The U.S. says it has found no link between a type of munition made with a substance called depleted uranium - which was used by the NATO alliance in the Balkans - and the development of cancer. Even so, several European governments are concerned that their troops who served in NATO units in Serbia and Bosnia may be at risk.
Washington, 5 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon says the U.S. is convinced that the use of depleted uranium in some munitions and armor has not, in his words, led to adverse health consequences.
Bacon spoke Thursday following growing demands from NATO allies and partners in Europe for a thorough investigation of the health effects that might result from exposure to munitions made with depleted uranium. There are fears that exposure may cause cancer. Bacon said the U.S. does not believe such an outcome is likely.
"We have not found any link between illnesses and exposure to depleted uranium."
The Department of Defense describes depleted uranium as a waste product that results from the process of enriching natural uranium for use in nuclear power plant reactors and, in some cases, nuclear weapons. Scientific reference sources say natural uranium is present in the air, water and soil.
Uranium is radioactive. However, the type of radiation it emits is weak, much less than a dose from a medical X-ray. The radiation from depleted uranium is even weaker, some 40 percent less, than that emitted by natural radiation.
The U.S. military uses depleted uranium to coat artillery shells and some small conventional missiles fired from airplanes and also to strengthen protective armor in tanks. Defense officials have said depleted uranium munitions penetrate an enemy's armor much more effectively than standard ammunition. The Pentagon says armor that contains depleted uranium is very effective at blunting anti-tank weapons.
The U.S. was the first to use depleted uranium munitions. U.S. troops are said to have fired at least 900,000 depleted uranium shells at Iraqi tanks and troop positions during the Gulf War in 1991. Britain and Russia also use depleted uranium and Israel is believed to use the substance as well.
Bacon told reporters that U.S. aircraft fired some 31,000 depleted uranium rounds at Yugoslav tanks during NATO's air campaign in Serbia two years ago. He said NATO used 10,000 rounds in the campaign against Bosnian Serb forces in 1994-95.
Italy wants NATO to investigate claims that six of its soldiers who died from leukemia after serving in the Balkans were made sick by exposure to depleted uranium. Italy has said that 60,000 soldiers and 15,000 of its civilians served in the Balkans in the 1990s.
Standard medical dictionaries say there are several types of leukemia. The diseases are described as cancers that attack the body's blood-forming tissues, including bone marrow and the lymph system. Bacon contends that much more work needs to be done before establishing a link between depleted uranium and leukemia.
"I think the first thing that's necessary if we're dealing with allegations that there is a connection between leukemia and depleted uranium is an epidemiological study that would determine first, if there is an unusually high incidence of leukemia among soldiers who have served in either Bosnia or Kosovo."
Until that is done, he said it is too soon to make the connection.
"Until people do that basic type of epidemiological work, which involves comparison groups, et cetera, I think it's premature to talk about any link between depleted uranium and leukemia."
Epidemiology is a branch of medicine that investigates the causes of disease outbreaks in human populations. A U.S. government epidemiologist who spoke with RFE/RL on condition his name not be used said it is unlikely that the cancers seen in the Italian soldiers were caused by exposure to depleted uranium.
The doctor said leukemia has been linked to exposure to benzene, gamma radiation of the type used in x-rays, and cigarette smoke. In addition, he said it is improbable that such a brief exposure to depleted uranium would result in so rapid a development of leukemia. Typically, he said, it can take anywhere from 10 to 30 years after an exposure for a cancer to develop.
The epidemiologist also said many other factors would have to be considered, including the family histories of the victims. Fifty percent of all cancers, the doctor said, are due to inherited factors.
Besides Italy, the Dutch government said it will review the health of its soldiers stationed in the Balkans. Bulgaria and Greece have also announced plans to screen their Balkan contingents. Spain says it will examine 32,000 of its Balkan theatre veterans. France has called for a thorough investigation and the European Union is reportedly considering an investigation of its own. NATO has promised to take up the issue next week at a meeting in Brussels.
The Pentagon also said that the U.S. examined nine sites in the U.S.-patrolled sector of Kosovo and found no traces of depleted uranium.
The United Nations Environment Program sent an international team of experts to Kosovo in November. The investigators took samples from 13 sites where depleted uranium was used. The team is still analyzing the results of the investigation.
The U.S. began studies of the health effects of depleted uranium munitions after thousands of U.S. veterans began reporting a variety of ailments in the years following their service in the Gulf. In a statement issued last Dec. 19, the Pentagon said that, "based on scientific evidence developed so far it is unlikely that depleted uranium exposure is a cause of the undiagnosed illnesses some Gulf War veterans are experiencing."
The Pentagon commissioned a study of the subject by the RAND Corporation, a private research group, and published the results in 1998. Dr. David Case, a Pentagon specialist, said the report found that the main concern involving the use of depleted uranium is the fact that it is a highly poisonous heavy metal.
The RAND study said ingestion into the body of depleted uranium particles might cause illness, but it also said these illnesses would most likely be found in the body's kidneys and not other organs or tissues.
That study also said that it could find no evidence of depleted uranium-related illnesses in U.S. Gulf veterans.
Iraq has disputed the U.S. conclusions. Iraqi health officials have contended at international conferences that high incidences of cancer near Gulf battlefields are due to the use of U.S. weapons. However, other experts have said appearances of cancer among Iraqis may also be due to Iraq's use of chemical weapons in its war against Iran in the 1980s.