Montréal, 20 janvier 2001  /  No 75
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Ralph Maddocks is a retired textile executive and former management consultant. He lives in Cowansville.
by Ralph Maddocks
          I often wonder what goes on in the minds of some of our politicians. One day they say one thing and the next day they reverse themselves. A good example of this could be found recently when at least of couple of them, one in Canada and one in Britain, both exhibited their terpsichorean propensities. The cause of this sudden change of direction was the matter of depleted uranium raised in various places lately and related to the acknowledged use by NATO troops of depleted uranium tipped shells in Kosovo.  
          Earlier an Italian military spokesman claimed that Italy did not know that such weapons had been used in Kosovo and a Canadian spokesman said that he did not know whether Canadian officials knew depleted uranium ammunition was being used in Bosnia. Hardly confidence building stuff.
Shifting Positions 
          The concerns expressed related to the radioactive dust that results when such a shell explodes. The British Ministry of Defence and their Canadian counterparts first maintained that there was nothing to be alarmed about because the attendant risk was negligible. In each case, within twenty-four hours, those bodies reversed themselves and said that all servicemen involved in the Balkans would be offered screening. 
          What could have caused this rapid shift? It is highly unlikely that new scientific evidence came to light within such a short period, an event that would have changed the scientific advice the respective ministries would have received. The only rational explanation that one could think of would be that political advice was given to yield to the rising demands of the media chorus.  
          Uranium poses very little risk as long as it is outside the body. It is much more dangerous when inhaled as dust. The depleted uranium shells, which vaporize on impact, are very effective at creating such a dust though depleted uranium is much less radioactive than the natural uranium normally found in soil or rocks. 
          According to Zbigniew Jaworowski, a Polish university Professor, many thousands of rounds were fired over Kosovo, mainly by American A-10 aircraft, and each contained about 0.82 kg of practically pure Uranium 238, from which uranium-234 and Uranium 235 had been removed. Professor Jaworowski calculated also that the total amount of uranium distributed in this way around Kosovo was some 25 tons. This amounts to about 300,000 megabecquerels (Mbq) of radioactivity. Further, he calculated that in a 1 cm deep layer of soil over the entire area of Kosovo (10,887 square km) natural radiation of uranium-238 would emit some 300 times the amount disseminated by the NATO weapons. Local concentrations of depleted uranium may well be higher than that average of course and some of it may be re-suspended in the air from where it may also enter the food chain. It was not felt however that this would lead to any observable medical consequences. 
          While the radiation (weak beta and gamma) does not pose problems, there could well be concern about chemical toxicity which is similar to other heavy metals such as lead, cadmium or mercury. High doses of uranium are very toxic, and studies suggest that the main effect of uranium-238 is chemical impairment of the renal function. A study of some 30,000 nuclear workers in the USA and the UK over a forty-year period found no impairment apart from the renal problem noted earlier. In fact among these workers general mortality was lower than the general population, as was death due to all cancers and leukemia. Some 150,000 soldiers have served in Kosovo since March 1999 and so far 17 deaths from leukemia have been reported, a rate of 11 per 100,000 which is the same as the annual death rate from leukemia in the United Kingdom. We do not know though whether these unfortunate seventeen were all ingesting their carcinogens in the same place or dispersed randomly within Kosovo. 
The « cluster » effect 
          Another argument raised was the so-called « cluster » effect, first noted some twenty years ago, when tenfold increases in leukemia were found in communities in several countries which then appeared to be related to radioactive emissions from nuclear installations. That was until it was found that clusters appeared also at non-nuclear sites, where migration of large numbers of people had occurred. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) concluded that a possible explanation for the clusters was the spread of infection resulting from the merging of populations from urban and rural areas. This condition which was seemingly met in Kosovo where there are large military formations and a civilian population. However, the incidence of leukemia in Kosovo fits the European norm. A further complicating factor is the knowledge that the latency time for leukemia caused by ionizing radiation is two years, and yet these complaints were reported much earlier. The evidence seems indeed to point to some other cause, possibly a natural one, because there have been no reports of a dramatic increase in renal problems.  
