An expert report warning that the long-term health of Iraq’s civilian population would be endangered by British and US depleted uranium (DU) weapons has been kept secret.
The study by three leading radiation scientists cautioned that children and adults could contract cancer after breathing in dust containing DU, which is radioactive and chemically toxic. But it was blocked from publication by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which employed the main author, Dr Keith Baverstock, as a senior radiation advisor. He alleges that it was deliberately suppressed, though this is denied by WHO.
Baverstock also believes that if the study had been published when it was completed in 2001, there would have been more pressure on the US and UK to limit their use of DU weapons in last year’s war, and to clean up afterwards.
Hundreds of thousands of DU shells were fired by coalition tanks and planes during the conflict, and there has been no comprehensive decontamination. Experts from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have so far not been allowed into Iraq to assess the pollution.
“Our study suggests that the widespread use of depleted uranium weapons in Iraq could pose a unique health hazard to the civilian population,” Baverstock told the Sunday Herald.
“There is increasing scientific evidence the radio activity and the chemical toxicity of DU could cause more damage to human cells than is assumed.”
Baverstock was the WHO’s top expert on radiation and health for 11 years until he retired in May last year. He now works with the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Kuopio in Finland, and was recently appointed to the UK government’s newly formed Committee on Radio active Waste Management.
While he was a member of staff, WHO refused to give him permission to publish the study, which was co-authored by Professor Carmel Mothersill from McMaster University in Canada and Dr Mike Thorne, a radiation consultant . Baverstock suspects that WHO was leaned on by a more powerful pro-nuclear UN body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“I believe our study was censored and suppressed by the WHO because they didn’t like its conclusions. Previous experience suggests that WHO officials were bowing to pressure from the IAEA, whose remit is to promote nuclear power,” he said. “That is more than unfortunate, as publishing the study would have helped forewarn the authorities of the risks of using DU weapons in Iraq.”
These allegations, however, are dismissed as “totally unfounded” by WHO. “The IAEA role was very minor,” said Dr Mike Repacholi, the WHO coordinator of radiation and environmental health in Geneva. “The article was not approved for publication because parts of it did not reflect accurately what a WHO-convened group of inter national experts considered the best science in the area of depleted uranium,” he added.
Baverstock’s study, which has now been passed to the Sunday Herald, pointed out that Iraq’s arid climate meant that tiny particles of DU were likely to be blown around and inhaled by civilians for years to come. It warned that, when inside the body, their radiation and toxicity could trigger the growth of malignant tumours.
The study suggested that the low-level radiation from DU could harm cells adjacent to those that are directly irradiated, a phenomenon known as “the bystander effect”. This undermines the stability of the body’s genetic system, and is thought by many scientists to be linked to cancers and possibly other illnesses.
In addition, the DU in Iraq, like that used in the Balkan conflict, could turn out to be contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive waste . That would make it more radioactive and hence more dangerous, Baverstock argued.
“The radiation and the chemical toxicity of DU could also act together to create a ‘cocktail effect’ that further increases the risk of cancer. These are all worrying possibilities that urgently require more investigation,” he said.
Baverstock’s anxiety about the health effects of DU in Iraq is shared by Pekka Haavisto, the chairman of the UN Environment Programme’s Post-Conflict Assessment Unit in Geneva. “It is certainly a concern in Iraq, there is no doubt about that,” he said.
UNEP, which surveyed DU contamination in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002, is keen to get into Iraq to monitor the situation as soon as possible. It has been told by the British government that about 1.9 tonnes of DU was fired from tanks around Basra, but has no information from US forces, which are bound to have used a lot more.
Haavisto’s greatest worry is when buildings hit by DU shells have been repaired and reoccupied without having been properly cleaned up. Photographic evidence suggests that this is exactly what has happened to the ministry of planning building in Baghdad.
He also highlighted evidence that DU from weapons had been collected and recycled as scrap in Iraq. “It could end up in a fork or a knife,” he warned.
“It is ridiculous to leave the material lying around and not to clear it up where adults are working and children are playing. If DU is not taken care of, instead of decreasing the risk you are increasing it. It is absolutely wrong.”
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