The Stars and Stripes
      Monday, October 23, 2000
Spent uranium rounds' health effects debated
By Ward Sanderson
Macedonia bureau
PEC, Kosovo - Italian authorities are investigating whether depleted uranium
anti-armor rounds, toxic souvenirs of the allied pounding of Kosovo, threaten
their peacekeepers.So far, the answer is no. Italy's environmental
undersecretary, Valerio Calzolaio, announced Thursday that months of study have
found no cases of cancer or other illnesses connected to the spent rounds that
litter their sector of western Kosovo."There is no danger for the troops,"
Calzolaio said in the prepared statement. Nonetheless, a group of paramilitary
hazardous-material experts are preparing a new uranium investigation from their
headquarters in Pristina. For its part, the Pentagon already has decided that
depleted uranium poses little threat to troops or the environment - though some
veterans and environmentalists disagree. The rounds were used by American A-
10 "Warthogs" because of their armor-piercing properties: Depleted uranium is
twice as heavy as lead. The rounds fly fast and tear through tanks as if they
were Tonka toys. They ignite on impact, spewing molten metal and radioactive
dust into their armored targets. Depleted uranium also is used to stabilize
cruise missiles.The material includes waste left over from reactors or the
manufacture of nuclear weapons. It is "depleted" because it is half as
radioactive as naturally occurring uranium.Italian worries began in March, when
reports circulated that Italian soldiers were coming down with leukemia because
of uranium exposure. Two died - but neither, it turned out, had actually spent
time in Kosovo."We have no proof of soldiers being sick with radiation," said
Lt. Col. Gianfranco Scalas, spokesman for the Italian-led brigade in
Kosovo.Scalas said one of the soldiers who died did duty in Bosnia; the other
had never been to the Balkans."The guy who died in Sardinia, I knew
personally," Scalas said. "He was from my village."The reason Italians continue
to investigate, however, is the sheer quantity of the shells fired into their
sector. Almost half of the 112 sites targeted by the shells are in the Italian
sector - it was home to key roads to Albania and the airport of Djackovica. In
some cases, more than 900 rounds were fired into a target area.The road to Pec
bears grim witness to the bombardment. Homes have no roofs, brick hotels gape
hollow through broken windows, blown bridges threaten to launch the unwary
driver into oblivion. The rounds used were also fired during the Gulf War by
both the United States and Britain. Some veterans have complained the
radioactivity is responsible for Gulf War illnesses. The Pentagon, however,
says the depleted uranium is only as dangerous as any other heavy metal, such
as lead or mercury, and is only marginally radioactive.According to the
Veterans Administration, depleted uranium is only dangerous when it is breathed
as dust or enters the body as shrapnel."It's not uranium like a radiation
weapon," said German Maj. Gen. Walter Jertz, a NATO spokesman, during a bombing
press conference last year. He said it's similar to material found in "rocks,
soil, everywhere."But though the solid shells are of little concern, those that
find their marks explode into a toxic cloud.Critics say that dust can cause
cancer or kidney damage.Scalas said his troops are told not to touch destroyed
armored vehicles or found rounds. But he also refers to the uranium worry as
a "phantom" problem. Before sitting down to an espresso, he joked: "It contains
depleted uranium."Still, he said all is not ecologically well: Lead is a common
construction material in Kosovo. His troops had to empty an office building in
Pec that was used to store trash."It was like a dump here," he said. "Really
like a dump."During one cleanup, his troops hauled away 70 truckloads of
trash."These," he said, "are the ecological bombs."In the past 16 months, 112
out of 4,800 Italians have gone home sick or injured.Scalas said none was a
victim of toxic uranium. He said any problems caused by the uranium will,
unfortunately, more than likely be those of the local Kosovars.The Italian
investigations are ongoing. The Italian environmental agency continues to fly
in experts for periodic studies. And the hazardous materials unit of the
Carabinieri - or paramilitary police - are just gearing up an investigation of
their own.One of the investigators in Pristina, Alfonso Trincone, said their
hazmat gear has not arrived and that he could not go into details about the
investigation. Their testing equipment should arrive before late
November.Whatever the risks of depleted uranium, whether real or imagined, the
shells are likely to furrow brows again. And they might soon be fired by
foreign forces with varying concern for the ecology of the countries they
target."U.S. forces continue to use [depleted-uranium] munitions and may employ
them in the future," a Veterans Administration report reads. "[Depleted-
uranium] penetrators are now available in international arms markets, and may
become widely available to armies around the globe."