Bullet debate: Answers in Iraq?
NATO chief yesterday pledged openness on the long-term dangers of
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But the dispute over the lingering health risks of radioactive bullets fired by the US in the Balkans is sparking demands for answers from leaders across Europe.
The recent deaths and illnesses of European peacekeepers who served in the region are deepening already strained ties between the US and its NATO allies. The surge in interest in the 1999 Kosovo bombing campaign is also causing experts to turn for clues to another former allied target: Iraq.
At issue are the armor-piercing depleted-uranium (DU) bullets fired by American aircraft in Kosovo and Bosnia. Far greater numbers were fired in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, however, littering the desert war zone with radioactive debris. Battlefield conditions, likelihood of exposure, and apparent health effects differ widely between the Balkans and Iraq. Experts say a close comparison raises questions about whether DU could be the main culprit in Kosovo. "This is the moment to find out the scientific truth," says Pekka Haavisto, chairman of the United Nation's DU Assessment Team in the former Yugoslavia and a former Finnish environment minister.
His team has found elevated levels of radiation at eight out of 11 sites it examined in Kosovo. "I'm not so happy we have [Kosovo] as a test laboratory, [but] the valuable thing is [that] for the first time we are doing field work with this issue," he says.
In Iraq, more DU was used, and soldiers were often far more exposed during combat, notes Mr. Haavisto.
Contaminated areas in Kosovo, however, are "local and limited," and NATO ground troops did not deploy until the bombing stopped. "When speaking about these severe health effects, I am a little bit doubtful whether a short time serving in Kosovo could affect your health in such a serious way," he says.
Strain among allies
Britain, America's closest ally during the Kosovo campaign, on Tuesday became the latest European nation to begin testing soldiers for so-called "Balkans Syndrome." NATO chiefs rejected Italy's call for a moratorium on DU use, after Rome announced it was investigating the cancer-related deaths of seven of its Balkan veterans.
DU is a low-level nuclear waste left over from the making of nuclear energy and bombs. It is a dense, and therefore formidable, armor-piercing weapon. But the toxic heavy metal burns on impact and creates clouds of radioactive dust that some scientists say can be dangerous if breathed or eaten.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - echoing the Pentagon's view - stated Tuesday that there is "no scientific basis" to link DU with the string of cancer deaths and related illnesses reported in Europe.
US and NATO military-training manuals require wearing protective gear within 50 yards of any known DU-contaminated vehicle, to avoid contact with the dust.
Several American vehicles struck with DU during Gulf War "friendly-fire" incidents were deemed to present a "substantial [health] risk" at the time, and were buried in low-level radioactive waste dumps.
Citing "militarily sensitive information," NATO withheld details of exact impact sites in Kosovo until last summer. The delay prevented UN teams from making any survey before November - or marking sites to alert civilians.
US Defense Secretary William Cohen on Tuesday dismissed NATO member concerns. "Adequate warnings were given" by Washington, he said, and "there is a "very low risk ... provided there is sufficient protection."
But a "hazard awareness" document about DU issued by the Pentagon's joint chiefs soon after the Kosovo conflict, circulated to allied capitals and acquired this week by The New York Times, made no mention of the radiation risks of DU.
In Brussels yesterday, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson promised a new openness to reassure people that "the weapons that were used have not caused any lasting damage to the area, or to the people of the area, or to the troops who are peacekeeping in the whole region."
Gulf War use
US troops fired 340 tons of DU in the Gulf War - 783,000 bullets and 9,000 larger tank rounds, by the Pentagon's count. Though the Gulf battlefield was a toxic stew that included dangerous chemicals and other toxins, Iraq has ever since blamed DU exclusively for a spate of cancers, birth defects, and other severe health problems.