published in New Zealand International Review, March/April 2006, Vol XXXI, No 2

Robert Green responds on behalf of the DU Education Team and the National Consultative Committee on Disarmament to suggestions that depleted uranium poses relatively few health problems.

This article is a response to an article by Dr Ron Smith, ‘Depleted uranium and human health’, which appeared in the New Zealand International Review in November 2005 (vol 30, no 6). Commander Green, who served in the Royal Navy from 1962 to 1982 navigating Buccaneer nuclear strike aircraft and anti-submarine helicopters and serving in Fleet intelligence, now co-ordinates the Peace Foundation’s Disarmament and Security Centre in Christchurch.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, there has been an eruption of unexplained illnesses among American and British veterans and the Iraqi people. Symptoms suggest radiation exposure and poisoning. A leading suspected cause is inhaled dust from use of depleted uranium munitions. The US and UK governments dismiss this, citing several ‘independent’ studies. Two concerned citizen groups, the DU Education Team and the National Consultative Committee on Disarmament, therefore, invited Dr Chris Busby, a leading British critic of depleted uranium, to undertake a New Zealand speaking tour in April 2005. Dr Ron Smith criticised this initiative.  This is their response.

Fifteen years after the first operational use by the United States and United Kingdom of depleted uranium in anti-tank shells, the debate about reported health effects from use of depleted uranium munitions by American and British forces in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan remains unresolved. Since the 1991 Gulf War, there has been a surge of unexplained illnesses, cancers and children born with genetic deformities among the Iraqi people, especially in the south near the battlefields. At the same time, both American and British veterans have reported similar health and reproductive problems, collectively known as Gulf War Syndrome. Many of their problems, particularly cancers and birth defects, seem consistent with radiation exposure.

The official US casualty total in 1991 was less than 300 dead and another 500 wounded or ill. Now over 8000 are dead, and over 200,000 of those same troops are claiming disability benefits. In Britain, more than 600 veterans have died and 9000 are seriously sick with multiple ailments. This amounts to around 30 per cent of American and 17 per cent of British troops who went to the Gulf. 

There has also been an eruption of illnesses and deformities among children of both the Allied military and Iraqi people. For example, a survey made by the US Veterans’ Administration of 250 veterans’ families in Mississippi showed that 67 per cent of children conceived and born since the war had rare illnesses and genetic problems. In Iraq among the civilian population there is data showing an increase in the congenital malformation rate from about 6 per thousand births to 25 per thousand since the Gulf War.

The Pentagon has been reticent about its use of DU munitions in Afghanistan. Several hundred tons of precision-guided bombs and cruise missiles have been used there, including some designed for use against hardened or deeply buried targets. Many of them almost certainly contain depleted uranium – up to 1.5 tons in the GBU-37 Bunker Buster bomb. This means that New Zealand SAS personnel as well as innocent Afghan civilians could have been affected.  However, it may take a generation before some effects appear, as has been experienced by the New Zealand nuclear test veterans.

New concern

For the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States had at least 20 weapon systems suspected of using from 300 grams to 7 tons of depleted uranium metal. Some estimates suggest that over 1000 tons of depleted uranium were used. A new concern is that US heavy machine guns can now fire DU ammunition, which means depleted uranium will be everywhere on the battlefield, including buildings in all the major towns. Moreover, all of Iraq has been occupied: so coalition forces, officials, civilian contractors and aid workers are all potentially exposed to DU dust – as of course are the Iraqi people.

In a speech in Canberra on 17 June 2003 Australian Democrat Senator Lyn Allison said:

The Australian government used depleted uranium in weapons from 1981, and the Democrats first questioned the government about this in parliament more than 20 years ago. Thankfully, Australia stopped using DU ammunition in 1990, acknowledging that this was for health and safety reasons.

Now however, the US military have been invited to use live firing ranges in Australia, reviving fears of DU contamination.

