Amman/Nairobi, 6 April 2003 – The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is recommending that a scientific assessment of sites targeted with weapons containing depleted uranium (DU) be conducted in Iraq as soon as conditions permit.
UNEP-led field studies of sites struck by DU ordnance in the Balkans during the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s were the first international field assessments of how DU behaves in the environment.
“Although our assessments to date, under conditions prevailing in the Balkans, have concluded that DU contamination does not pose any immediate risks to human health or the environment, the fact remains that depleted uranium is still an issue of great concern for the general public,” said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer.
“An early study in Iraq could either lay these fears to rest or confirm that there are indeed potential risks, which could then be addressed through immediate action.”
“Based on its experience and expertise, UNEP stands ready to conduct DU assessments in Iraq in cooperation with the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency and other partners,” he said.
UNEP’s Post-Conflict Assessment Unit has published assessments of DU impacts in Kosovo (2001), Serbia and Montenegro (2002) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (2003).
The assessments were conducted with the participation of leading experts and laboratories, the collaboration of IAEA and WHO and the full cooperation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The three studies concluded that, while radiation can be detected at DU sites, the levels are so low that they do not pose a threat to human health and the environment.
At the same time, the studies identified a number of remaining scientific uncertainties that should be further explored. These include the extent to which DU on the ground can filter through the soil and eventually contaminate groundwater, and the possibility that DU dust could later be re-suspended in the air by wind or human activity, with the risk that it could be breathed in.
The Balkans assessments were made two to sevens years after the use of DU weapons. An early study in Iraq would add enormously to our understanding of how DU behaves in the environment. It could also show if there are any risks remaining from the period of the 1991 Gulf War.
Mr Toepfer added that UNEP stands ready to conduct early environmental field studies in Iraq: “Given the overall environmental concerns during the conflict, and the fact that the environment of Iraq was already a cause for serious concern prior to the current war, UNEP believes early field studies should be carried out. This is especially important to protect human health in a post-conflict situation”.
By end-April, UNEP will publish a “desk study” on the Iraq environment that will provide the necessary background information for conducting field research. This research will examine risks to groundwater, surface water, drinking water sources, waste-management and other environment-related infrastructure, factories and other potential sources of toxic chemicals, and biodiversity.
In addition to its work in the Balkans, UNEP has recently published post-conflict assessments on Afghanistan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Note to journalists: For more information, please contact Eric Falt at +254-2-62-3292 or +254-733-682656 (cell); Nick Nuttall at +254-2-62-3084 or +254-733-632755 (cell); or Michael Williams in Amman on Swiss cell phone +41-79-409-1528 or Michael.Williams@unep.ch.
See also www.unep.org for an extensive collection of environmental data and documents on conflict and environment in the region, and postconflict.unep.ch for UNEP’s DU and other post-conflict assessment reports.
UNEP News Release 2003/19