The United Nations this week issued a report on depleted uranium munitions used by NATO in the former Yugoslavia. The report found no immediate cause for concern about health risks. But it fell short of fully vindicating NATO, warning that the long-term impact on the environment and human health remains unknown. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz spoke with the UN official who led the research team.
Prague, 15 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The head of the United Nations Environment Program, Pekka Haavisto, says some NATO statements on the health risks posed by depleted uranium, or DU, munitions in the Balkans are misleading.
NATO this week welcomed a UN study on DU munitions in Kosovo that was headed by Haavisto, saying the report supports the alliance's view that the risks posed by DU munitions are negligible. NATO has consistently said there is no evidence that exposure to DU munitions can cause cancer.
But Haavisto tells RFE/RL it is too early to rule out the possibility of health risks -- including a possible link to cancer. Although the latest UN study confirms NATO's view that there is no immediate cause for alarm, the report describes specific situations where risks could be significant.
In particular, there are concerns that DU may work its way into underground water supplies and contaminate wells used by residents near NATO-targeted sites. So far, the study says, Kosovo's water is safe. But the report recommends further monitoring.
The UN study also calls for precautionary measures, including clean-up operations at all 112 sites that were hit with DU munitions in NATO air strikes during the Kosovo crisis of 1999.
Haavisto advises Kosovo residents to remain careful about digging up soil or getting too close to explosions during de-mining operations in targeted sites. He says the reason that NATO can truthfully say there is no proven link between DU munitions and cancer is because the issue has not been studied sufficiently.
"To clarify these scientific uncertainties, some more scientific research has to be done."
Haavisto says he is bothered by some media reports and NATO statements that focus on the impact of DU munitions on NATO-led peacekeepers -- but which ignore the possible longer-term implications for residents of Kosovo and Bosnia.
"There has been a little bit different approach by the military. In discussions with some U.S. air force people, they say it was safe to fire [depleted uranium ammunition] because it wasn't U.S. troops under the fire. I think also the discussion has been a little bit misleading. There has been a lot of talk about the safety of the peacekeepers at these sites. Of course, it's very important, but the local population is the one that is going to live there many, many years."
NATO weapons incorporating DU were used both in Kosovo and in the earlier conflict in Bosnia. Depleted uranium helps munitions to pierce thick metal and concrete. In the process, the DU disintegrates into a fine powder.
This week's report focused on the situation in Kosovo. The UN is now seeking funds to study targeted sites in Bosnia.
Haavisto says UN environmental research conducted since 1999 across Yugoslavia should ease concerns of people living in major urban areas. He says that, for the most part, the places that were targeted by NATO with DU ammunition were in rural areas. He notes that the concerns in Yugoslavia's major cities are about chemical and other pollutants -- but not about depleted uranium.
"We have now a clean-up program [for chemicals and other pollutants] going on in Pancevo, Novi Sad, and are visiting some targeted places near Belgrade. We can confirm there was no depleted uranium used in that ammunition in Pancevo, Novi Sad, and Belgrade. So there are absolutely no depleted uranium risks in those places, to the best of our understanding. This is also valid for Pristina, even though the Pristina police station was fired upon."
Haavisto says, however, that NATO did use DU munitions against targets in and around the western Kosovo town of Djakovica.
The UN's study this week says most of the depleted uranium used in Kosovo now lies deep under the ground. But the report says there are concerns about DU dust on the surface near target sites.
De-mining operations, or controlled explosions of Yugoslav army weapons depots that were targeted by NATO, also could raise clouds of dust containing the radioactive particles.