LLRC Journal Radioactive Times. Vol.5 No 1

Radioactive Times. Vol.5 No 1

Ministry of Defence forms Depleted Uranium Oversight Board (DUOB)

The Royal Society committee on DU was set up to examine the health effects of exposure and report on the likelihood that it was the cause, or part of the cause, of the condition known as Gulf War Syndrome. Asking the RS to consider the issue was a measure of the establishment’s desperation to keep DU weapons available for military use and their desperation over the degree of mistrust in the various scientific bodies (NRPB, Euratom "Experts", COMARE, US Department of Defense) that had pronounced such weapons safe. Surely, they thought, the Royal Society is the ultimate gold standard of respectable aloofness and unbiased scientific advice. Alas, Science itself was on Trial, and Science went down for several years for perjury and contempt of objective method. The Royal Society committee under Prof. Brian Spratt (a "safe pair of hands") heard evidence from many sources but ultimately relied on peer-reviewed, published, research papers. These were mostly based on conventional dosimetric models which assume there is no increased risk from inhaled particles. On this basis, DU poses a risk only, as the RS put it in their final report, at ‘choking doses’. (This term has been picked up by NRPB and the Environment Agency who now use it regularly; we look forward to a new SI unit, milliChokes etc.)

Royal Society nervous

On the epidemiological front, the RS point to uranium miner studies and uranium milling workers. The miners are mostly exposed to radon, and the particles they inhale are large ore particles, where the uranium content is very small (<.01%) compared with pure ceramic uranium oxide particles created by DU munitions. The metal workers are exposed to metal particles which are very large, and should they be inhaled, will be removed by ciliary action. It is the small sub-micron diameter particles of pure ceramic uranium oxide that are believed to cause the health effects. All these points were made to the RS committee in two reports and in separate presentations by Chris Busby in 2000 and 2001, and also by Malcolm Hooper, who is emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Sunderland and Scientific Advisor to the Gulf War veterans. On publication of the RS report, both were asked to give their views at the publication meeting at Carlton House, chaired by the BBC. Both expressed their deep disappointment over the unscientific way in which the RS had behaved. Chris said that it was time that the scientists began ‘looking out of the window’ rather than using mathematical models to prove that there could be nothing to see. Although the RS report found that the scientific (i.e. published) evidence suggested that DU was not a health risk, they were clearly rattled by the suggestion that the large local doses from particles which might be in the lymphatic system were not addressed by the scientific studies they had considered. They recommended that the Ministry of Defence should begin to measure DU in the urine of veterans and see if the levels might correlate with health problems. The MoD responded to this and set up a committee to oversee the measurement of DU in the urine, and begin the task of recommending methods and examining ways and means. This new group, the Depleted Uranium Oversight Board (DUOB) began to meet at the end of 2001 and is now half way through the process which will lead to the measurement of DU in any Gulf veterans (or veterans of the Balkans) who want to know if they have been contaminated. The committee is chaired by Professor David Coggon, who took over as head of the MRC epidemiology unit at Southampton following the death of Martin Gardner (of Sellafield childhood leukemia study fame) and shut down the research into Sellafield. He is also the man who published (with Hazel Inskip) a paper in the British Medical Journal [1] in the early 1990s which claimed that there was no general increase in cancer incidence. Another safe pair of hands. The RS’s Brian Spratt also appears on the DUOB, but the centre of gravity of the committee is to the left of the RS committee since there are representatives of the Gulf Veterans, the British Legion (Beverley Green), the Red Cross (Dr Gordon Paterson), Malcolm Hooper and Chris Busby who is representing LLRC. In the blue corner are Frances Fry of NRPB (now retired due to ill health) and Ron Brown of the MoD. Neutrals include Dr. Peter van Calsteren of the Open University, a mass spectrometry expert who knows about Uranium measurement.

Pilot study useless

A great deal of effort (and money) was put into a pilot project; urine samples prepared by one laboratory and spiked with standard Uranium isotope samples were sent to a number of other laboratories in order to establish the limits of detection of DU. Measuring DU involves detecting very small, nanogram amounts of two Uranium isotopes, U-238 and U-235. In natural Uranium (mined before 1900) the ratio of these two should be fixed at 137.88 and should not deviate very much from this figure. Even a measurement which shows the ratio to be below 135 signals artificially enriched Uranium (from a reactor or fissile material from a bomb). Ratios above 140 show the presence of Depleted Uranium. DU from military penetrators has a ratio of above 400 because most of the U-235 has been taken out. The isotope ratios of various Uranium samples are given in Table 1.

Uranium Source Typical isotope ratio by mass
Natural Uranium 137.88
Depleted Uranium >400
Weapons fallout 50-100
Enriched U for reactor fuel 40-60
Enriched U for bombs 5-30

Table 1 Isotope ratios by mass for Uranium samples from various sources. In practice, weapons fallout ratios are at the high end of the range

The pilot study was a mess. Results from the various labs showed widely differing answers for samples which were spiked with the same amounts of DU. Even solutions of known amounts of Uranium in water returned various (and larger) quantities of Uranium suggesting that the lab which prepared the unknowns had introduced contamination at some stage. This resulted in some recrimination from the veterans who saw this as further stalling by the MoD. The truth is probably that there was a mistake in preparing the samples. The process is now being repeated.

Preventing skullduggery

As a member of the DUOB, Chris Busby concentrates on ensuring that there is no opportunity for the results to be tampered with by the MoD. He began by arguing that the urine sample results had to be disconnected from the individual veterans’ details by coding and that copies of the codes and questionnaires be made at the time of giving the sample and sent to the veterans themselves or their representative. This required quite a battle in the committee but was eventually accepted when the veterans themselves said that none of them would give samples unless it was done. This has ensured that no skullduggery can easily take place.

Questionnaire fights

There is an important final argument which is proving difficult to resolve. Along with the urine samples, veterans are asked to fill out a questionnaire. Chris Busby and Malcolm Hooper are insisting that this questionnaire asks if the veteran has suffered from a disease such as cancer, and if so which type of cancer. This will be valuable in discovering if there is some specific cancer type, like lymphoma, which is associated with exposure (as in the Italian Balkan veterans). The Chair, David Coggon seems furiously intent on ensuring that the committee does not include health questions in the questionnaire. His argument is that the results of such a questionnaire might be used to establish risk from DU directly, when a more conventional approach would be to use case control studies conducted by experts (like Coggon himself). But this (argue Chris and Malcolm) leaves the issue in the hands of the very people whom the veterans don’t trust. Moreover, it turns out that there probably will be no such studies since the Medical Research Council do not believe that DU exposure has any health effects at the doses involved and according to Coggon have no intention of recommending any research. Unless the question is left on the questionnaire, the upshot will be that there is no health information to correlate with DU measurements, and no further study to obtain any. We advise the vets to refuse to be involved on this basis. Despite some right-wing tendency, the DUOB is in great contrast to the dysfunctional and tricksy CERRIE committee where LLRC has to tape everything, work three times as hard and anticipate every kind of doubtful practice (see report on CERRIE - Inside the tent in this issue). The MoD secretariat in particular is helpful, courteous and seems neutral and unbiased.

[1] Coggon D and Inskip H; (1994) Is there an epidemic of cancer? BMJ 6923/308: 705-8

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