Uranium Weapons - All Roads Lead to the World Health Organisation

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Last December, 141 states supported a General Assembly resolution requesting that the United Nation’s agencies - the WHO, IAEA and UNEP - update their positions on the potential threat to human health and the environment posed by the use of uranium weapons. Of these, it seems to be that of the WHO which will prove the most influential.

 17 November 2009 - Doug Weir and Gretel Munroe



This was the second NAM resolution on uranium weapons in recent years and it garnered more support than its 2008 predecessor. Abstentions were down as Finland, Norway and Iceland voted in favour while France, Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom were left more isolated than ever.

Following the vote, the UK justified its position by stating that all the research that has ever needed to be undertaken into the potential health impact of uranium weapons has been completed and that we can now therefore ignore the subject.

The statement displayed a remarkable contempt for the progression of scientific understanding. It was also hopelessly optimistic. This was the point highlighted by a US Congressional report into Gulf War Illness published a few weeks before the 2008 vote. Gulf War Illness and the Health of Gulf War Veterans was compiled by the Congressional Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses (RAC).

  The RAC report criticised both the quality and quantity of research into depleted uranium by US bodies. Included in this was the US administration’s favourite long-term health study into veterans with embedded DU fragments: the oft-cited Baltimore VA Studies. The RAC reported that the study lacked a non-exposed control group, was of a statistically questionable study size and was ‘puzzled’ that the lead researcher had ignored tumours in two of its subjects. Reports by the US Institute of Medicine were also roundly criticised, as was the Department of Veterans Affairs for withholding data on veterans’ health.

The pattern is a familiar one. Veterans’ studies were one of the few areas where clues could have been found as to the impact of DU exposure. However the net result of years of work appears to have been a lack of basic research into DU and in particular, studies into exposures. This led the RAC to conclude: “Regrettably, 17 years after the war, this research still has not provided tangible results in improving the health of ill Gulf War veterans.”

The second source of data on DU’s potential impact would be studies on exposed civilians, such as the Iraqi families living in close proximity to contaminated scrap metal dumps in Baghdad and Basra. Predictably, the US and UK governments have shown little interest in studies of this type, or indeed any studies on civilian populations. Loosely related epidemiological studies do exist in the literature. These health assessments of uranium mill workers and other nuclear industry workers are instructive to a point but the nature of DU exposure – specifically the properties of DU particles – makes it difficult to draw useful comparisons.

Additionally, the delay between exposure and the onset of ill health may be many years. This was the case with asbestos and smoking-related cancers. Only long-term and high quality surveillance will reveal potential latency periods and any association between disease and DU exposure.

The final line of evidence that we can consider when assessing the dangers posed by the use of uranium weapons are laboratory studies on animals and cellular cultures. While it is important to consider different pathways and exposure routes, differences between in-vitro and in-vivo studies and the different sensitivities of animal subjects and humans, the use of this type of data is a commonly accepted means of arriving at risk assessments in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

In-vitro and in-vivo studies have shown us that DU is a carcinogen by virtue of both its chemical toxicity and radioactivity, it is genotoxic (it can damage DNA), it is an endocrine disruptor and it can impair brain function.

While the research is not yet as exhaustive as the UK government would like us to believe, it is still a great deal more extensive than it was when the WHO last released a fact sheet on DU in 2003, and substantially more extensive than in 2001 when it last released a monologue. So when the WHO issued a short report on DU and submitted it to the UN Secretary General in June 2008, ICBUW was optimistic that data from some of these papers would have found their way into the report. In particular, we expected to see peer-reviewed and non-controversial studies relating to DU’s carcinogenic and mutagenic properties. Instead there was no mention of either.

This was worrying and made more so by their declaration that: “New evidence from recent epidemiological and experimental studies will be reviewed, however, no major deviation from previous conclusions is expected.” This was a remarkable statement, pre-judging as it did the outcome of the review. The 2008 General Assembly resolution called for the WHO to assess the most recent scientific literature on DU’s potential health impact. Yet months before 141 states passed A/C.1/63/L.26, the WHO was apparently taking a politically, rather than scientifically motivated position on the study’s eventual outcome.

The acceptance that DU is a carcinogen will be a key test of whether the WHO is willing to assess DU on a genuinely scientific basis. IARC – the WHO’s agency on cancer has just reaffirmed that ionising radiation is a human carcinogen; it would therefore be odd if the WHO fails to accept this fundamental observation.

Other problems remain with the WHO’s position. These include the use of controversial ICRP risk models, the accuracy of its risk assessment for women and children and its ongoing refusal to countenance action on a precautionary basis – in spite of the overwhelming evidence to support this.

Internationally, progressive governments are now taking independent action, Belgium has banned uranium weapons and Costa Rica is close to following their lead. The European and Latin American Parliament’s have called for regional moratoria. However many other states are using the WHO’s position as a political fig leaf. Even NATO HQ is willing to take a fresh look at the issue – providing of course, that the WHO moves first.