Radiation in Balkans rankles Europe

Cancer reports prompt concerns about health of peacekeeping forces

January 07, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS - Pekka Haavisto made startling discoveries on a recent mission to Kosovo to assess the effect of uranium-tipped weapons hurtled on the province during NATO's 78-day bombing war against Yugoslavia in 1999.

"We found some radiation in the middle of villages where children were playing," said Haavisto, a former environment minister of Finland who headed the United Nations inquiry in Kosovo. "We were surprised to find this a year and a half later. People had collected ammunition shards as souvenirs, and there were cows grazing in contaminated areas, which means the contaminated dust can get into the milk."

The discovery by Haavisto and his team of low-level beta radiation at eight of the 11 sites they sampled seems certain to fan a rapidly spreading sense of anger across Europe about the well-being of soldiers sent to serve in the Balkans, more than a dozen of whom have died of leukemia.

Residents of Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro may also increasingly resent that they were unaware until now of the need to clean up the low-level uranium dispersed by American weapons dropped over Bosnia in 1995 and over Yugoslavia during the 1999 Kosovo war.

Haavisto said that even though the radiation level was low, the debris should be removed. "We are recommending that until the cleanup starts, contaminated areas should be clearly marked and fenced off," he said.

Even in Western Europe, it is only in recent days that the full alarm has been sounded about what European newspapers have dubbed Balkan syndrome. Uncounted numbers of soldiers who served as peacekeepers in the Balkans have complained about symptoms such as chronic fatigue, hair loss and cancer - complaints similar to those about gulf war syndrome registered after the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

The 15-country European Union has ordered an inquiry into the possible noxious effects of the uranium-tipped ammunition and potential links to the recent cancer deaths among Balkan veterans.

Spokesmen at the Pentagon and at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, have insisted that many studies have shown that the uranium-tipped anti-tank shells harm only specific targets, not people or the environment in general.

"The medical consensus is that the hazard is minimal, that there is no linkage between depleted uranium and cancer because the level of radiation is very low," said Mark Laity, a spokesman at NATO headquarters.

He said the military uses the depleted uranium in anti-tank rounds because uranium is extremely hard and more effective in penetrating tanks or concrete.

Depleted uranium is left after the most radioactive isotopes have been removed from uranium ore for use in nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons. The depleted portion is radioactive.

Experts differ widely on the scale of the threat to human health. What is at issue is not the radiation level of the ammunition, which is weak and can barely be detected a short distance from the source. The chief question is how much of the uranium becomes harmful when it turns into dust and is inhaled.

Haavisto is particularly concerned about the residents of the former war zones. "There remains a risk for the local population," he said. "Much ammunition is deep in the ground and affects the ground water."

He is also concerned about the clearing of mines and unexploded ordnance. "Some of this is cleared with controlled explosions and so the radioactive and toxic material spreads again," he said.

During their mission in November, Haavisto said, his team of 14 scientists, including a U.S. Army specialist, collected more than 400 samples of soil, water, vegetation and pieces of ordnance from 11 sites.

The samples are being analyzed for both radioactivity and toxicity in five European nations. The final report is expected in early March.

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