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Wednesday, 3 January, 2001, 23:38 GMT
Alarm over Nato uranium deaths
Uncertainty over how many DU rounds were fired
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Italy has called on Nato to give a full account of its use of weapons containing depleted uranium (DU) in the conflicts in former Yugoslavia.

It follows the death from cancer of a sixth Italian soldier who served with the Nato peacekeeping force in the Balkans.

Nato must carry out all the checks that will allow us to understand the history and the characteristics of depleted uranium

Guiliano Amato
Italy is the latest European country to express concern about the effects on its troops of DU weapons.

Finland, Spain, Portugal and France have already begun looking into the matter.

Last week, Belgian Defence Minister André Flahaut called on all European Union defence ministers to examine the issue.

'Legitimate concern'

In an interview published in La Repubblica newspaper, Prime Minister Giuliano Amato said alarm in Italy over the so-called Balkan syndrome was "more than legitimate".

"Nato must carry out all the checks that will allow us to understand the history and the characteristics of depleted uranium," he said.

nato soldier
Nato troops fear DU's effects
"We've always known that it was a danger only in absolutely exceptional circumstances like, for example, picking up a fragment with a hand on which there was an open wound, while in normal circumstances it isn't dangerous at all.

"But now we're starting to have a justified fear that things aren't that simple."

Nato has acknowledged that it did use some DU weapons in the Kosovo conflict, though little more than half the quantity the Belgrade authorities say were fired.

There is also evidence that Nato used DU in an earlier Balkan conflict, in Bosnia.


Depleted uranium is a heavy substance, 1.7 times as dense as lead, and used in armour-piercing munitions.

Many Gulf War veterans believe it is implicated in a range of medical problems they are suffering from, known collectively as Gulf War Syndrome.

us troops in desert
Gulf veterans believe they are at risk
Because of its ability to punch through armour, DU is prized as a highly effective anti-tank weapon.

In its natural state, it is only mildly radioactive, but on impact with a solid object it turns into a burning vapour.

The US Defense Department and the UK Ministry of Defence accept that the resulting dust can be dangerous, and say troops entering vehicles hit by DU weapons need to take precautions.

But they say the dust soon ceases to be a significant problem, and is unlikely to move far from the site of the explosion, though independent experiments have found it can be blown many miles.

The US and UK military authorities say any risk from DU comes from its toxicity as a heavy metal, and that its radioactivity is negligible.

Official concern

A former US colonel, Dr Asaf Durakovic, who is now a professor of medicine, said last year he had found a "significant presence" of DU in two-thirds of the 17 Gulf War veterans he had tested.

He said: "Some of those particles were inhaled, and if they were too big to be absorbed they stayed in the lungs, and there they can present a risk of cancer."

A report by the US Army Environmental Policy Institute said: "If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences.

"The risks associated with DU in the body are both chemical and radiological. Personnel inside or near vehicles struck by DU penetrators could receive significant internal exposures."

Some Gulf veterans believe birth defects in their children are attributable to their own exposure to DU. And there is concern over reports from Iraq of high cancer rates among civilians in parts of the country where DU weapons were used in 1991.

That concern now extends to anyone potentially exposed to DU residues in the former Yugoslavia, both nationals and foreigners like aid workers and journalists.

Several European governments had earlier told their troops not to eat local products, and were reported to have flown in drinking water. For many other people, those safeguards are not available.

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