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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Depleted Uranium Shells

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: Another incident of radiation exposure is plaguing Europe right now. At issue: NATO's use of anti-tank shells tipped with depleted uranium. The U.S.-made ordnance was used in Bosnia and Kosovo by NATO forces, and a number of European governments now suspect exposure to the material has caused cancer in some of their troops. Both the U.S. and NATO don't believe that's the case. At the same time, a UN inspection team has found remnants of depleted uranium at a number of sites in Kosovo, some in the middle of villages. Pekka Haavisto heads up the UN depleted uranium assessment team. Welcome, Mr. Haavisto.

HAAVISTO: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Now, tell me about what your team did there. You gathered soil, water, and vegetation samples?

HAAVISTO: Yes. We spent two weeks in Kosovo in November, visiting 11 out of those 112 sites where depleted uranium has been used. And really made, I would say, full environmental sampling, which included soil samples, vegetation samples, groundwater, taking water from wells, even milking some cows in the fields. And also, of course, we collected all that radioactive material that we could find at those sites.

CURWOOD: What are you concerned most about, here? Where you can find this depleted uranium in the food chain, or in the form of shrapnel in the ground?

HAAVISTO: In the food chain, of course, if you have these kind of DU particles in the ground, in the soil. The main risks are connected to the toxicity of depleted uranium because the radioactivity level is very low. I think both of these risks are marginal, but anyhow, they exist. And especially, we are concerned when visiting these sites that these are not war sites, but sites where children are playing in the middle of the villages. And in some cases we saw children in the middle of this kind of depleted uranium remnants. And that of course concerned us a little bit.

CURWOOD: How dangerous is depleted uranium the way it is on these battlefields, in terms of its radioactivity?

HAAVISTO: I think everyone agrees that the biggest danger is when the depleted uranium is used as ammunition, and when it explodes or burns. And just a couple of hours after the attacks, when the depleted uranium dust is around, if you inhale that or get that to your lungs. For people living at these areas, the risks are marginal, mainly connected to the possibility that people are collecting, picking up these remnants of war, putting them in their pockets. Children probably playing with them, putting their hands in the mouth afterwards. These kinds of situations, of course, include also some health consequences or health risks.

CURWOOD: What were local civilians told about the use of depleted uranium?

HAAVISTO: Locally, people knew very little, and usually they didn't know actually that in these sites there have been DU attacks. So this was a new topic for the local population.

CURWOOD: What would you estimate are the health effects in the civilian population from this depleted uranium ordnance?

HAAVISTO: I think it's very clear that actually, depleted uranium is not the biggest health or environmental problem in Kosovo. There is serious air pollution from factories, and there are bad quality drinking water problems, which certainly have bigger environment and even health impacts to the population. Whether it has had any impacts, or whether we should, for example, test people, I think it depends what we found from our samples, vegetation samples, soil samples, water samples. If we of course locate any higher contamination from these samples, then the next step is, of course, look at the health of the population. But I of course hope that we don't find that type of pollution.

CURWOOD: What do you know about the health effects on the Serbian soldiers who were the direct target of this depleted uranium?

HAAVISTO: First of all, you have to know that these people certainly had some other problems as well. It's not only depleted uranium when they were under the attacks. But there might be some survivors. And certainly, these survivors then have been inhaling the DU dust. But unfortunately, from the Serbian side or from the Yugoslav government, we don't know too much about the health situation of these soldiers.

CURWOOD: In 1999, those of us here at Living on Earth were in touch with the Pentagon, trying to determine whether or not depleted uranium had been used. They were quite evasive with us. I want to ask you, do you feel that NATO was forthcoming with the information that you were seeking about the use of depleted uranium, or was NATO and the United States government evasive and difficult to deal with?

HAAVISTO: Well, of course, the facts about the use of depleted uranium, and then finally the coordinates where it has been used, came something like one year after the conflict ended. And in my time, this was a little bit long period. I think this kind of environmental exercise should have been already summer '99.

CURWOOD: What recommendations do you have about what should happen?

HAAVISTO: The sites should be marked, and there should be clear signs, even fences in some cases. People should avoid these sites. Also, the other sites, not only these 11 that we visited, but all the other 100 should be visited and there should be collection of that kind of radioactive remnants that are just lying on the ground.

CURWOOD: Pekka Haavisto is the chair of the UN's depleted uranium assessment team. Thanks for speaking with us today.

HAAVISTO: Thank you.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Move over, Mr. Merlot. The olive is making a comeback on California's hillsides. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this animal update with Maggie Villiger.

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