Bullet debate: Answers in Iraq?

NATO chief yesterday pledged openness on the long-term dangers of

The most bitter scientific debates usually play out in little-read academic and specialty journals.

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.

US and Iraqi veterans alike describe a combat zone thick with DU-laden smoke, as Iraqi tanks were picked off by American gunners. Advancing allied forces passed contaminated burning vehicles; thousands of soldiers took after-action tours of the front line, and climbed - unprotected - on destroyed Iraqi tanks bathed with the telltale black DU dust.

Today, 1 in 7 US vets claims a collection of ailments known as Gulf War Illness, though Pentagon studies dismiss DU as a cause. Critics charge that many veterans have died as a result. Iraq says its Gulf War vets have abnormally high rates of cancer, similar to current European claims.

US officials counter that 33 American survivors of "friendly fire" DU attacks in an ongoing monitoring program exhibit few signs of cancers now reported in Europe.

Only a fraction of the amount of DU fired in Iraq has been used in the Balkans: nine tons in Kosovo, and three tons in Bosnia in 1994 and '95. Pollutants were everywhere in Kosovo and Serbia, too, as allies targeted petroleum and chemical industries.

US pilots fired DU into populated towns for the first time in Kosovo, but barely a handful of destroyed Yugoslav Army vehicles were found in the Serb province by NATO troops. Many DU bullets missed their target or hit non-metal decoys, and therefore would not have turned to dangerous dust.

"They would be in the ground, and it would be a very slow process to break it down chemically, and move it around," says Leonard Dietz, a radiation expert who worked for 25 years at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in the US. In 1979, he found that DU particles had been carried 26 miles by the wind.

Different exposure, terrain

Windblown Iraq is still spread with DU particles, which lose half their radioactivity every 4.5 billion years. But regular rain in Kosovo - and a geography of forests and hills - cut down the spread of DU particles.

"My hunch is that whatever is ailing all these veterans is not totally due to DU," Mr. Dietz says. "I don't think you can blame it all on one source."

"The trouble is that you've got to have numbers, and nobody has done any decent epidemiology [on DU]," says Chris Busby, a low-level radiation specialist who has examined leukemia clusters for the Irish government, for a research body called Green Audit.

"In this game, everybody waves their arms around, but there are no numbers at all," he says. "Give me numbers, and I'll give you an answer," he says.

Mr. Busby visited the Iraqi battlefield three months ago at the request of an Arab television network. His soil samples showed less radioactivity than he expected, and were confiscated by Iraqi authorities.

But a series of air samples he took indicated that radiation levels - from DU dust that emits powerful alpha radiation - were 20 times higher in battle areas than in Baghdad.

Likewise, during the Kosovo campaign, scientists in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, to the south, detected eight times higher than normal alpha activity in the air.

'Underestimated' impact

In a paper he presented to the Royal Society of Britain's DU working group last year, Busby spelled out how he believes the health impact of low-level radiation has been underestimated.

A close analogy with DU, he says, is someone warming themselves by a fire receiving a "dose" of heat. "If you reach into the fire and eat a hot coal, you would still have the same overall 'dose,' but it would burn a hole in your stomach."

That would square with a 1991 DU report commissioned by the US Defense Department, which warned that "no dose is so low that the probability of effect is zero."

In Kosovo, UN investigators say they want to take no chances.

"Of course we can be critical that this information was not released [by NATO] in the summer of 1999, for the local population and [Kosovo Force] soldiers," says the UN's Haavisto.

"Now it's better than not doing anything. For those living in the vicinity of those sites, it's very valuable now to act rapidly."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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