Opinion: Safe or not safe? The doublespeak over depleted uranium

By Bill Wilson

On 22 February 2011, I received a somewhat bizarre letter from Liam Fox, the then minister for defence, in response to a letter I had sent him regarding the use of depleted uranium (DU) weapons.

In his letter, Dr Fox assured me that “None of the inquiries to date, including those quoted in your letter, has documented long-term health or environmental effects attributable to DU munitions”. In the same letter he stated: “on the basis of reports by the Royal Society and others, the MoD does not consider DU is safe”. And a little further on: “The UN General Assembly draft resolution you refer to […] The UK does not support resolutions that presuppose DU is harmful.”

Thus in a fairly short letter I was reassured that DU did not cause long-term damage to health or the environment, then that DU was not safe, and finally that the UK government rejected claims from the United Nations that DU was not safe.

This was a not atypical response when one raised the issue of DU. The evidence that it causes serious long-term damage both to the environment and human health is overwhelming – but try getting anybody to actually listen. As an MSP, I ran a series of press releases trying to raise the profile of this issue. The only news sources that paid any attention whatsoever were The Caledonian Mercury and the Scottish Left Review. No other UK newspaper, magazine, television or radio station would touch the story.

My experience of attempting to draw attention to this issue was by no means unique. Doctors in Falluja have advised women (yes, an entire city of women) not to become pregnant. This drew little attention in the UK, but then the tragedy of Iraq generally attracts little attention in the UK. It has, however, attracted the attention of a number of courageous academics who, in spite of the personal attacks and smears to which they have been subjected, attempted to both study and highlight this issue. Recently, a significant new paper was published providing yet more evidence of the damage to health by uranium weapons. Sadly, the authors of this paper were unable to gain any media interest in the findings.

Now DU has hit the headlines. In the final section of Liam Fox’s letter, he stated: “The Government’s policy remains that DU can be used within weapons; it is not prohibited under current or likely future international agreements. UK armed forces use DU munitions in accordance with international humanitarian law. It would be quite wrong to deny our serving personnel a legitimate capability”.

On 14 November, the Guardian stated that the present minister for defence, Nick Harvey, had given a similar assurance to Katy Clark MP. DU was legal to use and that the government had reviewed the legal situation: “the conclusions of the original legal weapons review on Charm3 are extant” and “DU can be used within weapons”. However, when Ms Clark asked to see the review, the story changed – Oops, it appears we have not carried out a review after all. Never mind, the government now says that it will carry out a review.

A legal review of the situation is a step forward. But how about a review of the effects on the health of those living in areas where the weapons were used? How about some simple steps to reduce the risk of contamination? Nicholas Wood has been asking – for many years now – for tanks destroyed by DU weapons to be fenced off so that children cannot play in them. Mr Wood, and the children of Iraq, are still waiting for such basic actions to be taken.

Dr Bill Wilson is a former MSP.

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