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MEPs hear criticism of European Commission’s depleted uranium risk assessment

Members of the European Parliament’s (EP) Security and Defence Committee (SEDE) last week heard criticisms of a risk assessment on depleted uranium munitions undertaken by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER) after concerns were raised over its methodology by ICBUW and Green MEPs.
10 October 2011 - ICBUW

The SEDE hearing in Brussels was called by Green MEPs. It not only covered the SCHER Opinion – a risk assessment for the health and environmental impact of DU munitions, but also reviewed the legal, political and international implications of their use. SCHER published its Opinion in June 2010 and its findings have subsequently been used by the British, Dutch and German governments as justification for inaction on addressing the health and environmental hazards posed by DU munitions. Subsequent analysis of SCHER’s findings and methodology by ICBUW and independent experts has shown that key data were ignored or misrepresented by the committee.

title page report SCHER was mandated to produce its Opinion following 2008’s landslide EP resolution on DU weapons, which called for an EU moratorium. SCHER was specifically requested by the Commission to consider the wealth of new data on DU’s genotoxicity and its implications for human health. SCHER’s final Opinion claimed that health and environmental risks from military-origin DU were likely to be low under all environmental, climatic and military circumstances, and as such, heath effects were unlikely.  


During the hearing, the SCHER committee was represented by its Chair and rapporteur, toxicologist Prof. Wolfgang Dekant. Independent scientist Dr. Keith Baverstock, formerly of the World Health Organisation, led the criticism of SCHER’s methodology. ICBUW had written and published its own criticism of the study prior to the hearing.


In his presentation Dekant’s chief argument was that civilians were unlikely to be exposed to DU following combat operations. Therefore there is no risk from DU – risk being the quantified health outcome from exposure to a hazardous agent. To support this argument, following a general discussion on uranium, he directed MEPs to a study undertaken in Kosovo that assessed the levels of DU in the urine of its subjects. Introducing the study by Oeh et al, he observed that: “the Kosovo residents in the study listed are also in the hundreds.” In reality, while the study Measurements of daily urinary uranium excretion in German peacekeeping personnel and residents of the Kosovo region to assess potential intakes of depleted uranium (DU) did have hundreds of subjects, the vast majority were service personnel. Only 25 were Kosovan civilians. Nor is the process of how these civilians were selected – for example their proximity to a DU strike - made clear in the study’s methodology. This fact was not made clear to the SEDE committee by Dekant.

urinalysis list

Table of exposure studies in SCHER Opinion, the only civilian exposure study used is highlighted. It was the only study in the list not to mention the number of participants.

While a seemingly modest omission, SCHER had based its assessment of no risk or risk unlikely on the presumption that DU will not get into civilians. However, the only actual civilian exposure data they had utilised from the field came from this study of just 25 Kosovans.

SCHER had sought to draw on dose estimates from site studies by the IAEA, UNEP and others but these have been limited in scope, often taking place many years after conflicts and are not representative the full range of exposure scenarios and munitions types. These issues, and others, are addressed in more detail in ICBUW’s SCHER Commentary at the end of this article.


Prof. Dekant was followed by Dr Keith Baverstock. Baverstock began by arguing that it was impossible for SCHER to undertake a risk assessment as all the parameters relating to DU’s potential health impact are not known. In particular, the dose response from tissues other than the lung that may be exposed to genotoxic soluble DU compounds. In other words, SCHER defines risk as the measure of harm from exposure to a hazard. If you do not understand what level of exposure can cause harm, you cannot arrive at a measure of risk. What SCHER had done, he argued, was a risk management exercise and not a risk assessment.

In discussing the potential health impact of DU, Baverstock noted that, as an internal radioactive alpha particle emitter, DU is classified by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a Class I Carcinogen. DU’s genotoxicity has also been confirmed by 25 publications in the peer-reviewed literature since 2001/02.

risk vs hazard Risk assessment versus risk mangement flow chart - in the case of DU, the dose response of tissues other than the lung are not known, it is therefore impossible to quantify risk.

By examining whether DU is intrinsically hazardous (studies suggest that it is) whether it can get into the body (DU dusts may enter by inhalation, soluble oxides by ingestion) and whether we know how the body’s tissues respond to it (for the most part we don’t), Baverstock observed that he was following SCHER’s typical risk assessment methodology for genotoxic and carcinogenic substances. He expressed surprise that SCHER had failed to consider DU under its own principles, introduced in 2009.

Concluding, he draw attention to SCHER’s promotion of a series of US studies on veterans with embedded DU fragments as further evidence of no risk. The study, often cited by the US and UK governments has just 80 participants and its shortcomings have been identified by a Congressional report. Baverstock pointed out that studies seeking to demonstrate the risk of cancer from a particular substance would typically have up to 1000 times more participants. Dr Baverstock said he could not believe that SCHER thought these studies were relevant.


