Last November, when stories first appeared in the European press of deaths from leukemia among Italian soldiers who had served in the Balkans, alarm bells started ringing across the Continent. The leukemia was–and still is–believed by many independent experts to be caused by radiation from depleted uranium (DU) arms used in the Balkans during the war. Since most European countries are members of NATO, most of them have troops stationed in or near areas believed to be contaminated.

In France, the February 2000 broadcast of a documentary about DU triggered a steadily increasing demand for more and better information. At the same time, reports were surfacing in Belgium of illness among that country’s troops stationed in the Balkans. Early this year, Spain and Greece announced they will screen their soldiers for contamination, and Portugal has decided to remove its troops entirely from Kosovo.

Country after country summoned US ambassadors or dispatched delegations to NATO headquarters in Brussels in search of more information about DU. But NATO–which in effect means the United States–has stuck to the Pentagon’s oft-repeated refrain: If there is a problem, soldiers’ health should certainly be studied, but it is impossible that DU is involved because its radiation is so low as to be utterly harmless.

A major reason for Pentagon evasiveness is the almost 200,000 Gulf War vets apparently suffering from the variety of illnesses lumped together as Gulf War Syndrome who have filed claims against the VA for service-related illnesses. Three-quarters of that group are now classified by the VA as disabled, and almost 7,000 of the original total have died.

In the case of contamination by Agent Orange in Vietnam, the Pentagon ended up admitting claims from anybody who had served in the theater after use of the defoliant had begun. If this were repeated in the case of Gulf War Syndrome, most of the almost 700,000 vets who served on the ground in the Persian Gulf would be eligible to press claims.

Further, in addition to helping solve the serious problem of what to do with nuclear waste, DU weapons play a key role in the US military’s concept of a “no loss” war. If such arms performed brilliantly against tanks in the Iraq war, they performed equally brilliantly against the Serbian regime’s huge underground installations (“hardened targets” in military jargon) in Kosovo, where NATO has admitted to using some nine and a half tons of DU. Hence, far from planning to remove DU from its arsenal anytime soon, the Pentagon wants to increase its use.

Thus, duly attentive to its own interests, the US government has consistently pressured its NATO allies and the UN–which has assumed responsibility for Kosovo–to keep the lid on DU contamination investigations (to the extent that such inquiries cannot be thwarted outright). Such pressure, however, has not stopped information from slowly leaking out, as evidenced by the French documentary and the reports from Belgium. But until the Italian government decided in December to launch an official inquiry into DU use in Kosovo, there was no general awareness of the danger among the European public. Significantly, Britain, whose government has long been at odds with its own veterans over Gulf War Syndrome and is the only country other than the United States to admit to using DU, has been a low-key but insistent supporter of the Pentagon line.

Much, in fact, is already known about DU. Contrary to what the Pentagon keeps insisting, the “depleted” in the name depleted uranium does not indicate uranium bereft of all but weak, hence harmless, radiation. Rather, it is depleted of its contents of the uranium isotope U-235, which, because it is fissionable, is used for bombs and for fuel in nuclear reactors. What’s left, U-238, is 40 percent less radioactive but still extremely dangerous. Anybody handling DU metal must wear clothing resistant to high-level radiation, hermetically sealed and equipped with a respirator.

The Pentagon itself knows the dangers. On July 22, 1990, the US Army made public an exhaustive study of armor-piercing DU munitions (quoted in the Military Toxics Project’s 2000 report “Don’t Look, Don’t Find”), which warned of respirable DU oxides, created during combat, that could cause cancer and kidney problems. It further warned that “following combat, the condition of the battlefield and the long-term health risks to natives and combat veterans may become issues in the acceptability of the continued use of DU kinetic energy penetrators for military applications.” Nevertheless, since the Gulf War, the Pentagon has spent millions to convince the public–and especially Gulf War veterans–that radiation from DU is essentially harmless.

In May 1999, during the Kosovo war, the UN arranged for representatives of all humanitarian aid agencies involved in the conflict to make an initial assessment of the overall situation in the field. However, the UN Environment Program’s report, sounding the alarm on DU contamination, was not made public until it was leaked to this journalist by people within the organization who described themselves as exasperated with UNEP director Klaus Töpfer’s willingness, as they saw it, to defer to US foreign policy. According to the sources, the pressure had come directly from Washington, presumably from the Pentagon, through UN headquarters in New York. The leaked report appeared on June 18, 1999, in two Swiss French-language dailies, Le Courrier and La Liberté. Later, at a UN press conference in Geneva, Töpfer denied suppressing the report. Reminded that it had been written up in the press, he said that was proof that it was public information.

