Concerned about an apparent increase in illness and cancers among
veterans of the war in Yugoslavia, U.S. allies are requesting a
formal inquiry into so-called "Balkan Syndrome" and the safety of
depleted uranium (DU) munitions. Britain and the United States oppose
this move. But Sir Peter de la Billiere, the head of the British
forces during the Gulf War, is calling for expanding the investigation
into claims that DU could be a factor in Gulf War Syndrome.
During the Gulf War in 1991, allies fired more than 100,000 DU
shells at Iraqi targets. During the conflict in Bosnia, the United
States fired about 10,000 DU shells between 1994 and 1995. And most
recently, in the war in Yugoslavia in 1999, U.S. jets fired 31,000
DU has several advantages. It is hard and heavy, and when deployed
on the tips of missiles and bullets, it can easily pierce the heavy
armor plating on tanks. Other types of shells work nearly as well,
such as those made from tungsten alloys, but depleted uranium has
one tremendous advantage over tungsten. It is provided to weapons
manufacturers free of charge by the U.S. government, as an ingenious
method of radioactive waste disposal.
Two types of DU exist. "Clean" DU is a by-product of the processing
of uranium ore into uranium-235 (which is used in nuclear fuel and
weapons). The other type is created at government facilities as
a by-product of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel (done to to extract
plutonium for nuclear warheads), and is known as "dirty" DU because
it contains highly toxic plutonium and other radioactive materials.
Until recently, it has always been assumed that DU armaments were
made from clean DU.
Last November, U.N. researchers examined 11 sites in Kosovo hit
by DU shells and found radioactive contamination at eight of them.
Further, those tests uncovered evidence that at least some of the
DU munitions in the U.S. arsenal used in Kosovo contained "dirty"
DU. This raises the question: How much of its plutonium-processing
waste did the U.S. government supply to weapons manufacturers?
What's more, when DU (both clean and dirty) shells hit armored
plates they vaporize in the intense heat, releasing a toxic dust
of uranium oxide. That--along with the possibility that the shells
are made from dirty DU--could help explain why about 300 of 5,000
Serbian refugees whose Sarajevo suburb was heavily bombed by NATO
jets in 1995 have since died of cancer.
According to a 1998 report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and
Disease Registry, the inhalation of DU particles can lead to symptoms
that include fatigue, shortness of breath, lymphatic problems, bronchial
complaints, weight loss and an unsteady gait--symptoms that match
those of sick veterans of the Gulf and Balkan wars. And a November
1999 guideline that NATO sent to its commanders warned, "Inhalation
of insoluble depleted uranium dust particles has been associated
with long-term health effects, including cancers and birth defects."
The official U.S. position is that DU is hazardous only in that
it is a heavy metal. In a speech to the National Press Club, outgoing
Secretary of Defense William Cohen explained, "Where it's unsafe,
it's like leaded paint. Leaded paint does not pose a problem to
you unless it starts to peel and then children or others ingest
it." He acknowledges that the inhalation of uranium oxide dust created
in the intense heat of a DU shell impact could pose a health risk,
yet he pledged that the United States will "continue to use this
The Pentagon can be slow to change its mind. Veterans involved
in the testing of atomic bombs and the citizens who lived downwind
from those test sites fought for decades to make the government
acknowledge that their chronic health problems were probably due
to radiation exposure.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schršder has called for a ban on shells
made from DU. That would indeed be a sensible place to start. Next
we might take up Yugoslavian President Vojislav Kostunica's suggestion:
"We should be discussing the depleted conscience of those who used
the notorious depleted uranium."
For more information on DU, visit the Campaign Against Depleted
Uranium website: www.cadu.org.uk