Silent killer lurking?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 January, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 January, 2001, 12:00am

The debate over the use of depleted uranium (DU) ammunition - fired during the Gulf War and during the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo - is likely to become increasingly bitter now it has emerged that the potential health risks have been known by at least one government for years.

Britain's Ministry of Defence admitted it knew of the risks only after it was revealed that regulations issued to German soldiers operating in Kosovo carried explicit warnings about contamination.

The instructions told troops not to approach any area or equipment hit by depleted uranium ammunition 'except for life-saving purposes and/or measures indispensable to the mission's accomplishment'.

Both Nato and the European Union have now begun investigations into the effects of the use of this ammunition following claims that a number of suspicious deaths and illnesses among troops who served in the Balkans were caused by exposure to DU.

Up to now, both the United States' Pentagon and the UK's Ministry of Defence have denied any proven link between exposure to the ammunition and serious illness. Although both admit that dust from DU ammunition can be dangerous if it is inhaled, the danger, they claim, is localised and short-lived. So far, evidence that soldiers have been adversely affected has been, for the most part, anecdotal and described in such vague terms as Gulf War or Balkans syndrome.

But, as an increasing number of cases of the syndrome are reported by veterans of these conflicts, the question arises of what ongoing risk is posed to civilians in these areas.

In Bosnia, where Nato forces used DU ammunition against Bosnian Serb forces, health officials say they have evidence of a marked increase in cancer rates.

In Kosovo, a United Nations team has discovered that some sites hit by DU rounds during the Nato air campaign are contaminated.

The team concluded there was a potential health threat to anyone who handled ammunition debris and that ground water could become contaminated.

For the civilian population, these are frightening findings. During the 1999 Nato air campaign, about 31,000 DU rounds were fired.

It is time the governments that took part in these conflicts carried out a thorough and open examination of the evidence.

War almost always carries with it an unwanted legacy; but innocent civilians have a right to know if a silent killer lurks among them.