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Afghanistan & Depleted Uranium testing

Estimates & Committees
Scott Ludlam 23 Oct 2009

Senator LUDLAM-I have a couple more questions on a couple of different subjects relating to operations  in Afghanistan. Chief, can you tell us your understanding of whether any of our coalition partners in Afghanistan are deploying, or have deployed since operations began there, depleted uranium munitions in Afghanistan?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-To my knowledge no, but I would like to take it on notice just to doublecheck.

Senator LUDLAM-I would greatly appreciate that. I have never seen any strong confirmation but there is, as there often is with these kinds of weapons, a lot of rumour and speculation around that-that DU munitions certainly are deployed regularly by the United States. Is that something you might be able to confirm for us today?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-I will see what I can do. We will do our best.

Senator LUDLAM-I would appreciate that. Given that I suppose you would agree there is at least a possibility that they have been deployed at some time during and after the invasion of Afghanistan, what kinds of health precautions and protections are Australian personnel trained in and what health testing and monitoring are underway while they are in that theatre?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-Again, I do not believe that depleted uranium munitions are used in Afghanistan, so essentially I do not think the issue exists.

Senator LUDLAM-So we are not routinely screening personnel while they are there for exposure to DU contamination?

Senator Faulkner-What CDF has offered to do is to confirm in the negative the issue that you have raised.

Senator LUDLAM-There are two separate questions there. I understand that it is ambiguous as to whether those munitions are being used there. It is quite another thing to know-

Senator Faulkner-Let's just deal with that first of all. CDF I think has indicated to you that he believes they have not been used, but to be absolutely certain of it, to provide absolute clarity, he has taken the issue on notice to give you an absolutely clear and categorical response.

Senator LUDLAM-Thank you. To move to the second issue: are our personnel stationed in Afghanistan being routinely tested for exposure to chemical or radiological contamination from such munitions?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-I will be quite categorical here. No chemical or radiological weapons are used by the coalition in Afghanistan.

Senator LUDLAM-By ‘radiological' I mean depleted uranium munitions.

Air Chief Marshal Houston-Again, I do not believe they are used and we will just double-check.

Senator LUDLAM-That is the first question, and I understand it will maybe take some time to confirm the answer, but are our personnel in Afghanistan being screened for exposure?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-No, they are not, because we do not believe those weapons are being used. We do have a voluntary regime where people, if they wish, can be tested.

Senator LUDLAM-So it is not mandatory-

Air Chief Marshal Houston-No.

Senator LUDLAM-but people can submit themselves to such testing if they believe they have been exposed?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-If they have a concern.

Senator LUDLAM-Do our personnel in Afghanistan carry personal dosimeters or anything that would indicate radiation exposure?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-No, they do not.

Senator LUDLAM-It is not part of standard issue equipment?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-No.

Senator LUDLAM-You will be familiar with what was described as Gulf War syndrome after the first Gulf War. I do not know that there was ever any satisfactory explanation, but chemical exposure on the battlefield was certainly postulated as one cause of that syndrome. Are our personnel screened for exposure to other forms of chemical contaminants in the course of their duties there?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-No, they are not.

Senator LUDLAM-Staying in the broad area of exposure to radiological or chemical contaminants, are there any testing or monitoring programs underway for troops who are brought back to Australia and rotated out of Afghanistan?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-They are not tested for any exposure to radiological or chemical contaminants other than on a voluntary basis.

Senator LUDLAM-The voluntary testing ability exists on return as well?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-If you want, you can be tested.

Senator LUDLAM-I look forward to your answers to confirm whether those munitions have been used.

Air Chief Marshal Houston-Sure.

Senator LUDLAM-What advice does the government or the ADF offer to Australian non-government organisations working in Afghanistan?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-Are you talking about Australian NGOs rather than international NGOs?

Senator LUDLAM-That is right.

Air Chief Marshal Houston-If we are approached by an NGO, we will provide the best advice that we can. To my knowledge, we have not had a lot of inquiries. Again, I will take it on notice.

Senator Faulkner-To add to what CDF has said, obviously we can only answer in relation to approaches made to defence. I know you appreciate that. But let us just be absolutely clear that in taking that on notice we can only speak for ourselves in that regard.

Air Chief Marshal Houston-Certainly, at my level I have had no approaches from NGOs about Afghanistan, say, in the last two to three years.

Senator Faulkner-And I am not aware of any at the ministerial level. We will check that for you, but I stress it will just be in relation to defence, which is all we are able to do.

Senator LUDLAM-Thanks, I might put that to AusAID as well. Can you tell me the number of civilian personnel? Are you responsible for any civilian personnel in Afghanistan or would I put these questions elsewhere?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-We have some of our own civilian personnel deployed in Afghanistan and we also look after a number of other personnel. For example, there are AusAID people in Afghanistan and there are Australian Federal Police in Afghanistan, and we look after them at Tarin Kowt.

Senator LUDLAM-Could you give us a rough breakdown of the number of civilians whom you would consider you are responsible for in some regard and the areas where they are deployed?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-What we have at the moment is a growing number of civilian personnel. The number has increased quite markedly in recent times in line with the Prime Minister's announcement 29 April. In broad terms, we are talking about probably 15 personnel at Tarin Kowt whom we look after. Over time, I would expect that number to grow.

Senator LUDLAM-No others anywhere else?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-We have our own civilians embedded in some of the headquarters around Afghanistan.

Senator LUDLAM-A rough number?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-Very small numbers.

Senator LUDLAM-Can I ask you to take that on notice to get an idea of the numbers?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-It varies from time to time. For example, in the intelligence function, some times we will deploy a military person; other times we might deploy a civilian.

