Veterans angry as MoD admits finding 'lost' safety message
Nicholas Watt, political correspondent
Friday December 1, 2000
Thousands of soldiers were placed at risk from the effects of depleted uranium, the substance linked to Gulf war syndrome, after a safety notice failed to reach troops in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 conflict.
A breakdown in communications meant that the notice from the Ministry of Defense in London never found its way to soldiers attached to tanks armed with ammunition containing the fatal substance, the government said last night.
In a written parliamentary reply, the defense minister, John Spellar, said officials had uncovered a message which was sent from the MoD to 1 Armored Division in Saudi Arabia on 25 February 1991 about the dangers posed by the substance. A second message, advising on how to avoid breathing in depleted uranium dust, never reached its destination.
Mr Spellar's admission is an embarrassment to the MoD, which is fighting claims by Gulf war veterans that they were poisoned by depleted uranium during the war.
Veterans reacted angrily last night to the MoD statement. Shaun Rusling, of the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association, said he did not believe safety messages were ever sent to the Gulf.
"I think the MoD statement is untrue and is designed to cover up their failure to issue any warnings," he said. "This is very disturbing. I would like to see their documentation as we can prove the MoD was fully aware of the dangers and yet did nothing to advise troops."
The MoD statement came as new figures showed nearly 300 Gulf war veterans have died in the last three years. In a parliamentary reply, Mr Spellar said 278 Gulf war veterans have died since 1995. None of the dead has been officially confirmed as a victim of Gulf war syndrome. Fifty committed suicide.
Stephen Childs, 47, who died of liver and pancreas cancer on Saturday, was the most recent Gulf war soldier to die. His doctor believes exposure to depleted uranium while he recovered damaged vehicles caused his illness.
The MoD said last night that it regretted that its safety notice failed to reach troops. But a spokesman insisted that there was no proof that soldiers fell ill as a result of depleted uranium, which is used to strengthen the tips of shells.
The spokesman said that the substance only posed a risk to Iraqi troops when it vaporized after piercing armor. "We do not believe it is a problem for British veterans, but we have offered them tests. This has not been accepted."
The veterans' campaign received a boost earlier this year after tests were carried out on the body of Terry Riordon, a Canadian military policeman who died after suffering Gulf war syndrome. They found substances linked to depleted uranium in his bone tissue.
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