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Iraq and Kuwait have separately asked international bodies to assess the possible hazards to local people and soldiers of the depleted uranium (DU) ammunition, the head of the Balkans DU assessment team for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Pekka Haavisto, who will lead any investigation, has announced.

Although Haavisto’s team found no widespread ground contamination in investigated areas of Kosovo, where many DU-tipped munitions had been used by NATO in its offensive against Yugoslavia, following reports of increased rates of cancer among troops (see related story), Iraq and Kuwait may have more cause for concern. The hot, dry climate and a far grater amount of DU-tipped munitions used may signal a far greater and continuing hazard, although some 350 tonnes of DU weapons were used 10 years ago in the Gulf war and no independent study has yet been carried out.

Iraq blames DU for what it says is an increased rate of childhood cancers, evidence of which has been borne out in a British television documentary.

Haavisto admitted that research in the Gulf could be hampered by the long period of time elapsed and that until a team arrived, it would be impossible to tell if there was any continuing possibility of contamination. However, due to the sheer quantity of DU-tipped munitions used and the lack of rain in the area, Haavisto said that radioactive dust could still be blowing around and there should be “enough evidence to try and assess the present risks to health, and something of the past”. Kosovo had no problem with radioactive dust as most DU weapons had burrowed into the ground.

Before any possible investigation in the Gulf, Haavisto’s team will first travel to Bosnia, where three tonnes of the ammunition was used five years ago, after claims of a higher incidence of cancer in some villages (see related story).

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