Senator LUDLAM-It is a handful, and 15 at Tarin Kowt is the largest number?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-About 15 at Tarin Kowt and far fewer that we would be responsible for elsewhere, and those would be our own people.

Senator LUDLAM-Okay, thank you. I am just wondering if you can tell us something from your point of view. Are Australian personnel in Afghanistan, or have they been in recent times, in negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-Absolutely not. Nobody has been in any negotiations at all with the ‘Taliban'.

Senator LUDLAM-I noticed the inverted commas there. I gather it is a very diffuse grouping of people who are very difficult to define. Would that be a correct characterisation?

Air Chief Marshal Houston-I think that is a correct characterisation. Clearly when you are out amongst the population it is possible that you may end up talking to somebody that could be a member of the Taliban. We probably do not know them to be a member of the Taliban, though.

Senator LUDLAM-They do not issue membership cards, do they? I will come back briefly to where I was before. You mentioned that there is voluntary testing available for personnel in theatre or on their return home.

Air Chief Marshal Houston-I will let General Alexander, our Commander Joint Health, address that issue.

Senator LUDLAM-Thank you.

Major Gen. Alexander-There is a policy in place in relation to depleted uranium-a health directive- and that has two triggers that can result in testing. One is if the organisation has assessed that an individual has been exposed. The organisation would then recommend that testing be done on an individual or group.

Senator LUDLAM-Sorry; which organisation?

Major Gen. Alexander-Defence.

Senator LUDLAM-As a whole? Okay.

Major Gen. Alexander-And there is the ability for anybody to report and request a test, so there is selftesting.

Senator LUDLAM-Are troops trained as part of their regular training to recognise DU munitions if they might have been used against them or by-

Major Gen. Alexander-That is a question that I think a doctor probably should not answer.

Air Chief Marshal Houston-Again, I do not believe it is possible to discriminate when you are out there on whether a certain bomb that has been dropped is depleted uranium or not. We would not know from what we see on the ground.

Senator LUDLAM-I think that in some cases, with armour-piercing munitions, you can tell if it is DU as opposed to tungsten munitions or other forms.

Air Chief Marshal Houston-If you are talking about weapon effect, yes. But what I am talking about is the sort of work we are doing, which is not conventional warfare; this is counterinsurgency. Most usually, those sorts of rounds would not be needed in a conflict such as this. Again, I do not believe they are being utilised in our theatre.

Senator LUDLAM-I was not trying to press you on that point. We will wait for your confirmation once you have had time. Can you give us some figures on what number of personnel, in theatre and post return to Australia, have requested those forms of voluntary testing?

Major Gen. Alexander-I can give you the figure for the total number of tests within Defence.

Senator LUDLAM-That will not be a breakdown for people who have been deployed to Afghanistan, then-or will it?

Major Gen. Alexander-No, I cannot say that they have or have not deployed. My thoughts would be that anybody who has been tested would have had some thoughts that they had been exposed at some stage.

Senator LUDLAM-We know, for example, that these munitions were deployed in some quantities in Iraq.

Major Gen. Alexander-No, I cannot say that.

Senator LUDLAM-It is a matter of record.

Major Gen. Alexander-I can say that we have had a certain number of people that have been tested, either by self-request or by direction. But the vast majority is self-request.

Senator LUDLAM-Okay, let us start there. Could you give us those figures, please.

Major Gen. Alexander-There have been 140 over the last four years. There is a single laboratory that does the testing in New South Wales.

Senator LUDLAM-Can you name that one for us, please.

Major Gen. Alexander-No.

Senator LUDLAM-Why is that? Is it because you do not know?

Major Gen. Alexander-No, I do not know the name of the lab.

Senator LUDLAM-Is that something you could undertake to find for us? I am presuming that is not classified.

Air Chief Marshal Houston-No, that is fine.

Senator LUDLAM-So there have been 140 over four years.

Major Gen. Alexander-They have all been negative, and they have all been below 20 parts per trillion.

Senator LUDLAM-So that is just background.

Major Gen. Alexander-Absolutely. So they are all negative results. We have not had any positive results.

Senator LUDLAM-I want to get down to the fact that you must know internally how many of those personnel would have been deployed to Afghanistan. We will get to whether you are able to tell us that in a moment, but you must be able to ascertain that.

Major Gen. Alexander-We would be able to get the names of the individuals that have been tested and then, through the PMKeyS process, determine whether they were deployed and when they were deployed. Whether that is something that would be on a medical record that went to the laboratory is another matter. In other words, there would be a list of individuals we could obtain from the laboratory, so we would then have to go through a process of matching up to determine their PMKeyS numbers and where and when they were

Senator LUDLAM-That all sounds very complicated. I presume that, if any of the tests had proven positive, you would have made a bit of an effort to match up deployments.

Major Gen. Alexander-Certainly.

Senator LUDLAM-Can you confirm that the results were for DU contamination-that is, a radiological test, not referring to the chemical exposures I was asking about before?

Major Gen. Alexander-These are urine tests. It is a urine screening test for depleted uranium.

Senator LUDLAM-I will leave it there. I might come back later if there is time.

Dr Watt-I wonder if I could qualify that comment. To save you a bit of work, do you want to know whether they have been deployed to Afghanistan or whether they were deployed to Afghanistan before they came in and were tested? In other words, are you asking if there was there a cause and effect or are you asking two separate things?

Senator LUDLAM-That is a sensible question. I am interested to know whether service personnel have been deployed to Afghanistan and then returned and tested positive.

Dr Watt-So you want the ones who were in Afghanistan and then were tested and not the other way around?

Senator LUDLAM-Subsequently; that is correct

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