Balkan Syndrome

By Cynthia Kirk

This is the VOA Special English ENVIRONMENT REPORT.

Experts from the World Health Organization are investigating the possible health risks from the use of depleted uranium weapons in Yugoslavia. NATO forces used the weapons during a bombing campaign in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo in Nineteen-Ninety-Nine. Some European officials say radiation from depleted uranium is killing NATO peacekeeping soldiers and poisoning groundwater.

An investigation was ordered after the deaths of several Italian soldiers who served in Yugoslavia. Italy says the soldiers developed leukemia and died from radiation sickness caused by depleted uranium weapons. NATO denies that the soldiers got leukemia from the weapons.

Depleted uranium is a havy metal waste product that comes from uranium in the process of making nuclear fuel. Because of its weight, it is used to strengthen missiles, shells and bullets. When a shell hits a target such as a tank, the metal burns and creates an extremely hot radioactive dust.

American forces used depleted uranium ammunition against Serb targets during a campaign to force the Yugoslav army out of Kosovo two years ago. During the Nineteen-Nineties, it was also used in the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina and during the Gulf War in Iraq.

In November, experts from the United Nations Environment Program visited eleven of the one-hundred-twelve areas in Kosovo that were targeted by weapons containing depleted uranium. The experts found evidence of depleted uranium at eight of the eleven areas studied.

Experts are disputing the threat caused by depleted uranium. Britain and the United States say the weapons release too little radiation to threaten human health. Yet experts say once the shells are exploded, the radioactive dust stays in the environment or the human body for many years. Radiation can cause leukemia and other cancers.

In May, a U-N report warned that much of Kosovo's water could be too polluted to drink. And it said it could cost thousands of millions of dollars to clean up the province.

World Health Organization officials will investigate whether there is any increase in health problems in the general population of Kosovo. And they will try to find out if the problems are linked to depleted uranium. Results from a similar U-N study are expected in March.

This VOA Special English ENVIRONMENT REPORT was written by Cynthia Kirk.

Voice of America Special English