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DU fears are baseless

(Sorry if this has already been sent but I didn't notice it in my 450 messages of the last 2 days. Seems that the research department at the Globe has improved its 'references', going from Playboy to Hustler now.)

- Marc Azar

Wednesday, January 10, 2001
The Globe and Mail (Editorial)

We live in strange times. People in wealthy nations such as Canada have never been healthier, yet we fret about our health as never before.

Almost every day brings a new health scare. Lead in the window blinds can poison your kids, foam insulation in the walls can make you dizzy, mould in school portables can get in your lungs -- and on and on.

Even soldiers are falling prone to our society's growing hypochondria. Since the 1991 Gulf War, thousands of veterans have complained of various unexplained ailments, blaming their illness on exposure to military chemicals and other byproducts of war. For all that, researchers have failed to find any basis for the so-called Gulf War Syndrome.

Now we have another scare: the Balkans Syndrome. This one centres on depleted uranium used in shells fired by U.S. warplanes during NATO's air war against Yugoslavia in 1999. At least 18 soldiers who served with the alliance in the Balkans have died of cancer: seven Italians, five Belgians, two Dutch, two Spaniards, a Portuguese and a Czech. Environmental and veterans groups blame the deaths on the use of depleted uranium, or DU. The Italian government wants NATO to place a moratorium on the use of DU in tank-busting weapons until more is known.

But much is already known. The concern about DU goes back to the Gulf War and before. Numerous studies have been done, and none has shown any link between DU and cancer. One reason: depleted uranium is simply not very radioactive.

Uranium is synonymous with radioactivity because its enriched form is used for nuclear fuel and to make nuclear bombs. But depleted uranium is the opposite of enriched. It is what's left over after the enrichment process extracts the more useful radioactive isotopes from the metal.

Depleted uranium is thus many, many times less radioactive than the uranium employed for nuclear uses. In fact it is 40 per cent less radioactive than natural uranium, a substance that is present in small amounts all around us -- in soil, in rocks, even in the air and the water.

Ordinary exposure to natural uranium has no known health effects. In fact, studies of uranium-industry workers, who are far closer to the stuff than most of us, show no increase in overall death rates, either from cancer or any other cause. Why, then, would soldiers be worried about less-radioactive DU?

Veterans groups say the worry springs from how the DU is used. Armies like DU because of its density, which is almost twice that of lead. Shells that use DU can penetrate armour more effectively.

But when the shell hits the armour, the DU turns into a fine dust. The critics say that dust could be inhaled by people nearby. Yes, possibly. But most soldiers in the Kosovo war were not in midst of combat, much less at the receiving end of DU shell fire. They were a mile up in the air, firing at down at Yugoslavia. When thousands of NATO troops moved into Kosovo, the fighting was over. Their only contact with DU could be from shell debris, which they are not likely to inhale or ingest.

In fact, even those who somehow managed to get DU fragments embedded in their flesh do not appear to be in danger. The U.S. Defence Department studied 15 Gulf War veterans with embedded DU fragments and found that they were fine.

In its study of DU in the Gulf War, the Rand Corp. found that "there are no peer-reviewed published reports of detectable increases of cancer or other negative effects from radiation exposure to inhaled or ingested natural uranium at levels far exceeding those likely in the Gulf."

The World Health Organization, which is conducting a study of DU in Kosovo, says: "Based on our studies, and the evidence we have, it is unlikely that soldiers in Kosovo ran a high risk of contracting leukemia from exposure to radiation from depleted uranium."

Addressing reporters on the issue yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned against a growing "hysteria" over the DU issue. The Europeans won't like that. European Commission President Romano Prodi says NATO must find out the truth about DU weapons or ban them at once.

But the truth is already known. Study after study has been done. Not one has shown a link between DU and cancer. Soldiers in war may have many things to fear. Dying from cancer caused by depleted uranium isn't one of them.

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