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UN probes depleted uranium

BBC Sci/Tech - August 13, 1999

Serbian armour was targetted with DU weapons: Now the UN is to investigate

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says it is investigating possible damage to human health caused by depleted uranium weapons used in the Balkan war.

Depleted uranium (DU) is 1.7 times as dense as lead, and is used in armour-piercing rounds.

USAF A-10 "tankbuster" aircraft fired DU rounds during the war over Kosovo, though NATO insists that that was the only use made of it.

UNEP's director general, Klaus Toepfer, told journalists in Nairobi that the organisation was developing a dual approach to the problem.

It was working in Geneva with the World Health Organisation, the International Atomic Energy Agency and other bodies to pool existing knowledge.

Clearing the air

Soon, Dr Toepfer said, UNEP would decide whether to send a team to the war zone to assess any damage.

If there were no effects, he said, people could be told that clearly.

There are hopes that a team could be sent before the end of August, and that it could produce a report by the end of next month.

But UNEP sources have told BBC News Online that no decision has yet been reached on whether to send a team, or how it would work if it went.

UNEP and the UN agency on human settlements, HABITAT, have already sent two groups of experts to Serbia and Kosovo to investigate the environmental impact of the war.

They are expected to report their preliminary findings in early September.

NATO argues, with the support of many scientists, that depleted uranium poses no particular risk to health.

But while DU is only mildly radioactive, there are fears that its use in weapons could cause long-lasting dangers. It burns on impact with a solid object, turning into a spray of very fine dust.

Official warnings

Some scientists believe that these particles can cause cancer if they are inhaled or ingested.

The US Army's Environmental Policy Institute reported in 1995: "If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences".

"The risks associated with DU are both chemical and radiological."

Both US and British forces used DU in the 1991 Gulf war, and numbers of veterans blame it for health problems they have developed subsequently. Ministry of Defence personnel in Kosovo have been warned to stay clear of areas affected by DU weapons if they are not wearing full radiological protective clothing.

The National Radiological Protection Board advises people visiting or working in Kosovo, "for example press and relief agencies", to avoid disturbing areas contaminated with DU. But there is no advice given to refugees returning to areas affected by depleted uranium.

Return to the 'NATO Bombing - has it brought peace to the Balkans?' Alert.

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