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U.N. finds uranium in Balkans

The U.N. launched tests after claims that NATO troops faced health risks
The U.N. launched tests after claims that NATO troops faced health risks  

GENEVA, Switzerland -- Widespread traces of depleted uranium (DU) have been found at five NATO munitions sites in Serbia and Montenegro, the United Nations says.

The level of contamination posed no immediate health threat but precautions had to be taken, U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) team leader Pekka Haavisto told a news conference on Wednesday.

The U.N. particularly warned about allowing development projects, like house building, on the sites because of the risk of stirring up toxic soil and dust.

Traces of depleted uranium, a slightly radioactive heavy metal, were found in soil samples and in the air, but there was no sign of any contamination of the water supplies.

Haavisto added: "There is no health risk at the moment, but we do not know if there could be one if you make major soil removals." He said that drinking water in the areas should be tested once a year.

Depleted uranium was used to harden the tips of tank-busting shells fired by NATO during its 1994-95 campaign in Bosnia and again during the 1999 Kosovo campaign.

U.N. workers had been surprised to find depleted uranium in air samples more than two years after air strikes against Yugoslavia, said Haavisto. They went to six areas in Serbia and Montenegro and found "widespread but low-level (uranium) contamination" at five.

The lack of any trace in the water could be due to the fact that uranium in the soil had not yet permeated deep enough to reach the water table.

In a statement, the UNEP said: "The study concludes that the DU sites studied do not present immediate radioactive or toxic risks for the environment or human health."

The UNEP inspections were ordered after a number of soldiers who served in NATO forces in Bosnia and Kosovo contracted leukaemia, stirring fears that exposure to depleted uranium may have been the cause.

NATO denies the ammunition could have triggered cancer in soldiers and many European Union and other experts have concluded over the last year that the risk is negligible.

Haavisto said there were 11 sites in Serbia where NATO was known or believed to have fired DU-coated munitions, and the team chose the five most representative. There was only one such site in Montenegro.


• United Nations

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