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Balkans: UN Confirms Depleted Uranium Contamination, But Plays Down Health Threat

  • Alexandra Poolos

United Nations scientists say they have found widespread traces of depleted uranium from NATO munitions at sites in Serbia and Montenegro. The UN is warning local authorities to take precautions, particularly before allowing development projects on the sites, because of the risk of stirring up potentially toxic soil and dust. At the same time, it says the levels of contamination pose no immediate health threat. But as RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos reports, some scientists believe the risks are more serious than the UN is admitting.

Prague, 29 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) released a report earlier this week that says scientists found "widespread but low-level contamination" from depleted uranium at five out of six sites investigated in Serbia and Montenegro.

Depleted uranium (DU) was used to harden the tips of armor-piercing shells fired by NATO troops during actions in Bosnia in the mid-1990s and during the air campaign against Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999.

The UNEP says the level of DU contamination measured at the sites in Serbia and Montenegro presents no "immediate" risks for the environment or human health, adding that the new evidence is consistent with a study done on the subject last year in Kosovo. Some independent scientists, however, believe the UN report seriously underestimates the risks of DU use in the Balkans.

UNEP team leader Pekka Haavisto told RFE/RL that the new study does confirm a long-term risk to ground water and air quality near the sites.

"In this report, [there were] a couple of significant, scientifically interesting findings. The first of them was that depleted uranium ammunition that exists in Serbia and Montenegro in the soil is actually corroding quite rapidly. In two and a half years, they have lost something like 10 to 15 percent of their weight. This just indicates that the depleted uranium material is quite movable in the soil and poses some risk to the ground water for that reason. Secondly, for the first time, we were able to measure air quality at the targeted sites. We visited six sites, and at two of them we had indications that in the dust of those areas there is still depleted uranium particles in the air. This, of course, means that any major soil removal -- for example, construction work -- at those areas might cause depleted uranium spreading around."

Haavisto says civilians living near these sites do not face any "immediate" health risks. But he said the UN is cautioning locals to take "precautionary measures" by not stirring up the soil of the contaminated areas.

"People who are living normal lives at these areas don't have to be afraid. There are no immediate risks coming from radiological or toxic sources. But you have to take some precautionary measures, of course. It's very important that these exact sites are signed clearly. These areas should be isolated. And, of course, in the case of children playing in these areas or picking up radioactive materials, of course risk is always there. So we recognize this risk, and we recommend clear action against these risks."

Chris Busby is an independent scientist who is now heading a DU investigation for the British Ministry of Defense. He tells RFE/RL that the new UN report shows that DU particles are not disappearing, as the UN previously predicted they would.

"I think it's an extremely important study. The interpretation of it is that for the first time we have firm evidence that we have radioactive particles from depleted uranium in the air. Now, this has been denied consistently in all the reports that have come forward, in the original UNEP report on Kosovo, the one before that by the Royal Society [of Britain]. All of these people have been saying that these particles harmlessly disappear into the mud, and they become incorporated into the structure of the ground and all this sort of panacea talk. But we now know that this stuff is there in the air and can be inhaled. Then there's an argument about whether this is dangerous or not. We say it is. They say it isn't. But up until now, they have said that they aren't even there. Now they have to say that isn't true."

Busby rejects the cautionary advice offered by the UN about stirring up soil near the sites. He says DU particles are in the air, regardless of major soil disturbances.

"The assumption has been that the particles are in the air because someone has disturbed the soil. But my theory, which is based on quite a lot of evidence, is that these particles are quite mobile, irrespective of whether anyone has disturbed the soil. In fact, they go up as a result of an electrostatic effect because they are so tiny...they can become charged, and then they're repelled by the Earth and by each other. Whenever it's sunny, they go up in the air."

DU makes an effective weapon because of its density. When used, DU bores through tank armor, burning at a high intensity and releasing radioactive particles that can be absorbed, inhaled, or carried long distances by the wind.

The most recent UN study, and the one conducted earlier in Kosovo, were ordered after a number of soldiers who served in NATO forces in Kosovo and Bosnia contracted serious illnesses, such as lymphoma and leukemia. But the debate over DU first began during the 1991 Gulf War, when U.S. forces used it for the first time. One in seven U.S. veterans of that war suffer from a mysterious list of ailments collectively known as Gulf War syndrome. Some veterans have also been diagnosed with chromosomal abnormalities.

The link between DU munitions and serious illnesses like cancer has been consistently denied by the World Health Organization (WHO), which says the levels of uranium in the munitions is not high enough to pose any health risk.

The UN report notes that the WHO has found no evidence linking DU to the chromosomal changes reported by Montenegrin authorities in six people who worked on DU site decontamination.

Busby, however, believes these illnesses are linked to airborne DU particles. He says the particles are inhaled and scavenged from the lungs by lymphatic cells, which are then damaged by radioactive exposure. Busby says lymphoma has been diagnosed in a number of Italian NATO soldiers who were stationed close to contaminated sites. He also notes a 20 percent increase in lymphoma and lung cancer in Sarajevo since the mid-1990s.

Busby says that once DU-tipped munitions are expended, they create what he calls a "massive radiological hazard" that can never be fully cleaned up.

"Now, what you can certainly do is you can take the areas of highest contamination and you can bag them up and remove them somewhere safe. Bury them very deep in the ground, so that the stuff can't get out. That would be possible. But to actually decontaminate the country is impossible. The genie is out of the bottle. And that stuff is flying around Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia. But not only there. As you know, occasionally when it rains, you get sand from the Sahara Desert. What goes around comes around. This depleted uranium is now everywhere, and it blows all over Europe."

Scientists like Busby advocate a ban on DU munitions. "It seems to me that there's more and more proof that there's a problem," Busby said. "Ultimately, the scientific evidence will be so great that the military will have to back off. But at the moment, they're sticking to their belief that there's no problem."