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Low-level DU contamination found in Bosnia and Herzegovina, UNEP calls for precaution

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzogovina, 25 March 2003 – The recorded contamination levels, however, are very low and do not present immediate radioactive or toxic risks for the environment or human health.

“These newest findings from UNEP’s ongoing post-conflict assessment work must not be seen as a cause for alarm,” said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. “Nevertheless, we recommend that precautions be taken and in particular that ground and drinking water at and near sites where the presence of DU has been confirmed be monitored regularly.”

The report cites four new and significant findings about how DU behaves in the environment. First, ground contamination occurs at DU penetrator impact points at low levels, and is localized to areas typically limited within 1-2 metres.

Second, DU penetrators buried near the ground surface have corroded, rapidly losing 25% of their mass over seven years. The DU penetrators will corrode completely within 25 - 35 years after impact.

Third, the report records the first instance of DU contamination of groundwater. The previous UNEP assessments of DU in the Balkans were made shortly after the end of conflict, while in Bosnia-Herzegovina the seven years that had passed since the conflict have allowed the corroding DU to penetrate the soil and contaminate the groundwater. When contamination is found, UNEP recommends that alternative water sources be used and that water sampling and measurements continue for several years.

Finally, DU contamination of the air was found at two different sites, including inside two buildings. This is due to the re-suspension of DU particles from penetrators or contamination points due to wind or human actions. Some of these buildings are currently in use, and UNEP recommends a precautionary decontamination of the buildings in order to avoid any unnecessary human exposure.

The UNEP report’s recommendations also include collecting the penetrators from the ground, covering contamination points with asphalt or clean soil, handling and disposing of DU material properly, keeping records of DU sites, investigating all health claims and obtaining the missing coordinates of six confirmed attack sites in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“The findings of this study stress again the importance of appropriate clean-up and civil protection measures in a post-conflict situation," said Pekka Haavisto, Chairman of the UNEP DU projects. "We hope that this work will play a role in protecting human health and the environment in the unfortunate event of future conflicts."

"We now have a scientific method for measuring the impacts of DU and the same methodology can, if needed, be used in other situations," he said.

The findings in Bosnia-Herzegovina are consistent with previous UNEP studies in Kosovo (2001) and in Serbia and Montenegro (2002). This new report is based on data collected by a team of experts that investigated several sites in Bosnia-Herzegovina in October 2002. UNEP selected 15 sites to be visited. Five of these 15 sites were areas where NATO had reported using DU munitions. The remaining 10 sites were areas where the local population or authorities were concerned that DU might have been used. One of the 15 sites was inaccessible for UNEP due to the heavy presence of mines.

The team used highly sensitive instruments to measure surface radioactivity. These measurements revealed the presence of contamination points and pieces of DU weapons at three sites -- the Hadzici tank repair facility, the Hadzici ammunition storage area and the Han Pijesak barracks.

The UNEP team found that mine clearance personnel, as well as the general public, are not sufficiently aware of the risks and issues surrounding DU ammunition. UNEP believes that public awareness on the DU issue should be increased, for example in the form of an easy-to-read flyer that could be widely distributed.

The UNEP team included representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). During the mission, the IAEA experts examined the general storage and handling of radioactive waste. In the health chapter of the report, WHO concludes that, due to the lack of a proper cancer registry and reporting system, claims of an increase in the rates of adverse health effects stemming from DU cannot be substantiated. The existing scientific data on uranium and DU health effects indicate that it is highly unlikely that DU could be associated with any of the reported health problems.

The 17-member UNEP team included experts from UNEP, the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority, Spiez Laboratory (Switzerland), Italy’s Environmental Protection Agency and Technical Services (APAT, former ANPA), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Greek Atomic Energy Commission, the US Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine (USACHPPM), the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the University of Bristol (UK). Spiez and APAT also analyzed the collected samples of penetrators, water, vegetation and so forth for toxicity and radioactivity. The mission was funded by the Governments of Italy and Switzerland.

Note to journalists: “Depleted Uranium in Bosnia and Herzegovina” is now posted at http://postconflict.unep.ch. For more information please contact Robert Bisset UNEP Spokesperson for Europe on +33-1-44377613, +33-6 2272 5842 (cell), robert.bisset@unep.fr, or Eric Falt, UNEP Spokesman on +254 2 623292, +254 733 682656 (cell), or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media on +254 2 623084, +254 733 632755 (cell), nick.nuttall@unep.org

UNEP News Release - 2003/17

Relevant links:

Download the report

Depleted Uranium in Bosnia and Herzegovina - background information

Photo Gallery: Depleted Uranium Assessment in Bosnia-Herzegovina 2002