This month's fierce political debate in Europe over the health hazards posed by ammunition made from depleted uranium is being met with broad scepticism from researchers. Instead, they suggest a number of potential candidates for the health problems being observed.
The argument centres on shells used in the 1999 Kosovo conflict, which were made from uranium-238, a mildly radioactive by-product from nuclear power production.
Italy, Belgium, Portugal and Sweden have each started separate investigations into the health effects of the ammunition following the discovery of six cases of leukaemia among Italian soldiers who served in Kosovo.
In response to mounting public concern, NATO says it will provide a full list of targets in Serbia and Kosovo where depleted uranium ammunition was used in attacks.
But radiation experts say that exposure to depleted uranium, which is used in ammunition on account of its very high density, would be unlikely to cause blood-based diseases such as leukaemia. The alpha radiation it emits is less intense than that from the naturally occurring element, they say.
“If anything, we would expect depleted uranium to cause lung or bone cancer, rather than leukaemia,” says Manfred Paschke, head of radiation protection at a German government nuclear research laboratory in Jülich. Uranium intake is known to cause kidney damage, but the scientific literature shows no link with leukaemia.
Researchers say that the investigation of leukaemia in Kosovo veterans should not be confined to uranium. Enforcement of health and safety rules in the military during wartime are “notoriously lax”, says Paschke. “The cancer risk from misuse of lubricants, solvents and disinfectants is always high,” he adds.
The military, environmental and health implications of uranium-238 have been investigated since at least 1974. The US Department of Defense's latest report on the matter, published last month in response to concerns over exposure of troops during the Gulf War, finds that: “The evidence to date does not support claims that depleted uranium caused or is causing Gulf War veterans' illnesses.”
Scientists believe that this also applies to Kosovo. According to press reports, only around eight tonnes of uranium-238 were released by US bombing of Serbian targets during the Kosovo war, against about 350 tonnes used in the Gulf conflict. “This is much too little for a health-sensitive large-scale contamination of the region,” says Christian Küppers, a nuclear radiation expert at the Öko Institute in Darmstadt, Germany, which does environmental health research.
About this article
Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry (2004)