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Depleted uranium, depleted health concerns

by ISN Security Watch Friday, Nov. 02, 2007 at 5:55 PM

As a growing number of Italian soldiers who served in the Balkans meet their death due to serious illness, the specter of 'Balkan Syndrome' and the effects of depleted uranium are again in the spotlight.

29 October 2007

By Anes Alic in Sarajevo for ISN Security Watch (29/10/07)

An increase of the number of Italian soldiers who served in the Balkans during the 1990s who are falling seriously ill due to depleted uranium exposure is causing a public outrage in Italy, as the government downplays the extent of the problem, widely referred to as "Balkan Syndrome."

According to an October study by the Italian Military Health Observatory, a total of 164 Italian soldiers have died thus far due to exposure to depleted uranium while serving in the Sarajevo suburbs and in Kosovo during the 1990s. In 2007 alone, the study said there were nine such related deaths and 97 new cases of uranium infection.

However, these numbers contradict government data, which claims that a total of 255 Italian troops have contracted tumors up to this date not only in missions in Balkans but also in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. The government also said that there was no established connection between those cases and depleted uranium.

Speaking to the Senate commission of inquiry into depleted uranium, Italian Defense Minister Arturo Parisi said that 37 of those soldiers who had contracted tumors had died so far. During that same period, 1,427 troops not involved in missions abroad also contracted tumors, according to the government.

"Nevertheless, cases of soldiers discharged years ago who did not apply for military service to be recognized as the cause will be excluded. This means that their illness may only be known to the national, but not the military, health service," Parisi said.

Following the minister's speech before the Senate investigation committee, which will release its own report on the depleted uranium allegations by the end of the year, questions were raised over the accuracy of the statistics provided with some members of the parliament expressing doubt over defense ministry's methodology, according to Italian media reports.

"I fear the minister's figures refer only to the number of soldiers who fell ill while in active service, and failed to take account of those who had left the military," Italian media quoted Tana de Zuleta, a Green MP in the majority coalition, as saying.

In addition, in late September, the Italian government passed a decree allocating €170 million (US5 million) in compensation for military personnel who have contracted diseases during their service - some 28,000 of them in Balkan missions alone.

However, next year, the government is planning, due to contradictory statistics, to set up a center comprised of leading experts in the field to study the depleted uranium issue, as the identification of a relationship of cause and effect is still under investigation.

Concerns over possible health effects of depleted uranium shells in Bosnia and Kosovo have also been raised by service members or civilian aid workers in Spain, France, Belgium, Britain, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Several dozens deaths and illnesses of military personnel from these countries over the course of the past decade have been attributed to depleted uranium by their governments.

Weapon of choice

Up to one million rounds of depleted uranium-enhanced ammunition were used in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991. Many Gulf War veterans have argued that depleted uranium has been the cause of their serious illnesses.

The same munitions were the weapons of choice for US forces in air attacks on Bosnian Serb positions in 1995 and the former Serbia and Montenegro federation in 1999.

Depleted uranium is what is leftover from the production of enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and energy plants. It is used in armor-penetrating military ordinance because of its high density, and also in the manufacture of defensive armor plates. The element also leaves behind a very fine radioactive dust that has a half-life of 4.5 billion years.

The so-called Balkan Syndrome affair first came to attention in early 2001, when several European countries, members within a UN peacekeeping mission, reported a series of cancer cases among soldiers who had taken part in peacekeeping operations in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. There have also been cases of children of Italian Balkan veterans born with genetic malformations.

During NATO's 1994 and 1995 bombings of Bosnian Serb positions near Sarajevo, aircrafts used munitions containing depleted uranium. Most of those bombs - 10,800 rounds of 30mm armor-piercing projectiles in total - were fired in Hadzici, where the Bosnian Serb army had a weapons depot. In one day in October 1995 alone, NATO planes fired 300 projectiles into this Sarajevo suburb.

Back in 2003, UN experts confirmed the discovery of two locations containing a high level of radiation from depleted uranium from NATO bombings. A UN research team found that depleted uranium had contaminated local supplies of drinking water and could still be found in dust particles suspended in the air in the Hadzici are and in a Bosnian Serb army barracks in Han-Pijesak, also near Sarajevo. Investigators also discovered uranium materials and dust inside the buildings.

Despite this, the 2003 UN report claims that there is no danger for the postwar residents of Hadzici, since the recorded contamination levels are very low, but recommended further measuring of the radiation.