Reinhard Butikofer MEP then invited Prof. Dekant to answer Dr. Baverstock’s criticisms. Dekant turned back to his slide listing the exposure studies considered by SCHER and repeated his claim that the studies considered by SCHER were very detailed and showed no exposure to DU in civilian populations – they therefore concluded that there was no risk. He argued that SCHER could only comment on the data available in the scientific literature. Baverstock noted that exposure studies have not been done in arid areas such as Iraq where the re-suspension of uranium particles would be more common, this triggered a more general discussion on measuring exposure and health problems in post-conflict environments.

Butikofer again bought the discussion round to the SCHER Opinion’s failings, arguing that SCHER was not justified in reaching the conclusion it reached on the basis of the evidence they had, accusing them of jumping to conclusions. Dekant responded by repeating that they had looked at all the evidence they had and that they would not speculate.

Noting that Butikofer’s question had received an answer – regardless of whether it had convinced everyone, the Chair then moved onto the second part of the session on the legal, political and international context of the use of DU.

MM, EJ, KB, WD L-R Prof. Manfred Mohr, Emmanuel Jacob, Dr Keith Baverstock, Prof. Wolfgang Dekant

Prof. Manfred Mohr, representing ICBUW began with an introduction to the legal status of DU under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). He discussed how the right of states to use methods and means of warfare is limited by standards of civilian protection and by the characteristics of the use and properties of particular weapons. He noted that DU’s post-conflict effects are not controllable – itself a breach of IHL – and also introduced the Martens Clause, which tests the acceptability of means of warfare by measuring it against the public conscience. He noted that international legal and political developments indicate that there is a growing consensus that there is a problem with DU that needs to be resolved.

Prof. Mohr spoke in favour of the precautionary principle – which not only forms the basis of EU environmental legislation – but also has basis in IHL. It was noted that ICRC Rule 44 states that a lack of scientific certainty does not absolve a party to a conflict from taking precautions. He then introduced the legal review process under Article 36, noting that weapons must be tested against not only their physical health impact but also their psychological impact. Acknowledging that the lack of long-term health data on civilian populations means that scientific debate is ongoing, he pointed to some areas of consensus. These include the management of hotspots of contamination, the speed with which western states involved in the Libya campaign sought to distance themselves from possible DU use and the wide range of health and safety provisions now employed by military personnel likely to be exposed.

He called for an end to endless scientific debates and studies, arguing instead for a pragmatic approach based on precaution with a call for transparency in targeting, boosting the capacity for monitoring in affected areas and increasing the protection of civilians.

In concluding he observed that, while the potential physical and mental health risks are clear, the ongoing uncertainties support a process based on precaution. He called for a new EP resolution and for the parliament and member states to support decontamination efforts and a ban process. 


EUROMIL’s president Emmanuel Jacob then offered the view of European military unions and associations on DU. EUROMIL currently represents around 500,000 service personnel and their families, with 39 associations in 25 countries, though he criticised the fact that some countries still do not allow their militaries to form trade unions to defend their rights. While he acknowledged that in certain applications DU munitions could be efficient, he said that there were risks for personnel and civilians in its use. Because of this, EUROMIL supports a ban on the weapons but until that happens he called for the close medical screening of veterans before, during and for 10 years after their deployment. He argued that there should be far greater transparency over where it has been used in order to reduce exposure and noted that it is still very difficult for service personnel to be open about health problems.

Jacob observed that while NATO acknowledges that DU is a hazard, the choice of whether to use it lies with individual states within the alliance. This is a reflection of the comparatively few nations within the alliance that use DU.


The final speaker was Fabio della Piazza who represents that EU External Action Service – the EU’s diplomatic service. He began by introducing the EU’s approach to disarmament, in which the EU is a staunch supporter of multilateral approaches, primarily within UN frameworks – such as the CCW. He then discussed the position of European states on the three UN resolutions on DU, noting that abstentions had been decreasing in recent years. He said that there is currently no consensus among UN member states on whether to deal with DU munitions or how it should be done, with some states claiming that existing CCW protocols should cover it (Protocol III and V – incendiary weapons and explosive remnants of war respectively) and others calling for further research and precaution. Mr della Piazza took the view that no existing arms control instruments apply to DU.

During military operations under the Common Security and Defence Policy, the choice to use the weapons remains at a national level and is not a decision for the council as a whole. At present the EU’s priority is to gather more scientific data. If this is forthcoming, and generates greater consensus between EU member states, the EU would be willing to foster a proactive approach on the issue. However, he concluded by observing that disarmament requires two preconditions - compelling evidence and political will, and at present neither is the case with DU.


The session concluded with questions from the MEPs present. These covered: whether the precautionary principle could form the basis of political action and how long member states and politicians could justify inaction for; the identity of those EU states voting against the UN resolutions; and contamination at firing ranges, such as Quirra in Sicily.  


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