|Aftershocks From Anti-tank Shells|
January 9, 2001
Scott Peterson, The Christian Science Monitor; Christina Lamb and Macer Hall, Electronic Telegraph
A string of suspicious deaths and illnesses among European troops that served in Bosnia and Kosovo has been attributed to the US use of radioactive "depleted uranium" bullets, or DU.
For years, US and allied officials denied that DU battlefield exposures could result in severe health problems. But across most of Europe in recent weeks, dozens of reported cases of cancer have emerged, causing the number of official inquiries to spiral.
Concern was sparked in December, when Italy announced that 30 of its Balkans veterans had been diagnosed with serious illnesses. Besides Italy, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Portugal have reported similar illnesses or deaths.
Despite strict military rules in the West regarding the handling of DU--which normally require US forces to use respirators, protective suits, and have 14 licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission--the Pentagon and Britain's defense ministry (which both rely on DU as the most effective armor-piercing bullet in their arsenals) rule out a link between DU and any health problems, and say they see no evidence of what's been labeled "Balkan Syndrome."
A toxic heavy metal, DU doesn't disappear: It loses half its radioactivity every 4.5 billion years.
The debate over DU and its adverse effects stretches back to the 1991 Gulf War, when American forces used it in combat for the first time. One in 7 American Gulf War veterans claim a variety of ailments known as "Gulf War Syndrome," many of which are similar to recently reported European health problems. [Editor: For more on the subject of DU and Gulf War Syndrome, see END 35, page 4, "Tests Show Gulf War Victims Have Uranium Poisoning."]
The Pentagon says it will cooperate fully with all requests for DU data, though UN and NATO investigators in the past said they came up against a "brick wall" from Washington on the issue.
DU is a byproduct of the nuclear industry that is an effective bullet because of its high density. A DU bullet bores through armor, burning at such intensity that gas fumes and ammunition in the targeted tank ignite. As the bullet burns, it releases clouds of tiny radioactive particles that can be eaten, inhaled, or carried long distances by the wind. Such dust emits alpha radiation 20 times more powerful than other forms of radiation and especially damaging to body tissue.
"We've put a lot of evidence to [authorities] in the past, and now people are beginning to listen," says Terry Gooding, with the UK Gulf Veterans Association. "They say it's not a problem," he adds. "But how many people have to die before they put their hands up and say: 'We made a boo-boo?'"
About 5,000 British ex-servicemen who served in the Gulf war have reported symptoms of the various conditions referred to as Gulf War Syndrome, according to figures from the Gulf Veterans Association. More than 500 have died of related illnesses. Campaigners say exposure to depleted uranium is partly to blame. Tests last year by Canadian scientists found that some Gulf veterans had uranium in their blood.
The Pentagon originally denied that uranium shells were even used in Kosovo, but in March Lord Robertson, the Secretary General of NATO, said that 31,000 shells containing depleted uranium (roughly 9-10 tons of radioactive material) had been used by American A10 ground attack aircraft in Kosovo.
The United States Defense Department maintains that they carry no greater health risk than conventional weapons. Roger Coghill, an experimental biologist who runs a research center in Wales, accused the Americans and the British Ministry of Defense of brushing the "biological truth" under the carpet. "One single particle of depleted uranium lodged in the lymph node can devastate the entire immune system," he told a conference in London, adding a warning that there may be thousands more deaths in Kosovo.
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