For these reasons, in May 2004 a group of concerned Christchurch citizens decided that there was a need to educate the public about depleted uranium. As the DU Education Team (DUET), they therefore invited Dr Chris Busby, a British expert on low-level radiation and DU, to conduct a five-day national speaking tour in April 2005.1

New insights

Dr Busby has a PhD in chemical physics, and has worked in both the UK pharmaceutical industry and university research on epidemiology with a special interest in the health effects of low-level radiation. In his first book, Wings of Death: Nuclear Pollution and Human Health (1995), he explained his revolutionary Second Event Theory, which distinguishes between the hazards of external and internal radiation exposure from artificial radionuclides. He is a member of the UK Ministry of Defence Depleted Uranium Oversight Board, and of the Committee Examining Radiation Risk of Internal Emitters (CERRIE) established by the UK Departments of Health and Environment. He has visited Iraq and Kosovo to investigate the health effects of depleted uranium, and has given formal evidence on this issue to the Royal Society Committee on Depleted Uranium and Health. 

Busby’s tour was the first in New Zealand by an international expert on depleted uranium. With the New Zealand government awaiting further evidence of the health effects of depleted uranium, he contributed valuable new insights on what will probably become a major arms control and disarmament issue in the years ahead. To provide a record of the issues raised and sustain the debate, the National Consultative Committee on Disarmament (NCCD) subsequently published a pamphlet Is Depleted Uranium an issue for the New Zealand Government?

While in Wellington, Busby had meetings with Minister of Defence Mark Burton, Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control Marian Hobbs, and their advisers.  At these meetings and a separate briefing for Brigadier Anne Campbell, Director of Medical Services for the NZDF, Dr Busby established that current New Zealand facilities are inadequate for testing to the sensitivity levels required. He recommended that screening should continue for all NZDF personnel on return from deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan, and that the NZDF further investigate increasing the sensitivity of measuring the uranium in urine samples. This is feasible using a new system – an accelerator mass spectrometer – which is available from the UK Ministry of Defence through their DU Oversight Board. He also proposed the creation of a control group uranium concentration figure through testing of NZDF personnel. Finally, he urged sustained monitoring of their illness rates, particularly from lymphoma and leukaemia, and effects in their children born after the exposures. Brigadier Campbell has asked for a complete review of the situation from New Zealand’s American, British, Canadian and Australian Army (ABCA) allies.2

Contentious Issues

In his article last year, Dr Ron Smith argued that natural uranium’s two isotopes, uranium-238 (99.3 per cent) and uranium-235 (0.7 per cent) ‘are only very feeble sources of radiation. Not only that, the radiation they do emit (alpha radiation) does not penetrate the skin (unlike beta or gamma radiation). Thus, the only danger that could arise from either isotope would be from ingestion.’ Dr Busby’s response is:

Inhalation of particles is the route that represents the main threat, and even the Royal Society concede this, so it seems extraordinary that Ron Smith is concentrating on ingestion and the irrelevant skin penetration arguments that were tried out in the original attempts by the military to assuage fears.  Furthermore, he reveals singular ignorance in that he does not appear to know that the two daughter isotopes of U-238, namely Protoactinium 234m and Thorium 234, which are both high energy beta emitters, are in equilibrium in all U-238 material. These beta emissions, which can penetrate skin, occur in secular equilibrium i.e. there are two betas for every alpha. The other point he fails to mention is that the sheeramount of uranium involved makes up for its low radioactivity.

Smith then claimed that ‘98 per cent of the uranium taken into the alimentary canal is eliminated in the faeces’, to which Busby retorts: ‘But we are not eating it, we are inhaling it, so the faeces are irrelevant.’ On Smith’s description of radiation effects, Busby comments: ‘This kind of thinking is based on absorbed dose at high doses and the effects of the A-bombs dropped on Japan. New science shows that this cannot be used to examine effects of internal irradiation.’

Expert report

As Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR), Busby prepared and edited a report in 2003 by the 40 experts making up ECRR. On 9 December 2005, a French government agency called the Institut de Radioprotection et de Sureté Nucléaire (IRSN) published a report commenting on the ECRR study.3 This is Busby’s response:

Since the IRSN is an official organ of the French State, the new IRSN report represents a sea change in official thinking on the matter of the security of the risk models of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) as applied to chronic internal radionuclide exposure at low doses.

