The controversy over the use of depleted uranium ammunition has become a front-page story after several NATO peacekeepers who served in the Balkans have died of cancer. But the debate has deep roots, going back to the first use of such weapons in the 1991 Gulf War.
Prague, 11 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Nobody debates the effectiveness of using ammunition hardened with depleted uranium, or DU, for penetrating enemy armor and destroying it.
The metal has a density almost twice that of lead, allowing it to pierce steel that is several centimeters thick. And it is inexpensive and readily available, being a byproduct of converting uranium into fuel for nuclear reactors or bombs.
During the Gulf War, U.S. and British forces fired some 320 tons of DU-hardened ordinance, or some 25 times that used in NATO-led campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.
Military experts say the weapons contributed to the overwhelming success of coalition forces during the Gulf War, in which hundreds of Iraqi tanks were destroyed on the battlefield.
But if military planners are convinced of the strategic advantages of using DU, a fierce debate has long raged over whether it poses a health hazard to forces who use it and to civilian populations.
Immediately after the Gulf War, tens of thousands of U.S. and British veterans began to complain of a mysterious illness they said they contracted while at war. The symptoms began with losing teeth and hair and suffering from chronic fatigue. Over time, dozens of the veterans developed cancer. The symptoms were so consistent that the illness was given a name, Gulf War Syndrome, even though its cause or causes remain unexplained.
At the same time, Iraqi health officials have reported a rise in cancers inside the country since the Gulf War. In 1990, some 4,340 cancer cases were registered in Iraq. But by 1992, the figure had increased to some 6,160 -- a more than 40 percent jump.
After a decade of research, most western medical experts believe that Gulf War Syndrome is associated with the destruction of Iraq's chemical weapons depots, which released particles of substances such as Sarin into the air. They also attribute it to the burning of Kuwait's oil fields, which were set alight by retreating Iraqi troops and sent massive clouds of smoke containing carcinogens into the atmosphere.
And some studies have even disputed whether the Gulf War can be linked to any cancer increases at all. One recent survey by the Manchester University in Britain showed that among some 50,000 British troops who served in the Gulf, about 65 died of cancer by last year. That was about the same rate for a similar group of soldiers who did not serve in the war.
U.S. defense officials stated over and over this week their belief that DU has no link to cancer. Michael Kilpatrick, of the U.S. Department of Defense's Gulf War Illnesses section, told a press conference in Brussels yesterday:
"There is no medical evidence in the literature or any scientific studies that have been done that natural or depleted uranium causes cancers or any kinds of illness."
Some dozen NATO peacekeepers are reported to have died of cancer, mostly leukemia, since serving in the Balkans. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said yesterday NATO would create a commission to probe the health effects of the use of DU in Bosnia and Kosovo but repeated NATO sees no link to DU in the cases.
Despite such official positions over DU, numerous groups of Gulf War veterans in the U.S. and Britain continue to press claims against their governments over cancer symptoms they say arose after direct contact with targets hit by the weapons. Those claims remain unresolved.
If there still is no end to the debate over what caused Gulf War Syndrome, it is in part because there has been little chance for Western health experts to study what happened in the Gulf War in-situ, that is, in Iraq itself.
One independent agency which might have done that is the UN's World Health Organization (WHO). But officials there say this has so far proved impossible in the highly charged political atmosphere of UN sanctions upon Iraq and the objections of some UN member countries.
Michael Repacholi, coordinator for occupational and environmental health at WHO in Geneva, told RFE/RL that after the Gulf War the agency found itself unable to make the kinds of extensive measurements in Iraq needed to assess health risks to the population.
"In general it seemed that there was a lot of difficulty in getting access to make the measurements. And obviously it is a political thing and WHO can go in only on invitation of member states and do what it can under the political constraints that are provided."
The organization maintains an office in Baghdad and has plans soon to set up cancer registries to determine whose health has been affected by the Gulf War and what levels of danger may remain in the environment. But Repacholi says that it will be difficult 10 years later to reconstruct the war's events and identify the health risks accurately.
Repacholi says that whether or not DU causes health problems, it has gained public notoriety in the Gulf War, and now the Balkans conflicts, because it is a material with about 40 percent the radioactivity of natural uranium. And in a battle, that mild radioactivity gets spread liberally around the war zone. Repacholi says:
"Depleted uranium is a material that is exactly the same as uranium except that it has had the most radioactive isotope taken out or reduced. And hence when the munitions are used you are spreading around radioactive material in the war zone so that when populations come in later they are coming into a more radioactive area than they were living in before."
He says that how long that radiation remains in a battle zone appears to depend on the environment. In arid regions like Iraq, dust from exploded DU munitions settles on the sand and is dispersed widely by the wind. In areas of high rainfall, the dust percolates into the water table and concentrates there. But how that happens, and with what health risks, remains something requiring further study. Repacholi says:
"There are major gaps in our knowledge that need to be filled and if there is continuing to be use of depleted uranium in conflicts then we do need to make studies of what occurs in the environment after the conflict."
The expert says that to assure public safety, international organizations should clean up a war zone after weapons with potentially hazardous after-effects are used. That may now be too late to do effectively in Iraq but it could still be done in Kosovo -- if only to reassure civilian populations they are out of danger.
(RFE/RL's Ahto Lobjakas contributed audio to this report.)