Open letter to Members of the New Zealand Parliament/Pāremata Aotearoa
"There is currently no conclusive evidence that depleted uranium poses a significant threat to health or the environment. [Response to campaigners from some NZ MPs]
Aside from the definition of ‘significant’ in this instance, the question should perhaps be reframed thus: what are the potential health risks to civilian populations from the use of depleted uranium (DU) and can they be accurately modelled on the basis of current scientific knowledge?
As yet, no full scale epidemiological surveys of affected civilians have taken place. The reasons for this are varied, but such a study would require full transparency from users over targeting data, detailed site management data and environmental assessments, a stable non-migratory cohort of civilians numbering in the thousands, detailed pre and post conflict health records, a stable security situation and sufficient political interest from the user nations to fund the work. Taking Iraq as an example, would the above seem achievable? If the answer is no then you must look to other sources to base policy on.
Can we demonstrate that DU is a potential hazard? Yes: a fact acknowledged by three UN resolutions; the WHO, IAEA and UNEP; domestic environmental regulations and also by militaries – all of whom now have precautionary safeguards in place to reduce exposure to their personnel. This stands in stark contrast to civilians, who do not currently benefit from similar regimes. A huge quantity of data from in vitro and in vivo testing is now available, much of it undertaken by the US military and all of which indicates that DU is carcinogenic and mutagenic. These tests are equivalent to those that consumer products or medicines would need to pass before being licensed.
Can the level of risk DU presents be accurately modelled on the basis of our current understanding? No, this is demonstrably not the case, as was highlighted by the European Commission’s recent attempt in 2010. This foundered because of a lack of exposure data on civilian populations and, in spite of many years of research, ongoing uncertainties over DU’s effects on body tissues other than the lung and kidney.
How is DU used in conflict? Data from Iraq indicates that it has been repeatedly used against civilian objects and in civilian areas, leading to the production of hotspots of contamination. Experience from the Balkans, Kuwait and Iraq also shows that DU is technically challenging and expensive to manage after conflict – even if geographic and quantitative data on its use is made available, which in the case of the estimated 400,000kg of DU used by the US in Iraq is still not the case. As a result just a handful of sites have been decontaminated and more are still being discovered nearly a decade after the conflict. Civilians living, working and playing in hotspots or scrap yards continue to be exposed to DU and the lack of transparency from the US has severely constrained hazard awareness, monitoring and decontamination programmes.
To conclude, we can demonstrate that military DU use is a potential health risk, that it is clear that it is released in a bioavailable form and that its use can generate significant hotspots of contamination. The conflicts in the Balkans and Iraq show that DU use in conflict is highly unpredictable, and that it has been used against civilian objects and not restricted to armoured targets. Similarly they have also demonstrated the problems administrations face in seeking to effectively manage contamination – the result of which is chronic civilian exposure with the potential for negative health effects.
“In 2005, the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee considered a petition to ban depleted uranium, and concluded that there was no consensus in the international scientific community as to the effect of depleted uranium on human health, but that New Zealand should continue to monitor the international research on the health consequences of its use. For this reason, the Government supports continued monitoring and research into the effects of depleted uranium, but will not take further action without clear scientific evidence." [Response to campaigners from some NZ MPs]
The lack of consensus relates to the lack of civilian health data which, as outlined above is incredibly difficult to obtain. When should states act when there is clear evidence of a potential risk and the best available science is unable to provide the required level of certainty?
- All persons exercising functions, powers, and duties under this Act, including but not limited to, functions, powers, and duties under sections 28A, 29, 32, 38, 45, and 48, shall take into account the need for caution in managing adverse effects where there is scientific and technical uncertainty about those effects. Section 7, NZ Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996
If it were New Zealand which was struggling with the health and hazardous waste management legacy of hundreds of DU contaminated hotspots and tonnes of contaminated wreckage, how would the authorities act and at what point would they do so? Would they wait and monitor the situation for years or decades until confident that the health issues reported by the populace and medical staff were genuine, or would they take action on a precautionary basis?
As demonstrated by your own environmental and health protection laws, the answer is clearly the latter. The proposed bill is no different in that it asks New Zealand to acknowledge that basic health and environmental protection norms should be made available to the many, and not just the few.
A handful of states feel that DU fulfils a perceived military need and defend their right to use it vigorously. However, the overwhelming majority of states made the decision that other alternatives are available and that the health, political and environmental problems associated with the use of DU outweighs any perceived or actual military benefit. The passage of this bill will be a reflection of that majority view and serve to reinforce the values that New Zealand is respected for around the world.
Doug Weir, Coordinator
On behalf of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons.
 UN General Assembly resolutions: 62/30, 63/54, 65/55. Available via http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/united-nations
 All three agencies call for remedial measures to reduce civilian exposures.
 Zwijnenburg, W. Hazard Aware: Lessons learned from military field manuals on depleted uranium: how to move forward for civilian protection norms. In press.
 Cullen, D. A Question of Responsibility- the legacy of depleted uranium use in the Balkans. http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a-question-of-responsibility-the-legacy-of-deplete
 Personal communication with Iraq’s former Environment Minister Narmin Othman.