IRSN agree with ECRR that the ICRP reasoning on averaging dose ‘may be criticized as we are now aware that numerous radionuclides are highly heterogeneously distributed among all tissues.’ They continue: ‘The ECRR considers that particle concentrations in tissues, locally generating high radiation doses, are more carcinogenic than when the same amount of energy is uniformly deposited in tissues. A set of studies, basically conducted in
in vitro systems, appears to confirm this assumption.’

Put simply, the ICRP concept of ‘absorbed dose’ by averaging it throughout the body, as opposed to considering internal damage from individual ‘hot particles’, has been compared to the difference between warming oneself in front of a fire and eating a hot coal.

Further evidence

Further evidence of new scientific thinking recently appeared in a paper by the renowned environmental epidemiologist Dr Rosalie Bertell:

We now know that cellular organelles, cell membranes and biochemical reactions within the cell are crucial when assessing the simultaneous damage caused by internal radiation, heavy metal contamination, and nano particles This radiation dose-response methodology, developed from studies of high level radiation, appears to work by masking the low dose effects.  It is not appropriate for understanding low dose DU exposures because radiation, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals can destroy the functionality of the cellular respiratory system (the mitochondria), disrupt the chemistry of  enzymes and hormones, frustrate normal cellular detoxification and repair, and leave the person alive but chronically ill.  Also at low doses, many other toxic agents become potentially synergistic or significant confounding variables for any radiation toxic effect.  It will be shown that a system approach is more fruitful, and the two most important systems to examine are the cellular immune and hormonal systems. 4

On Smith’s assertion that ‘lung cancers due to inhalation have never been observed in persons occupationally exposed to uranium’, in her paper Bertell explains:

DU exposure in war differs, in that uranium oxide in the mining and milling situation is dust, visible particles of, on average, five microns aerodynamic diameter. The aerosolized uranium oxide from a metal fume, produced through air friction or impact on a hardened target in battle, is on the contrary, invisible, of aerodynamic diameter between 1 nanometer and 2.5 micron.  Size is an important factor for inhalation.

Particles of aerodynamic diameter less than 2.5 micron are able to penetrate into the deep lung alveoli.  When the aerodynamic diameters are in the nanometer range, particles easily penetrate the lung-blood barrier, and are carried throughout the body…

Mine dust is produced at ambient temperatures, while the metal fume is produced at temperatures between 3000 and 6000 degrees Centigrade. Subjecting uranium oxide to more than 3000 degrees Centigrade produces what the UK National Radiation Protection Board (NRPB) refers to as ceramic uranium oxide, which is highly insoluble in the body fluids.”

Delayed effect

According to Smith, because the median latency period for radiation-induced leukaemia is around eight years and around 20 years for solid cancers, any effects from the Kosovo conflict (1999) and the Iraq War (2003) would not yet have appeared: ‘Even in the case of the Gulf War, it is, as yet, too soon to detect any elevation in general cancer rates if such were going to appear.’ Busby responds:

No-one knows the latency period for radiation induced cancer. It has been deduced from the A-bomb data but that data did not start until 5 or 7 years after the bomb. This argument is always trotted out by the pro-nuclear scientists; it is stupid and unfounded on secure data. In reality, nuclear industry worker studies show that there is an immediate increase in cancer risk on starting work which continues to rise over the period of employment.

Bertell adds that even the most pro-nuclear scientists would use five years for leukaemia and ten years for solid tumours.

Smith claims no statistically significant variation from the normal for cancer cases among veterans from the Gulf War. However, Busby reports a doubling of risk from lymphoma among Gulf War veterans relative to matched controls. Lymphoma increases were also found in the Italian Kosovo peacekeepers by an Italian government study.

Genetic defects

In response to Smith’s dismissal of claimed genetic defects from the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Busby comments:

Alexandra Miller, a radiobiologist at the US Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland has carried out a series of elegant experiments that show that  uranium has very serious genetic effects on DNA at low doses. The affinity for DNA is very high and it is my belief (being followed up by research) that the uranium focuses  natural background gamma rays into the DNA as photoelectrons.

Miller has also found that tiny amounts of depleted uranium, too small to be toxic and only mildly radioactive, cause more genetic damage in cells than either the toxicity or radiation alone could explain. Her latest results corroborate a tentative report by the Royal Society, which suggests that the toxicity and radioactivity of depleted uranium reinforce one another in an unknown way, to the extent that more than eight times as many cells suffer genetic damage than predicted. Thus, the genetic health risk of depleted uranium could be grossly underestimated.5 This could have huge adverse implications for the nuclear industry.

