NATO is coming under increasing pressure to investigate possible health risks associated with the use of depleted-uranium ammunition. A number of “Balkans Syndrome” cases have raised fears that the munitions exposed soldiers and civilians to unsuspected danger. Thus far, the threat is more imagined that real. There is no evidence of a link between the use of DU munitions and sickness in service personnel. Nonetheless, a full investigation is required. Questions already swirl around the use of force; there is no need to add to the controversies.

Depleted-uranium ammunition is, as the name suggests, made from the material leftover when natural uranium is enriched to make nuclear fuel or a nuclear warhead. Because the metal is 1.7 times denser than lead, it makes an effective armor-penetrating, tank-busting weapon. (For the same reason, it is sometimes used to reinforce armor.) It vaporizes on contact, which means it will ignite fuel or other flammable objects. It is also mildly radioactive.

DU weapons debuted in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Military planners were so impressed with their lethality that they called the munitions “silver bullets” in subsequent reports; eight countries added the weapon to their arsenals. The United States used 320 tons of DU weapons in the Gulf War, NATO fired 10,000 rounds of DU shells in Bosnia in 1994-95, and another 31,000 rounds in the Kosovo conflict in 1999. In total, about 12 tons were used in Balkan conflicts.

Health officials have noticed a number of cancers among service personnel who fought in the Balkans. Italy has 18 suspected cases of “Balkans Syndrome” cancers, eight of whom have already died. Eleven other NATO soldiers have died after serving in the region and another eight have contracted leukemia; scores of other soldiers have reported various illnesses, as have some Gulf War vets. While most of the European governments agree with NATO and the U.S. that there is no solid evidence to link the munitions with leukemia deaths, they can tell a controversy is brewing. They are rightfully demanding more information. Several governments are testing their soldiers for exposure to radioactivity.

Officially, the risk of radiation exposure is “virtually” zero. Depleted uranium has 40 percent of the radiation of naturally occurring uranium. The World Health Organization confirms that no radiation-related increases in leukemia have been reported among uranium miners or processors. Experts add that it would take 10 to 15 years before leukemia would be evident. U.S. officials claim that the shells give off radiation equivalent to that emitted by “old color television sets.”

There is another danger, however: The dust created when the ammunition hits is also radioactive. There is concern that the dust, like all such substances, is toxic if ingested. Experts warn that the dust does not have to be radioactive to be toxic; some metals, such as nickel, can be dangerous if ingested in sufficient doses. U.N. officials have discovered radioactivity at eight sites in Kosovo where DU munitions were used, and health experts worry that it could get into the ecosystem and harm inhabitants and aid workers. NATO is drawing a map that identifies where the munitions were used.

All the risks are speculative. Official denials of danger are not mere ritual. The U.S. and British military establishments have conducted research on veterans of the Gulf War and the Balkan conflict and they have not found any link between DU and health problems. There are no reports of cases of leukemia among Kosovars living in targeted areas. Even the respected Bulletin of Atomic Scientists admits the risks of health problems are very low.

Still, DU munitions pose a serious political problem. Four years ago, the U.S. belatedly revealed that it had shot about 1,500 rounds of DU munitions on the Torishima firing range off Okinawa. Recognizing the political firestorm ahead, the U.S. then removed all such weapons from Japan, reportedly to South Korea, to be closer to “the potential battlefield.”

NATO needs to show similar dexterity in dealing with “Balkans Syndrome” cases. There may not be a link between DU munitions and sick soldiers, but governments have to make every possible effort to make sure. There should be health tests for worried service personnel. The European Commission is setting up a working group of medical and scientific experts to report on possible health risks. NATO should yield to member governments demanding a full inquiry. Failure to do so shows a lack of concern about NATO soldiers and NATO citizens. Public concern could trigger opposition to bases and deployments suspected of housing such munitions. NATO should fight its enemies, not the people it is supposed to protect.

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