HL Deb 13 March 2003 vol 645 cc194-6WA
Lord Judd

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the latest assessment by them and the United States administration of the long-term health and genetic implications for (a) service personnel and their families, arid (b) civilian populations, of the use of weapons and munitions of which depleted uranium is a part; and how this assessment will affect future military policy and activities. [HL2008]

Lord Bach

Thus far, there is no reliable scientific or medical evidence to link depleted uranium (DU) with ill health. Many independent reports have been produced that consider the battlefield effects of using DU munitions, but none has found widespread DU contamination sufficient to impact the health of the general population or deployed personnel. The Royal Society reports onThe Health Hazards of Depleted Uranium Munitions (2001, 2002) support the Ministry of Defence's view that risks to the health of soldiers on the battlefield are minimal except for a small number of extreme cases. No British troops have been exposed in extreme circumstances.

However, the United States Government have carefully monitored the health of some of their soldiers who were exposed in extreme circumstances when DU rounds accidentally hit their vehicles during the Gulf conflict. Some 17 of them have had DU shrapnel embedded in their bodies for the past 12 years but do not show signs of health problems attributable to DU. The offspring of the highly-exposed United States veterans, amounting to some 60 children, are all healthy.

With regard to a link between exposure to DU and birth defects, no studies have looked specifically at this relationship. There is no scientific or medical evidence from US studies of an excess of birth defects in Gulf veterans compared with appropriately selected control groups. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Defence believes that it is an important issue and therefore placed a contract in 1997, through the Medical Research Council, for an independent study of the reproductive health of United Kingdom Gulf veterans compared with a matched control group. This study has been completed at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and will report soon.

The Ministry of Defence's assessment is that DU particulate remains highly localised to the points of impact where DU munitions have struck hard targets: only in these small areas would DU levels be significant enough to necessitate precautions to prevent or reduce possible intakes. Increasing amounts of independent research by eminent scientists within groups such as the Royal Society DU Working Group and the United Nations Environment Programme support this view.

We are prepared to use DU tank munitions in future conflicts if necessary because they are the most effective anti-armour weapons. We have a duty to provide our troops with the best available equipment with which to protect themselves and to succeed in conflict. Therefore, British forces currently being deployed to the Gulf will have DU munitions available as part of their armoury.

Appropriate safety instructions have been issued to those who have been deployed. These safety instructions make clear that the risks from DU are far lower than those from other hazards arising from military operations and that combat and life-saving activities should never be delayed on account of concern over DU. They describe the potential risks and include pragmatic advice on procedures for minimising any potential intake of DU dust. The emphasis is on avoiding situations where DU dust may be encountered and on wearing appropriate respiratory protective equipment and protective clothing when it is necessary to enter potentially contaminated areas. They also include procedures for transporting and handling DU ammunition. Radiation dosemeters have been issued to those who will spend time in tanks loaded with DU munitions, and biological monitoring will be available for all members of the Armed Forces if DU is used. This will provide verification of the adequacy of the safety precautions. The biological monitoring policy is published on MoD's Internet site at http://www.mod.uk/issues/depleted_uranium/du_ biomonitoring.htm. Biological monitoring will consist of urine tests for uranium and its isotopes.

The Government are unable to comment on United States policy.