A WHO fact sheet states that there is no need for individual exposure assessments in the case of generally exposed persons.6 He goes on to imply that therefore the current compulsory urine tests for NZDF personnel returning from Iraq or Afghanistan are unnecessary. Busby replies:

The WHO are suspect as they signed an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1959 which effectively prevents the WHO from criticizing any aspect of the international nuclear industry. This leaves research in this area to the  IAEA.  In 2005 the WHO sacked their senior radiation consultant Dr Keith Baverstock for stating much the same message that I brought to New Zealand.

Overwhelming case

In a presentation to the European Parliament on 23 June 2005, Dr Baverstock summarised the new scientific evidence outlined above by Busby and Bertell.7 He went on to warn that any risk evaluated on the basis of the ICRP recommendations would be likely to under-estimate the true risk. Then he said:

In my view it is highly irresponsible to continue to ignore this evidence. There is an overwhelming case for the application of the precautionary principle and that, at the very minimum, would require that DU is cleaned up at battle sites. The problem is particularly severe in Iraq where arid climatic conditions allow DU particles to retain the sparingly soluble component that primarily gives rise to the extra risk routes, over long periods and promotes conditions in which re-suspension and inhalation are optimized…

A number of organisations, including the World Health Organisation, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UK Royal Society, the International Commission on Radiological Protection and the European Commission Article 31 Group have, since 2001, published advice relating to the health consequences of exposure to DU. You may wonder, as I do, how such authoritative and independent organisations, making ostensibly ‘independent’ assessments of the situation, can all ignore the evidence that exists in the scientific literature.

It is worth noting that these assessments may not in fact be truly independent. For example staff of the UK National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) are acknowledged as  contributing to the WHO and RS reports, and the Chairman of the ICRP was recently the Director of the NRPB.  Staff members of the NRPB collaborate with the IAEA and have been members of the Article 31 Group. It is, therefore, possible that a few individuals have  influenced the outcome of these so-called independent assessments.

For me, as a scientist, it is the fact that this evidence is ignored, as opposed to being addressed and if appropriate discredited, through rational scientific debate that is worrying. Science is about a reality that over-rides political expediency.  Ignoring the evidence does not mitigate the health consequences of exposure to DU, and not looking for the consequences does not mean they do not exist.

European concern

On 17 November 2005 the European Parliament, prompted in particular by concerns about the high incidence of lymphoma and other cancers amongst former EU military personnel serving in DU war zones, for the third time adopted a resolution calling for a moratorium on the deployment and use of depleted uranium until all associated questions have been independently examined and settled.8

In conclusion, as with Agent Orange, depleted uranium raises questions about the relationship between war and science which challenge powerful vested interests, in this case because of depleted uranium’s potent and relatively inexpensive anti-armour and defensive applications. DUET and NCCD believe there is cause for concern about the health effects of DU munitions. They welcome the debate sparked by Dr Busby’s speaking tour, and are grateful to him and for the funding support from the Peace and Disarmament Education Trust. However, they are disturbed by Ron Smith’s largely uncritical repetition of the American and British governments’ position dismissing these concerns.


1For Dr Busby’s full CV and more on his work, see .
2 Conversation with the author, 17 Jan 2006.
3 Both the report, ‘Health consequences of chronic internal contamination by radionuclides. Comments on the ECRR report The health effects of ionizing radiation exposure at low doses for radiation protection purposes’, and Busby’s commentary on it are available from him at .
4Rosalie Bertell, ‘Depleted Uranium: All of the Questions about Gulf War Syndrome are not yet answered’ available from her at . See also her seminal book No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth (London, 1985).
5Duncan Graham-Rowe, ‘Depleted uranium casts shadow over peace in Iraq’, New Scientist , 15 Apr 2003, (⊂=News%20update).
6WHO Fact Sheet No 257, Revised Jan 2003, ‘Depleted Uranium’ ( centre/factsheets/fs257/en/print.html).
7For the full text of his presentation (with useful references), given at the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons conference in the European Parliament in Brussels, see .