NATO Says No Link Between Depleted Uranium, Cancer

BRUSSELS, Belgium, January 25, 2001 (ENS) - There is no link between the depleted uranium munitions used in the NATO led Balkans wars and the rash of cancers that have been reported by soldiers who fought in the conflicts, according to the chairman of a multinational committee convened to study the matter.

Daniel Speckhard, the U.S. Ambassador to Belarus and the chairman of NATO's ad hoc committee on depleted uranium (DU), said Wednesday that "based on the data today, no link has been established between depleted uranium and any forms of cancer."

"To date, no nation has found evidence of an increase in incidence of illness among peacekeepers [who served] in the Balkans compared with the incidence of illness among armed forces not serving in the Balkans," Speckhard said at a news conference. "None of the nations reported finding a link between health complaints of personnel employed in the Balkans and depleted uranium munitions."


NATO Spokesman Mark Laity, third from left, discusses the possible health effects of depleted uranium with several military experts at a recent news conference in Brussels, Belgium (Photo courtesy NATO)

Speckhard's committee, which represents about 50 nations, was formed earlier this month to investigate the alleged link between the adverse health effects that have been reported by NATO soldiers and the DU munitions that were used in the wars waged in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Kosovo. Speckhard said on Wednesday that the committee intends to bring "maximum transparency" to the inquiry, which he said was undertaken to ensure that there is "no health risk to our troops or civilians in the Balkans" as a result of the DU munitions used there.

The United States and a host of other allied nations have for years supplied their armed forces with machine gun rounds and rocket like projectiles tipped with depleted uranium, which by definition contains statistically insignificant amounts of radioactivity. The Pentagon and NATO both maintain that DU munitions are essential war fighting tools, because of their ability to pierce through armor plated tanks and other heavily defended targets.


Depleted uranium munitions are effective at piercing heavily armored vehicles, such as this tank (Photo courtesy NATO)

The Pentagon acquires much of its DU at no cost from nuclear weapons plants, which are generally eager to get rid of the tens of thousands of tons of wastes that are piling up at their facilities. Both the Pentagon and NATO have long denied that DU munitions pose any health risks from residual radioactivity.

DU munitions were used widely in the Persian Gulf War as well as the more recent conflicts in the Balkans, and thousands of veterans who fought in those campaigns disagree with NATO's conclusions. Many of these veterans have been plagued by a rash of unexplained health effects, including chronic fatigue, paralysis and death.


Gulf War veterans gathered in Washington, DC, last year to demand recognition and treatment for their illness (Photo courtesy American Gulf War Veterans Association)

DU, which is regulated in the United States by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is supposed to contain no other radionuclides other than uranium. But critics charge that the substance often contains other dangerous elements associated with nuclear power plants, such as plutonium, radium and americium.

That fear was at least partially borne out earlier this week, when a Pentagon spokesman acknowledged that traces of plutonium were inadvertently incorporated into DU munitions that were made some 30 years ago. The mistake came about because of contaminated equipment at a domestic power plant, the spokesman said.

NATO spokesman Mark Laity, appearing at the Brussels news conference on Wednesday along with Speckhard, was quick to downplay the significance of the Pentagon's revelation. Laity said that it was "quite possible" that traces of plutonium or other radionuclides will turn up in soil samples now being taken in the Balkans. But such findings, he said, would not constitute a threat to public health or the environment.

"These contaminants are known about and are in minute amounts," Laity said. "Those trace elements have been found to be too small to add to the existing low level health risk that there is."

"If they find [traces of plutonium or other radionuclides], we will not be surprised, and I will not be worried," added Laity, who delivered his remarks with a DU round sitting nearby.

That point was echoed by NATO's Supreme Commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Joseph Ralston. Ralston, speaking in Athens, Greece, told reporters that he would not hesitate authorizing the firing of DU rounds "tonight," should such action be called for.


U.S. Air Force General Joseph Ralston, NATO's Supreme Commander in Europe (Photo courtesy NATO)

But a team of scientists at the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Wednesday unveiled a study that found that DU of the type used by the U.S. military can cause cancer in laboratory animals.

Fletcher Hahn, a senior scientist on the project, told the Reuters news organization that the study represents a "warning flag that we shouldn't ignore."

Still, Hahn emphasized that the study "doesn't mean that [DU] is carcinogenic to humans."

Meanwhile, two international organizations today announced that they may take action to assist the World Health Organization (WHO) team of researchers, which is currently studying the matter of DU use in the Persian Gulf. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) may launch "fact finding missions" to the Balkan region, their respective officials said.

UNEP officials will decide soon whether to dispatch a team of researchers to Bosnia Herzegovina for the purpose of studying the public health and environmental implications of the DU munitions used there, officials said.

The IAEA is considering holding a training course to help researchers in the Balkan region to better understand the complex measurement and assessment methods associated with conducting analysis on depleted uranium, officials from the group said.

That is of little comfort to Francis Boyle, a professor of international law at the University of Illinois at Urbanna/Champaign. Boyle, who consulted on a 1994 documentary film that linked a host of health effects to DU, said that the IAEA was only getting involved in the project to do "damage control."

"The IAEA is a front organization for the nuclear power industry, so you can't believe anything they say," Boyle said. "It is an unfortunate sign, in my opinion, that the WHO and UNEP would be coordinating anything with the IAEA. They're going to try and cover this whole thing up."

Boyle, like many critics, maintains that DU poses far greater risks to public health and the environment than the Pentagon and NATO are letting on. He said that DU munitions are teeming with plutonium and other radionuclides that should not be exempted from regulatory oversight.

When DU munitions hit their targets, Boyle noted, they typically release particles which can contaminate air and nearby water.

"Even a speck of plutonium can kill you," Boyle noted. "But there's a lot more in DU munitions than just depleted uranium, and in any event, once it vaporizes . and people are breathing it and eating it, it kills people."

Boyle, like many others, believes that DU played a causal role in mysterious "Gulf War Syndrome" that affected tens of thousands of veterans who fought in that war.

The Pentagon flatly denies such charges.

Boyle and other legal experts have also long maintained that DU munitions are illegal under a host of international laws, such as the Hague Convention of 1907. The U.S. government is party to the convention, which prohibits weapons that are "unnecessary," as well as those that cause cruel, long lasting or uncontrollable effects.

Boyle argues that DU munitions are "unnecessary" because weapons made with another metal - tungsten - are equally as effective. The Pentagon does not use tungsten, Boyle said, because it would have to pay for it.

"They get the DU for free, and this is basically a question of money," Boyle said. "DU is an unnecessary weapon."

The Geneva protocol of 1925, to which the U.S. is also a signatory, prohibits the use of radiation as a weapon, Boyle noted. And a protocol to the 1977 Geneva Convention contains a provision that bans weapons and techniques of warfare that cause severe, long term environmental impacts, he noted.

The U.S. is not a signatory to that agreement.

NATO has posted a detailed map on its website showing where DU munitions were targeted in Bosnia and Kosovo. The map can be viewed at