     « Even if we had never heard of the stuff before, the fact that a government denies that depleted uranium is harmful is enough to create panic in the streets. » 
          Ignored in all this is the effect that this depleted uranium may have had on civilian populations. We read of no marked effect in Kosovo yet, but we read of Iraq where the hospitals in Basrah and Baghdad claim that patients with leukemia have risen 800 per cent since 1991 said to be due to depleted uranium weapons used during the Gulf War. What is not explained in the media is how much of this increase in cancer rates may be due to the effect of chemicals, and other nasty things which Mr. Hussein may have been stockpiling, which got into the air when struck by Allied explosives.  
          In fact, most of the noise is coming from the media and may well be simply another shot in the latest politically correct war about victims and what is becoming very rapidly a cult of « victimhood ». In any war there are victims. In WWI it was called « shell shock », and in the war against Saddam Hussein it was called the « Gulf War Syndrome », the perceived effects being similar in each case. So, even though some of us cannot bring ourselves to admit it, some of us can cope with the stresses of war far better than can others. The variation in stress tolerance levels is quite wide and some soldiers may have taken with them into the battle physical and psychological problems that are completely unrelated to their military experiences. Of course some such problems may well be related to their military service. The problem seems to be that these cases are combined together, given a medical term, and turned into accusations of an official cover-up. 
          Now we know that governments are not given to the immediate telling of the truth and there are many examples extant. Even if we had never heard of the stuff before, the fact that a government denies that depleted uranium is harmful is enough to create panic in the streets. The military authorities have an even worse record in this respect, as exemplified by the US exposure of its troops to the effects of atomic explosions. After WWII the British used its soldiers to test nerve agents, telling them it was research to find a cure for the common cold, tests in which several soldiers died. Unlike in times past, war today has become a media event skillfully exploited by the authorities to enlist the sympathies of the people at home. This was even truer of Kosovo than of the Gulf War when we saw daily photographs of politicians reveling in the bombing of the enemy's bridges, TV stations, and other allegedly strategic places. It is the consequences of those events that we are hearing about now.  
A more « open » attitude 
          The irony is perhaps clearer in Britain where, after the « mad cow » fiasco, the government seems to have tried to adopt a more « open » attitude. However, we cannot alleviate irrational fears just by talking about them, and talking about it may not reduce paranoia. This can mean that, as a result of increasing suspicion and mistrust among the military, there is likely to be an increase in the reported cases of illness. Such trends will be encouraged, especially in the USA, by entrepreneurial medical men, litigious lawyers, whining environmentalists and pseudo-scientists; all supported by a tractable press. While all those serving in the NATO forces can now be assured that their complaints will be investigated, one can only wonder if and when the health problems of the civilians in these so-called humanitarian wars, who were on the receiving end of these weapons, will receive attention.  
          There were reports recently that over a quarter of the 1,400-strong Greek military contingent in the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force has asked to leave because of the alleged cancer risk. The Greek troops in Kosovo are volunteers and one half the 400 men and women due to join the contingent on the next rotation have already withdrawn following claims that the shells have caused cancer in soldiers and civilians. Greek government tests have so far provided no evidence of uranium contamination anywhere near the place where the Greek forces are stationed. Other European governments such as Portugal, Belgium, Italy and France have, along with Canada, promised to investigate further. 
          At a recent meeting between Bernard Kouchner, the French doctor who is the UN administrator of Kosovo, and leaders of the ethnic community there, he was not faced with complaints about depleted uranium as expected. The Kosovo leaders thought that the matter of depleted uranium had been brought to the attention of the world too quickly and they were greatly worried about the increasing likelihood of the withdrawal of NATO forces. The conclusion seems to be that, at least for the present, NATO governments will test their troops who either fought or who have been on peacekeeping duty there. As far as could be learned, there are no plans to test the civilians in that place although recommendations have been made to cordon off places where such depleted uranium is known to be present.  
          An interesting development in Canada recently, was the agreement by a Canadian judge to allow a lawsuit to go forward which deals with Canada's actions in a foreign country. The suit, which was opposed by Ottawa, is being brought by a group of largely expatriate Serbs over the NATO bombing of their homeland. The lawsuit alleges that, by taking part in the campaign, Canada had violated international law and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and demands $75 millions in compensation for damages suffered by the plaintiffs and their relatives in Serbia. Canadian forces in the NATO Balkan operation accounted for only about 10% of all the air strikes conducted in the theater so it is interesting to speculate why Canada was chosen for this action when litigation is so much more financially attractive to the south. Perhaps they think Canada is the softer touch. 
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