Copyright 2001 Associated Press
February 2, 2001; Friday 3:05 PM Eastern Time
The possibility that U.S. tank-piercing ammunition used in the Balkans
conflicts contained more than just depleted uranium has prompted
scientists to re-examine their skepticism about health risks to veterans.
Experts' opinion that cancers reported by European veterans of Kosovo and
Bosnia could not be linked to depleted uranium has been based on the
assumption that the depleted uranium came from raw ore. But now the
Pentagon has said shells used in the 1999 Kosovo conflict were tainted
with traces of plutonium, neptunium and americium, byproducts of nuclear
reactors that are much more radioactive than depleted uranium.
''If it has been through a reactor, it does change our idea on depleted
uranium,'' said Dr. Michael Repacholi, the World Health Organizaiton's
radiation expert. ''It all depends on the amounts.''
The main new concern, experts say, is plutonium, a highly toxic
On Thursday, NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson reiterated NATO's
position that Balkans peacekeepers have not been shown to suffer health
damage from depleted uranium. U.S. officials have said the shells
contained mere traces of plutonium, not enough to cause harm.
But WHO experts asked the U.S. government this week to clarify exactly how
much plutonium and other radioactive material was in the ammunition.
Countries that sent peacekeepers to Bosnia and Kosovo have been looking
for links between the depleted uranium ammunition and illnesses later
contracted by veterans. A wave of fear swept across Europe and beyond
after Italy announced it was screening its soldiers because 30 Balkans
veterans had become ill since serving, including five who died of leukemia.
Scores of countries began testing soldiers for radiation poisoning.
UN environmental experts are examining radiation levels at sites targeted
by NATO in the Balkans and NATO has set up a special committee to
investigate claims of a link. The WHO expects to start new studies in the
next six months.
''Minds have to be kept open on this,'' said Malcolm Grimson, a radiation
expert at London's Imperial College of Medicine. ''We're in a different
ballpark here than where we were when we thought we were dealing with
depleted uranium from the ground. You have to do all your calculations
Experts must first establish whether cancers are more common than normal
among troops before they go on to investigate why. So far, there is no
confirmed increase in cancer rates, said WHO's Repacholi.
Lung cancer is the main danger from the radiation, but experts say it is
far too early for that to surface. It takes several decades for lung
cancer to develop from radiation exposure.
It is just about possible for leukemia cases to start showing up two years
after exposure to radiation, but they are less likely to occur than lung
cancer and it would take a massive dose, experts say.
''You would die of suffocation before you could inhale enough of the dust
to cause cancer, and even then there's a low probability of cancer,''
That opinion is based largely on studies of survivors of the atomic
bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he said. Leukemias started to appear
there after two or three years.
Depleted uranium mainly contains alpha rays, which are far less toxic than
the gamma rays produced by atomic bombs.
Among the Japanese bomb survivors, ''there's virtually no place where you
get leukemia from something less than gamma radiation,'' Repacholi said.
Plutonium releases gamma rays, but some scientists believe that while the
revelation that the ammunition was tainted raises new concern, it doesn't
raise enormous concern.
''I can't imagine anyone in Kosovo got exposed to anything remotely
like,'' the radiation produced by the bombs in Japan, said leukemia expert
Mel Greaves, a professor of cellular biology at the Institute of Cancer
Research in London. ''It's entirely related to dose.''
That's why WHO officials need to know exactly how tainted the ammunition was.
When uranium is extracted from the ground it is made up mostly of three
forms, or isotopes. Two of them, uranium-234 and uranium-235, are highly
radioactive and are capable of generating a nuclear explosion or nuclear
power, while the other, uranium-238, is not.
The isotopes are separated so that only the uranium-234 and uranium-235
are put into nuclear processing plants. What is left over is pure depleted
uranium-238, which is about half as radioactive as natural uranium. That
is what is used to fortify airplanes and make ammunition.
Uranium that goes through a nuclear processing plant splits into several
substances, including depleted uranium-238, plutonium and other
radioactive wastes. If the elements are not separated properly, the
depleted uranium can be contaminated.
It is unclear where the depleted uranium in the Kosovo weapons came from.
LOAD-DATE: February 2, 2001