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'Balkan Syndrome' caused by toxic ammunition?

  • Almost a decade ago, The SPOTLIGHT told you about possible dangers from the armor-piercing weapons. Now, others have noticed.
By P. Samuel Foner

Italy is officially "disturbed" about the possibility of radiation-related ill effects from the use of depleted uranium (DU) ammunition by U.S. and NATO forces.

This populist newspaper first brought the possible dangers of DU ammo to the attention of the public back in 1991, when NATO used the ammunition against Iraqi armor in the Persian Gulf War.

Depleted uranium munitions are more dense than conventional ones, allowing them to penetrate heavy armor more easily.

Some 60,000 Italian troops and 15,000 Italian civilians have taken part in missions in the former Yugoslavia since 1995.

The Italian soldiers have been unofficially diagnosed as suffering from "Balkans Syndrome," a mysterious illness with variously defined symptoms.

And, during the last week of December, Italy launched a probe into a possible link between the depleted uranium and some 30 cases of serious illness involving soldiers who served in Bosnia and Kosovo, 12 of whom developed cancer.

Italian Prime Minister Guiliano Amato is demanding explanations from NATO on the use of DU munitions in the Balkans conflicts, following media reports that six Italian soldiers who served there have died of leukemia.

Following the death of a sixth Italian soldier, Amato told La Republica newspaper on Jan.3 that "NATO must carry out all the check that will allow us to understand the history and the characteristics of depleted uranium."

A feeling of alarm over the reports was "more than legitimate," he added.

NATO has denied that depleted uranium (DU) used in some of its munitions could be linked to the deaths of military personnel.


On Jan. 3, a spokesman at NATO headquarters said "current research indicates it would be virtually impossible for a person to inhale enough depleted uranium particles for it to be a health risk.

Britain joined the U.S., firmly holding to the view that, despite the alarm expressed by Italy, Spain Turkey and Finland, the firing of depleted uranium shells by American aircraft during NATO's bombing campaign against the Serbs in Kosovo in 1999 posed not health risk for British peacekeeper.

Unlike Italy, there have been no reported cases of cancer-related illnesses suffered by British soldiers who have served in either Kosovo or the earlier Bosnia conflict. British officials could no explain why this was the case.

The UK Ministry of Defense's (MoD) experience has been confined to the 1991 Gulf War which did lead to mysterious illnesses among about 5000 veterans, some of whom have blamed the use of depleted uranium weapons.

Depleted uranium is a by-product of the process for converting natural uranium into the enriched form used in nuclear weapons and reactors.


According to respected British defense expert Michael Evans, the potential exposure of NATO troops to radioactive dust scattered by American weapons tipped with armor-piercing depleted uranium in the Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo campaigns has become a highly controversial issue, even though there remains no scientific evidence linking it to the deaths of alliance soldiers.

Forty British soldiers who served in the Gulf War were so convinced their illnesses could be blamed on the firing of depleted uranium shells that they went to Canada for tests. A Canadian expert, Professor Hari Sharma, examined the men and declared they were suffering from Uranium poisoning.

However, the UK MoD said his findings had not been published in any scientific journal and all attempts to persuade the professor to send his work to be examined in Britain had failed.

"We also invited the 40 veterans to be examined by independent medical experts in Britain but so far they have not come forward," a department spokesman said.

The British Royal Society of Medicine is currently carrying out a review of the possible effects of depleted uranium weapons and MoD officials have testified. The society's report is due in the spring.

Meanwhile, the family of a soldier who served in the former Yugoslavia, 24-year-old Salvatore Carbonaro from Sicily, said on Jan. 2 that he had died of leukemia in November.

The dead soldier's brother, Mauro Carbonaro, told a regional newspaper that Salvatore had been in contact with DU munitions.

The dead man served in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1998 and 1999, although that is not a period when NATO has admitted to using DU ammunition in that region.

NATO officials said last December that U.S. aircraft fired more than 10,000 depleted uranium projectiles in Bosnia between 1994 and 1995, as well as in Kosovo in 1999.

They said that DU rounds were "fired from A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft, under international auspices," and that the fact had been known for several years.

A NATO official in brussels added: "There is nothing secret about DU rounds being fired in Bosnia."

Carbonaro was the sixth Italian soldier to serve in the region whose death has been linked to what is being called the "Balkans Syndrome" -- a series of health problems contracted by those who served in the former Yugoslavia.

The Italian defense ministry has set up a commission to establish whether there is a link between the deaths and cancer cases and the use of the depleted uranium.

In addition to the six Italian military fatalities linked to the syndrome, the press in Italy has listed another 30 suspected cases of soldiers contaminated by DU.

Reports from other European countries whose troops have served in the region have been investigated.


According to NATO sources, in Belgium, five cases of cancer have been diagnosed in soldiers who served in the Balkans, but no link with the arms has been established. Several cases of leukemia have also been recorded among Dutch veterans of the Balkans, and Spain has launched an intensive study of some 32,000 military personnel who were on duty there.

Portugal's army chief of staff said on Jan. 2 that about 900 former peacekeepers would undergo medical tests to see if they had been exposed to radiation linked to depleted uranium munitions.

A German defense ministry spokesman told the Weltam Sonntag newspaper that tests carried out by the army on its Kosovo veterans over the past 12 months had not shown any radiation-linked illnesses.

"We always knew that it was used in Kosovo and not in Bosnia and that it could be dangerous when handled," he said. "But now we fear things may not be so simple."

Since 1995, up to 60,00 Italian soldiers have served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

NATO has admitted that U.S. warplanes operating in Kosovo fired armor piercing rounds containing depleted uranium during the alliance's 78-day bombing campaign last year. The MoD has taken comfort, however, from a new Pentagon report which has effectively ruled out any link between cancer and depleted uranium weapons.

The Pentagon report said that depleted Uranium was 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium.

However, this argument is dismissed by veterans who claim the danger emanates from the radioactive dust in the atmosphere which, if ingested in substantial amounts, could damage organs.

David Case, an expert working for the Pentagon's environmental exposure team, wrote in the latest report that depleted uranium, which is much denser than conventional material and, thus, has greater penetrative power, could cause kidney problems, if ingested, "because of its heavy metal toxicity."

"The health risks from its radioactivity are slight compared to the heavy metal toxicity risk," he wrote. More than 3000 tons of depleted uranium were fired in the Gulf War, either by American tanks or by A10 Warthog tank-busting aircraft.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has been monitoring 33 Gulf War veterans who were seriously injured in "friendly-fire" incidents involving depleted uranium. About half of them still have depleted uranium fragments in their bodies.