Press Releases March 2002 - UNEP confirms low-level DU contamination - 22 March 2002 - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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UNEP confirms low-level DU contamination - 22 March 2002

Geneva/Nairobi, 27 March 2002 - The UNEP study concludes that the DU sites studied do not present immediate radioactive or toxic risks for the environment or human health-significant. These findings are consistent with those of UNEP's 2001 DU study in Kosovo. Together, the two studies cover the entire geographical area affected by DU munitions during the Kosovo conflict.

However, UNEP recommends that the authorities take precautionary measures. The most important concern is the potential for future groundwater contamination by corroding penetrators (ammunition tips made out of DU). The penetrators recovered by the UNEP team had decreased in mass by 10-15% due to corrosion. This rapid corrosion speed underlines the importance of monitoring the water quality at the DU sites on an annual basis.

A new finding of particular interest was the detection through modern air sampling techniques of airborne DU particles at two of the sites. While the detected levels were still below international safety limits, these results have implications for site decontamination and construction work, activities that could potentially stir up DU dust from the ground surface. In addition, the results indicate that DU dust was widely dispersed into the environment following the explosion of DU rounds.

The study was conducted in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with additional support from the World Health Organization (WHO).

"This new study makes an important contribution to our scientific understanding of DU's environmental behaviour," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. "Even if the observed levels of contamination are low, we learn that particles of DU dust can even now be detected in soil samples and in sensitive biological indicators such as lichen."

"The UNEP study in Serbia and Montenegro confirms that contamination at the targeted sites is widespread. We did not find levels of radioactivity that could pose a direct threat to the environment or to human health. Nevertheless, we strongly recommend taking precautionary measures similar to those outlined in our Kosovo report last year," he said.

"The team was surprised to find DU particles still in the air two years after the conflict's end. Based on these findings, the authorities should carefully plan how DU-targeted sites are used in the future. Any soil disturbance at these sites could risk releasing DU particles into the air," said Pekka Haavisto, Chairman of the UNEP Depleted Uranium Assessment Team.we recommend the same precautionary measures that we outlined for Kosovo last year," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer.

"Continued monitoring is clearly needed, and the local population should be informed about DU issues. Fortunately, although a complete clean-up may not be technically possible, decontamination operations have already started in both Serbia and Montenegro," he said.

UNEP sent a field mission to Serbia and Montenegro in late 2001 in response to an invitation from the Yugoslav authorities. From 27 October to 5 November 2001, the team of 14 international experts investigated five of the eleven sites that were struck with DU ordnance in Serbia, the single site that was hit in Montenegro plus one targeted military vehicle.

The sites were independently selected by the UNEP experts based on the quantity of DU used, environmental and security considerations and population density. In addition, the IAEA experts on the team evaluated the storage of DU at the Vinča Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Belgrade, and the report raises a number of concerns about conditions there.

The assessment team collected 161 samples, including 69 vegetation, 54 soil, 17 air, 11 water, and 4 smear samples. Three penetrators and three penetrator fragments were also collected. The samples were analysed by Switzerland's Spiez laboratory and Italy's ANPA laboratory.

In addition to the key findings described above, the study report also noted that the DU sites had already been signposted and fenced off by the authorities, reflecting the recommendations made in UNEP's 2001 study; that the coordinates of one DU site identified by the Yugoslav authorities had not been provided to UNEP by NATO, highlighting the need for accurate and timely information on DU sites; that WHO found no evidence to link DU to the chromosome changes reported by Montenegrin authorities in six individuals who had worked on DU site decontamination for four months; and that it is very difficult to fully decontaminate DU sites. can be difficult to fully decontaminate DU sites when funds and technical support are limited.

The DU study was funded by the Government of Switzerland. Both Switzerland and Italy provided laboratory facilities for the analytical work. The governments of Greece, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US also provided in-kind support.

Note to journalists: The report is available at http://postconflict.unep.ch/. For more information, please contact UNEP Depleted Uranium Assessment Team Chairman Mr. Pekka Haavisto at +41-79-477-0877 or pekka.haavisto@unep.ch; UNEP Spokesperson Mr. Tore Brevik at +254-2-623292 or tore.brevik@unep.org; Post-Conflict Unit Head Mr. Henrik Slotte at +41-22-917-8598; Senior Policy Advisor Mr. Pasi Rinne at +41-22-917-8617; or UNEP Press Officer Mr. Michael Williams at +41-22-917-8242, +41-79-409-1528 (cell), or michael.williams@unep.ch.

UNEP News Release: 2002/18