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Health Report: NATO Says Depleted Uranium Weapons Do Not Cause Cancer, IFC Invests In Russian Health Care

By K.P.Foley

NATO experts have joined U.S. defense officials in asserting that a controversial alliance munition is most likely not the cause of cancers seen in some soldiers who served in the Balkans. RFE/RL correspondent K.P. Foley reports on the latest developments in this story in this week's Health Report. Other stories include a new U.S. government report on dieting, and an investment in Russia's health care system.

Washington, 18 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The NATO alliance has joined the U.S. Defense Department in support of the view that a controversial munition is most likely not the cause of cancers seen in some soldiers who served in NATO peacekeeping units in the Balkans.

The chairman of NATO's medical committee, General Roger Van Hoof, told reporters Monday that there is no indication that exposure to depleted uranium causes cancer.

"Based on such peer-reviewed medical-scientific data and on the available national information, a link between depleted uranium and the reported cancers cannot be established."

Depleted uranium munitions were introduced into combat by the United States in the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991. Depleted uranium, or DU, is what is left over after uranium has been enriched for use in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. The U.S. says shells tipped with DU can penetrate armor much better than standard artillery rounds. DU also makes the armor on tanks and other vehicles more difficult for enemy shells to damage.

The U.S. fired an estimated 900,000 rounds at Iraqi tanks. NATO used about 10,000 rounds in the civil war in Bosnia in 1995, and U.S. planes fired about 31,000 rounds in NATO's air campaign in Kosovo two years ago.

Uranium is radioactive, but depleted uranium is 40 percent less radioactive than the naturally occurring radiation that is present in air, water, and soil. Experts have feared that depleted uranium's adverse health effects would be because of its toxicity as a heavy metal, not its radioactive qualities.

At a meeting with reporters in Washington last week, assistant U.S. Army Secretary Dr. Bernard Rostker explained the reasoning behind the concern.

"When a depleted uranium round hits, it will vaporize, it will create a great deal of heat, fragments break off and little pieces break off and it will eventually create a uranium oxide, which can be ingested, particularly by breathing it."

He said some radiation experts theorized that exposure to uranium oxides through breathing depleted uranium might lead to the development of lung cancer. However, Rostker says that more than 50 years of studies of uranium miners has shown that breathing the dust has not led to increased risk for lung cancer.

Rostker is a physician who has led the Pentagon's studies of thousands of U.S. Gulf War veterans who have reported suffering from a number of debilitating illnesses that developed after their Gulf service. Rostker said the U.S. is not yet certain of the causes of the ailments in the Gulf veterans, but he says the U.S. is reasonably certain that the illnesses are not due to exposure to depleted uranium.

"We have extensively worked with, tested, monitored depleted uranium and soldiers who've been involved with depleted uranium and we do not see a health risk."

At least six Italian soldiers who served in the Balkans during the 1990s have died of leukemia. Rostker says there are no known cases of U.S. soldiers exposed to DU who have developed leukemia. He said in the Balkans, it would be unlikely for leukemia to develop so quickly after such a relatively short period of exposure.

"I would tell you that, given the time frame for Kosovo, it would make medical history if you had an exposure of any kind and leukemia resulting that quickly."

He said it normally takes from 10 to 30 years from exposure to presence of the disease. Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon said on January 15 there are no plans by the U.S. to stop using depleted uranium munitions in combat, despite calls from some European politicians for a moratorium, or even an outright ban, on such armaments.


IFC Invests In Russian Health Care

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) is investing $2.1 million in a health care project in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The IFC is part of the World Bank Group. Its mission is to promote private sector investment in transition economies and developing nations. The IFC investment is one part of a $9 million project being led by the Finnish medical company Scanfert Oy. The money will finance a state-of-the-art medical center for St. Petersburg residents. Scanfert says the center will offer many different kinds of medical services, including a 24-hour emergency room.

Scanfert says the objective is to create a model for other Russian health care institutions by introducing high quality professional management.


Study Says Moderation In Eating Still Best Weight Control Approach

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says moderation still works best for people trying to control their weight through dieting.

USDA issued a report last week that reviewed a variety of weight loss strategies available in the U.S. - and internationally. The review concluded that the most successful strategies for losing weight and keeping it off all call for eating a diet that is rich in carbohydrates but moderate in the consumption of fats and proteins.

U.S. health officials are concerned about the increase in obese and overweight people in the entire U.S. population because of the serious health problems linked to obesity. The USDA says Americans spend thousands of millions of dollars -- one estimate was $33 billion a year -- on weight loss programs.