Depleted Uranium Contaminates Bosnia-Herzegovina

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina, March 25, 2003 (ENS) - For the first time, a United Nations research team has confirmed that depleted uranium from weapons used in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1994 and 1995 has contaminated local supplies of drinking water, and can still be found in dust particles suspended in the air. Depleted uranium is used in armour penetrating military ordinance because of its high density, and also in the manufacture of defensive armor plate.

A new report released here today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) records the first instance of depleted uranium (DU) contamination of groundwater, which was found at one site.

“The findings of this study stress again the importance of appropriate cleanup and civil protection measures in a post-conflict situation," said Pekka Haavisto, chairman of the UNEP DU projects. "We hope that this work will play a role in protecting human health and the environment in the unfortunate event of future conflicts."

Sarajevo

View towards Sarajevo from a site being studied for depleted uranium contamination. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
The new report is based on data collected by a team of experts on a field mission conducted by an international team of experts from October 12-24, 2002. They investigated 15 sites that had been targeted with DU weapons during the 1995 conflict, some within view of Sarajevo. The sites were independently selected by UNEP on the basis of data provided by NATO and local authorities.

The team used highly sensitive instruments to measure surface radioactivity. These measurements revealed the presence of contamination points and pieces of DU weapons at three sites - the Hadzici tank repair facility, the Hadzici ammunition storage area and the Han Pijesak barracks.

DU contamination of the air was found at two different sites, including inside two buildings. Some of these buildings are currently in use, and UNEP recommends a "precautionary decontamination" of the buildings in order to avoid any unnecessary human exposure.

The report explains that the air contamination is due to the re-suspension of DU particles from penetrators or other contamination points due to wind or human actions.

Most nuclear power plants are fueled with uranium in which the 235 uranium content is enriched from its naturally occurring concentration. The uranium remaining after removal of the enriched portion is called depleted uranium.

vehicles

Han Pijesak barracks vehicle lot where contamination spots were found (Photo courtesy UNEP)
The World Health Organization calls depleted uranium "weakly radioactive" and says a radiation dose from it would be about 60 percent of that from purified natural uranium with the same mass.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the UNEP researchers found that ground contamination occurs at DU penetrator impact points at low levels, and is localized to areas typically limited within one to two meters (three to six feet).

DU penetrators buried near the ground surface have corroded, losing 25 percent of their mass over seven years. The penetrators will corrode completely within 25 to 35 years after impact, the report said.

The findings in Bosnia-Herzegovina are consistent with previous UNEP studies in Kosovo in 2001, and in Serbia and Montenegro last year.

But previous UNEP assessments of depleted uranium in the Balkans were made shortly after the end of conflict, while in Bosnia-Herzegovina the seven years that have passed since the conflict have allowed the corroding DU to penetrate the soil and contaminate the groundwater.

The report found that recorded contamination levels are very low and do not present immediate radioactive or toxic risks for the environment or human health.

In the health chapter of the report, the World Health Organization says claims of an increase in the rates of adverse health effects stemming from DU cannot be substantiated due to the lack of a proper cancer registry and reporting system. The existing scientific data on uranium and DU health effects indicate that it is "highly unlikely" that DU could be associated with any of the reported health problems, the UN health agency said.

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UNEP team member holds a fragment of a corroded penetrator fragment at the Hadzici Tank Repair facility. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
“These newest findings from UNEP’s ongoing post-conflict assessment work must not be seen as a cause for alarm,” said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. “Nevertheless, we recommend that precautions be taken and in particular, that ground and drinking water - at and near sites where the presence of DU has been confirmed - be monitored regularly.”

When DU contamination is found, UNEP advises that people drink from alternative water sources, and that water sampling and measurements continue for several years.

The 17 member UNEP team included experts from UNEP, the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority, Spiez Laboratory of Switzerland, Italy’s Environmental Protection Agency and Technical Service, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, the Greek Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the UK's University of Bristol. The mission was funded by the governments of Italy and Switzerland.