Claims that only a ‘‘small number’’ of soldiers and civilians might suffer kidney damage after heavy exposure to depleted uranium were today dismissed as ‘‘nonsense’’ by a veterans’ group.
Experts from the Royal Society said the material could be harmful if inhaled or swallowed in contaminated water, but that few people would be affected.
But a spokesman for the National Gulf Veterans and Families’ Association rejected this finding, saying there was anecdotal evidence that large numbers of soldiers had been harmed and called for all veterans to be investigated.
Depleted uranium, or DU, is the ‘‘waste’’ left over from the process used to produce the fissionable material used in nuclear weapons.
It is very heavy, having nearly twice the density of lead - which makes it ideal for ‘‘penetrators’’ in armour-piercing shells. For this reason it was used widely in the Gulf War and conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo.
However, there have been fears that dust from the shells may pose a radiation hazard or cause heavy metal poisoning.
Today a report from the Royal Society which looked into the poisoning threat said most soldiers exposed to normal levels of DU on battlefields would not be at risk.
But the kidneys of a few soldiers could be damaged if they inhaled large quantities of the dust after their vehicle has been struck by a DU shell, or while working for long periods in contaminated vehicles.
Large numbers of corroding DU penetrators buried in the soil may also pose a long-term threat if the uranium leaked to water supplies, said the report.
Although only a small number of civilians would be at risk, heavily contaminated soil should be removed if battlefields were to be repopulated, said the scientists.
Professor Brian Spratt, chairman of the Royal Society working group which produced the report, said: ‘‘Most soldiers and civilians will not be exposed to dangerous levels of depleted uranium.
However, in certain circumstances the exposures may be high and there would be a risk of heavy metal poisoning that could lead to long-term kidney damage for a few soldiers.’’
An earlier report from the Royal Society said there might also be a similar increased risk of lung cancer from the radioactive effects of depleted uranium if exposure is high.
The report repeated the Society’s earlier recommendation that UK veterans who may have had substantial intakes of DU should be identified and invited to take part in an independent study of its health effects.
Anecdotal reports of deaths and illness among US Gulf War veterans who worked for long periods in heavily contaminated vehicles should also be investigated, the report recommended.
The report called for soldiers to be tested for kidney function and the presence of DU in their urine if they suffered major exposure in future conflicts.
Tony Flint, of the National Gulf Veterans and Families’ Association, pointed out that at a meeting two years ago it emerged that six of 300 ex-soldiers attending suffered from nephritis inflammation of the kidneys.
Statistically only one of the 50,000 service personnel who took part in the Gulf conflict should have acquired the condition.
‘‘It’s nonsense to say depleted uranium has only harmed a small number of people who had high exposure,’’ said Mr Flint.
‘‘There’s a guy from my unit who was 350 miles behind the lines in Riyadh and according to the independent tests we had carried out in Canada he was suffering from the effects of depleted uranium.
‘‘We had five people tested and in every case they came out positive. Their bodies contained between 25 and 75 times the normal level of DU.
‘‘I think everyone who took part in the Gulf War should be investigated, including those who never went to the front line but had to clean out the vehicles which returned.’’
He believed the British and US forces had now ceased using depleted uranium in armour piercing munitions and employed a much more expensive form of tungsten instead.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed that Britain no longer used depleted uranium in weapons.’’