterans have been deadlocked over DU for some time.Neither side can agree on doctors or medical institutes to carry out tests to see if there is any connection between DU and soldiers ill with cancer.

The MoD's signalled change of heart is partly designed to head off demands for compulsory screening by the Commons defence committee whose chairman, Bruce George, accused the MoD earlier this week of "foot-dragging" over testing Gulf war veterans.

Both the EU and Nato will discuss the growing controversy this week. Fears that there could be a link have been fuelled byb a spate of reports from Italy, France, Belgium and Portugal where troops who served in Kosovo and Bosnia have been diagnosed with cancer, particularly leukaemia.

The German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, joined the ranks of senior European leaders demanding a full investigation into the use of DU shells by American A10 "tankbusters" in the Kosovo war.

"We want a complete examination of where these munitions have been used and with what consequences," he said yesterday. "We want to know if there are connections between cases of illness and the use of these weapons." Mr Schröder said he would support Italy's demand - due to be discussed by the North Atlantic Council tomorrow - that Nato provide full information on where DU ammunition was used. Nato, backed by the US and Britain, insists DU shells cause no significant risk.

DU is used in the nose of armour-piercing shells because its density helps it to punch through modern tanks. Over100,000 DU rounds were fired during theGulf war. In Kosovo, more than 30,000 rounds were used by US A10s; about 10,000 shells were fired in the area surrounding Sarajevo in the closing stages of the Bosnian conflict.

Terry Gooding, of the Gulf Veterans' Association, said the anticipated move was "not before time". He added that it had taken 10 years during which the lives of many veterans could have been saved. But he said it would be difficult to measure DU contamination after such a long time when traces would have been excreted.

The World Health Organisation said that evidence mainly gleaned after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster suggested it was unlikely that radiation exposure would lead to an increased incidence of leukaemia although other types of cancer could occur.

Mike Repacholi, a WHO environmental health specialist said: "To us, depleted uranium is a chemical toxicity issue, not one of radiation. Children in particular could be at some risk because children playing in contaminated areas tend to pick up pieces of dirt or they put their toys in their mouth, they could absorb more."

About 30,000 British military personnel were deployed in the Gulf war and some 50,000 British troops have seen service in Bosnia or Kosovo since the mid-1990s.

The issue has been added to the agenda of today's meeting of the EU's political and security committee at the request of Greece and Belgium.

Reaction in Europe

Italy - Last month announced an investigation into the illnesses of 30 soldiers who served in the Balkans, five of whom died of leukaemia. Last week demanded Nato look into the risks.

Germany - Defence ministry is to review all cases of leukaemia in the military. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder yesterday backed the call for a full investigation.

Russia - Foreign minister Igor Ivanov yesterday called for an independent inquiry.

Portugal - Yesterday began screening 10,000 personnel who have served in the Balkans since 1996.

Norway - Yesterday offered check-up for 20,000 soldiers.

Belgium - Health questionnaires sent to 12,000 troops. Group of soldiers plan civil suit against the government.

United Nations - Urgent appeal to the World Health Organisation to send public health experts to monitor the possible risks to civilians.


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