Soon after, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report was published, Bosnian Federation medical officials began to speculate as to the possibility that depleted uranium might be the cause of an increase in cases of diseases such as cancer, cerebral palsy, and others - especially leukemia.

However, director of the Sarajevo Radiology Institute, Dr Lejla Saracevic, told ISN Security Watch that due to the lack of statistics and cooperation from citizens, the illnesses could not be definitively linked to depleted uranium.

"Yet, the UN measured the level of radiation seven years after the bombing. No one knows the level of contamination in 1995 and the following years and how many people were in contact with the depleted uranium," Saracevic said.

Furthermore, all UN experts' activities related to measuring the radiation have since stopped and local institutions lack the funding to continue the task, she said.

Hadzici and Han-Pijesak were not the only sites held by Bosnian Serbs during the war to be targeted by NATO. Bosnian officials suspect that eight other locations were bombed using depleted uranium-enhanced ammunition. However, those locations, the surroundings of four small towns near Sarajevo and four others in eastern Bosnia, are still too risky to investigate due to the possible presence of land mines.

After the war ended in December 1995 and the town came under the control of the Federation entity dominated by Bosniaks and Croats, most of the Serbs left Hadzici and relocated to the town of Bratunac, in eastern Bosnia, and also to other parts of Republika Srpska and neighboring Serbia. After the UN report was released, doctors there reported a greatly increased incidence of cancer-type illnesses in Bratunac.

To date, up to 30 percent of some 30,000 wartime Hadzici residents have died of various cancers, tumors and heart attacks, according to official statistics. Only in Bratunac, the only town to have kept track of possible depleted uranium illnesses, out of 4,500 wartime Hadzici residents who fled to Bratunac, nearly 1,000 of them died of illnesses believed to be related to depleted uranium exposure.

From the Balkans eastward

According to the Serbian government, NATO's use of armor-piercing depleted uranium shells in its 1999 air strikes left five areas of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo contaminated by radiation. The zones include sites near Serbia's southern border with Kosovo, near the towns of Presevo, Bujanovac and Vranje, and two zones bordering Montenegro.

UN experts who in 2001 tested 11 out of a total of 112 bombed sites, said that in eight they found increases of harmless radiation. The remaining sites were unapproachable due the presence of land mines.

Serbian military officials alleged that US jets fired some 50,000 rounds of depleted uranium ammunition on military and civilian targets. However, US officials claim that the remains of the heavy metal shells did not present a significant health hazard.

Peacekeeping forces in those zones included Italian, German and Dutch contingents of the multinational peacekeeping force KFOR and some of them had been previously stationed in Bosnia. Only a couple dozen people living near the zones have sought medical checkups and they have not shown signs of illness related to uranium exposure.

However, the Bosnia and Kosovo missions are not the only concerns for international military and civilian personal regarding depleted uranium risks.

Three Bosnian experts interviewed by ISN Security Watch said they believed that munitions containing depleted uranium were used during the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and are still used on a daily basis and could cause 50-100 greater health hazards than in the Balkans.

These experts, who asked not to be named, have calculated that in Iraq alone, some 150 tonnes of depleted uranium were used by the coalition during the first three weeks of the invasion.

Also, since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, US and UK forces delivered between 500 and 600 tonnes of depleted uranium to destroy Taliban-held concrete aircraft hangers and to penetrate underground bunkers.

UN experts urged an immediate restoration of the water supply and sanitation systems, and a cleaning of pollution hot spots and waste sites to reduce the risk of epidemics among the population and coalition forces, but there are no reports that this task was undertaken.

Some NGOs speculate that cancer rates among children have increased by 400 percent in Iraq since the invasion started. However, just like in the Balkans, neither officials in Afghanistan nor Iraq have the funds to or interest in keeping track of the numbers of deadly illnesses and their potential causes.

Since 2003, dozens of US veterans, using the positive results of depleted uranium in their urine, sued the US Army, claiming that military officials were aware of the hazards of depleted uranium, but had concealed the risks. The US Defense Department claims that depleted uranium was powerful and safe, and not that troubling.

For, now the case for or against depleted uranium remains unresolved, but military personnel are increasingly calling for answers.

Anes Alic is a senior correspondent for ISN Security Watch in Southeastern Europe. He is also the Executive Director of ISA Consulting. He is based in Sarajevo.

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