Depleted uranium in Serbia and Montenegro widespread but low level

Depleted uranium (DU) in Serbia and Montenegro used to strengthen weapon tips in the 1999 conflict in Kosovo is widespread in five sites, but at a low level, and does not pose an immediate significant hazard to the environment or to human health, a new report has revealed.

The findings of the study, published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and funded by the Swiss Government, are consistent with those of a 2001 survey by the UNEP. Together, the two surveys have covered the entire area that was affected by ammunition with depleted uranium tips during the Kosovo conflict.

There was much confusion last year when the UNEP called for all areas hit by depleted uranium-tipped shells to be cordoned off, although NATO denied any link between DU and 21 leukaemia deaths among troops (see related story and related story).

The study was completed in cooperation with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The work was carried out by 14 international experts at the end of October and beginning of November last year at the invitation of the Yugoslav authorities.

Despite the lack of an immediate risk from DU, the UNEP warns that there are precautionary measures that authorities in the region need to take. The most important is to protect groundwater from corroding DU tips, which the UNEP investigators found had decreased in mass by 10-15% due to corrosion. It is important that water quality at the DU sites should be monitored every year, says the team.

Air pollution from the depleted uranium is also an issue that local authorities need to be aware of. Airborne DU particles were found at two of the sites, which, although below international safety limits, have implications for site decontamination and construction work that could stir up DU dust. The dust was also found to be widely dispersed into the environment following the explosion of DU rounds.

Fortunately, the researchers found that the authorities had followed previous advice from the UNEP to signpost and fence off the depleted uranium sites.

“This new study makes an important contribution to our scientific understanding of DU’s environmental behaviour,” said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. “Even if the observed levels of contamination are low, we learn that particles of DU dust can even now be detected in soil samples and in sensitive biological indicators such as lichen.”

“The team was surprised to find DU particles still in the air two years after the conflict’s end,” added Pekka Haavisto, Chairman of the UNEP Depleted Uranium Assessment Team.

In addition to the main findings of the study, its authors also noted a number of additional important facts, namely that:

  • the coordinates of one DU site identified by the Yugoslav authorities had not been provided to the UNEP by NATO, highlighting the need for accurate and timely information on DU sites;
  • the WHO found no evidence to link DU to the chromosome changes reported in six individuals who had been assisting with depleted uranium site decontamination for four months; and
  • it is very difficult to fully decontaminate depleted uranium sites, especially when funds and technical support are limited.

“Continued monitoring is clearly needed, and the local population should be informed about DU issues,” said Toepfer. “Fortunately, although a complete clean-up may not be technically possible, decontamination operations have already started in both Serbia and Montenegro.”

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