Radioactive Ammunition Still Litters Kosovo

PRISTINA, Kosovo, January 8, 2001 (ENS) - It will be two months before a United Nations team studying the effects of depleted uranium in Kosovo releases its findings. The wait is only fueling suspicions that depleted uranium used in ammunition in the Kosovo war is killing NATO peacekeepers and contaminating groundwater.

Depleted uranium is a dense waste product of the natural uranium enrichment process used in nuclear power. It is used to strengthen heavy tank armor, anti-tank munitions, missiles and projectiles.


Map of the Balkans. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depleted uranium's health effects are complex due to its chemical, radiological and physical characteristics.

In 1998 and 1999, the largely Albanian population of Kosovo was plunged into a war for independence from the Serb dominated Yugoslav government. It resulted in NATO undertaking an aerial bombardment of selected targets in Yugoslavia in 1999.

After a peace agreement in the summer of 1999, that saw Serb forces withdraw from Kosovo to be replaced by NATO peacekeepers, the United Nations set up a task force to assess the environmental damage of the Kosovo conflict.

"When we finalized the Balkans Task Force report on the environmental effects of the Kosovo conflict last year, there was insufficient data available to address the issue of depleted uranium," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

"In response to a request from UN secretary general Kofi Annan and UNEP, NATO provided us in mid-2000 with the exact coordinates of the target sites, enabling our team to make proper measurements of depleted uranium sites in Kosovo," said Toepfer.

"UNEP's aim is to determine whether the use of depleted uranium during the conflict may pose health or environmental risks - either now or in the future."

Last November, UNEP's task force visited 11 of 112 sites in Kosovo that were targeted by weapons containing depleted uranium.

The UNEP team, consisting of 14 scientists from several countries, collected soil, water, and vegetation samples and conducted smear tests on buildings, destroyed army vehicles, and depleted uranium penetrators.

Remnants of depleted uranium ammunition were found at eight of the 11 sites.

"For the UNEP team it was surprising to find remnants of depleted uranium ammunition just lying on the ground, one and a half years after the conflict," said Pekka Haavisto, chairman of the UNEP Depleted Uranium Assessment Team and former Environment Minister of Finland.

"Also, the ground directly beneath the depleted uranium ammunition was slightly contaminated. For this reason, we paid special attention to the risks that uranium toxicity might pose to the groundwaters around the sites."

Altogether, 340 samples were collected and are now being analyzed for both radioactivity and toxicity by five European laboratories. The samples include 247 soil samples, 45 water samples, 30 vegetation samples, 10 smear tests, five sabots, two penetrators, and one penetrator fragment.

Penetrators and sabots are specialized weapons parts.

The results of the tests will be ready in early March, when UNEP will publish a report of its findings.


WHO director general Gro Harlem Brundtland. (Photo courtesy WHO)
In the meantime, UNEP has contacted Yugoslavian authorities in order to plan a similar field mission to Serbia and Montenegro this spring, where several of the 112 NATO-identified depleted uranium sites are located.

The UNEP team has seen enough from preliminary findings to recommend precautionary action.

"Out of the 11 sites visited, the team found three sites with no signs of higher radioactivity, nor any remnants of depleted uranium ammunition," said Haavisto.

"At eight sites, the team found either slightly higher amounts of Beta-radiation immediately at or around the holes left by depleted uranium ammunition, or pieces and remnants of ammunition, such as sabots and penetrators."

In contrast to media reports, a UN spokesperson today said there had been no increase in the incidence of leukemia among Kosovo's adults over the past four years, according to initial findings from WHO and the Kosovo Department of Health.

Susan Manuel, a spokesperson for the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), said UNMIK chief Dr. Bernard Kouchner had appealed to WHO director general Gro Harlem Brundtland, "to send public health experts to assist in monitoring any possible health consequences of the use of depleted uranium among the civilian population."

Kouchner has contacted NATO secretary general George Robertson on how to coordinate an approach to the issue of depleted uranium.

UN secretary general Kofi Annan reminded reporters at UN Headquarters in New York this morning that UNEP tests are ongoing.

"Once we have concluded the tests, we will know precisely what environmental and health damage the uranium weapons pose, if any," he said.

The UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper quotes Bosnian health minister Boza Ljubic as saying that cancer and leukemia deaths among civilians there were rising sharply, with 230 cases of cancer per 100,000 people recorded last year, up from 152 in 1999.

Cases of leukaemia had nearly doubled, said Ljubic.

The Telegraph claimed NATO forces fired 10,800 depleted uranium shells during the Bosnian conflict, 31,000 during the Kosovo campaign and more than 840,000 in the Gulf war.


UN secretary general Kofi Annan. (Photo courtesy UN)
The UNEP team's findings are anxiously awaited in the UK, where the Ministry of Defence has admitted to firing depleted uranium rounds at several test sites around the country.

Spanish authorities are testing 32,000 of its troops who served in Kosovo, to determine whether they were exposed to radiation from depleted uranium shells.

"Many have expressed their concern and to reassure ourselves we have decided to monitor everyone," army doctor Colonel Luis Villalonga of the defense ministry told a news conference last Friday.

The death of seven Italian peacekeepers who developed leukemia after serving in the Balkans has prompted Italy to set up a scientific inquiry into their deaths.