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Concern grows over U.S. shells

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 10, 2001

LONDON -- As pressure mounted across Europe for NATO and the Pentagon to investigate possible health hazards from depleted uranium ammunition, Britain said Tuesday it will begin screening its soldiers who were exposed to the armor-piercing shells in Balkan conflicts.

The announcement by Armed Forces Minister John Spellar culminated a week in which several members of the 19-nation NATO alliance said they would investigate claims that soldiers who served in the Gulf and Balkan wars where depleted uranium was used had developed cancer and other illnesses. Germany and Italy said they would seek to ban the use of the shells.

Britain had for a decade accepted without reservation assurances from Washington and NATO headquarters that the armor-piercing shells posed no health risk. Its decision to join the skeptics further isolated the Pentagon and the NATO leadership.

Spellar said depleted uranium shells would remain part of the British arsenal and that the risks of exposure were minimal, but said the government would begin a voluntary testing program to allay fears.

"We do recognize that some of the recent coverage would have caused some concerns among our people, and we recognize a need to reassure them," Spellar said, adding that a "coordinated approach" to the issue was needed.

So far, however, there is no coordinated approach, only shared skepticism in the face of assurances from the Pentagon, NATO and various medical authorities that it is virtually impossible for soldiers to develop cancers, especially leukemia, from routine exposure to the shells or the dust they leave behind after exploding.

Depleted uranium, a slightly radioactive heavy metal, is used in anti-armor munitions because of its high penetrating power.

Britain's action came just a day after German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder demanded an investigation into the use of depleted uranium shells by American forces in the 1999 Kosovo war. The German defense ministry said it would review the cases of any of its soldiers who developed leukemia.

"I do not think it is right to use such ammunition," said Schroeder.

Questions over the use of depleted uranium date back to the Gulf War. The controversy resurfaced last month when the Italian government announced an investigation into the illnesses of 30 of its soldiers who had served in the Balkans, six of whom later died.

There have been similar claims that soldiers from France, Belgium and Portugal who were exposed to depleted uranium shells in the Balkans later developed cancer, most often leukemia. Pentagon and NATO officials, backed by medical authorities, say the risk posed by direct exposure to radiation from the shells is minimal.

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said the U.S. military has studied soldiers who were hit by shrapnel from uranium-depleted shells in the Gulf War and has detected no ill effects.

U.S. forces, who alone among NATO troops used the shells during the Kosovo fighting, fired about 30,000 uranium-depleted shells during the 78-day war that ended in June 1999. Some 10,000 rounds were fired in Bosnia during 1994 and 1995, and more than 100,000 were fired in the Gulf War.

NATO spokesman Lee McClenny said NATO's view remained unchanged despite the decision by Britain and other countries to test their soldiers.

"Our view is that depleted uranium can be used safely," said McClenny, speaking from Brussels. "There's no link between depleted uranium and the illnesses that have been reported."

On Monday, the World Health Organization's backed NATO's claims, saying it doubted that depleted uranium was behind the cases of leukemia that killed the soldiers.

But Michael Repacholi, a specialist for the World Health Organization, said children playing in what were once war zones in the Balkans were at greater risk from the shells "because children playing in contaminated areas tend to pick up pieces of dirt or they put their toys in their mouth, they could absorb more."

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