Another report, funded by the European Commission and published shortly after the war, made virtually no mention of depleted uranium. However, without identifying them, the report incorporated, verbatim, several paragraphs of the suppressed UNEP report.

Under pressure to do something after the end of the war, UNEP set up a working party, the Balkans Task Force, to make a full report. Töpfer appointed Finland’s former Environment Minister Pekka Haavisto to lead it. Haavisto was adamant that depleted uranium was part of the overall pollution picture and could not be left out of the inquiry. When the resulting report was released in October 1999, it was shorn of all but two of its seventy-two pages on DU.

Throughout this period a procession of officials conspicuously uncritical of the US position on DU came to Geneva. These included Dennis McNamara, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ special envoy to the Balkans, who stressed at a press conference on July 12, 1999, NATO’s assurances that depleted uranium posed no problems. Dr. Keith Baverstock of the World Health Organization’s regional office for Europe also insisted that there was absolutely no danger, though he added that depleted uranium could cause problems in a battle situation. And former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, now the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to the Balkans, curtly stated that depleted uranium was a “nonissue.”

After news leaked that the Balkans Task Force had received a targets map from NATO, Töpfer called a meeting in Geneva on March 20, 2000, to consider how to deal with the leak, but on the same day, Le Courrier published the map. The next day Haavisto was allowed to present it to the Geneva media. Töpfer received a second, much more detailed, targets map in early July. Haavisto is said to have become aware of it only in September, at which time he pressed to send a mission as soon as possible into the field to investigate at least some of the target spots before winter set in. Töpfer’s response was to postpone any mission until after the October 24 municipal elections in Kosovo, allegedly out of fear that if disquieting information got out it might trigger mass exoduses such as had occurred during the war, thus marring the “democratic” system the “humanitarian war” had created. The mission finally began its investigation in November.

UNEP was far from alone in its timidity. As the world’s highest instance of policy-setting in the area of public health and as a member of the UN system, the World Health Organization should have taken the lead in investigating DU. But the WHO is bound by an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)–whose mandate boils down to promoting nuclear power–to obtain the agency’s consent whenever it proposes to undertake anything pertaining to radiation and public health. (When questioned by telephone, David Kyd, spokesman for the IAEA, claimed that his agency’s mandate did not allow it to investigate DU, adding that DU was, in any case, perfectly harmless.)

Thus it is no surprise that the fact sheet on DU that the WHO announced as being in the works right after the end of the war was quietly canceled. A subsequent general study of DU due out in December 1999 has still not materialized, and a fact sheet hurriedly brought out this past January in response to the European public’s outcry is vague, contradictory and at odds with current scientific knowledge about radiation and its effect on humans. When the Balkans Task Force undertook its initial 1999 Kosovo study, the IAEA did the measuring, and no radiation worthy of notice was found.

The November 2000 field assessment mission by the Balkans Task Force, which has just reported its findings, further perpetuates the cover-up. Using WHO radiation safety standards designed for measuring a brief “one event” source of radiation conceived of as hitting the whole body, it concludes that there is no real problem. However, the greatest danger from DU comes from the uranium oxide dust created when the metal hits its target and can then be inhaled. The Swiss government, whose military now cooperates with NATO, paid for the project, and people from a lab run by the Swiss military were part of the team, significant because the lab has echoed the Pentagon in declaring that the whole DU issue is not worthy of discussion. (Switzerland, with a huge Kosovar population that acted like a magnet for refugees during the war, has its own reasons for downplaying the danger.)

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the chief coordinator of humanitarian relief during and immediately after the war, took the contamination threat seriously enough to launch its own inquiries and to issue a directive made available to Le Courrier in early 2000 by Deputy High Commissioner Frederick Barton. Among other things, it lays down rules for personnel in the field: No pregnant women are to be sent to Kosovo, those assigned there must be given the option of another post elsewhere and those ultimately sent must have a note in their file to facilitate any later compensation claims. Barton also made clear on several occasions that efforts had been made to warn the refugees as they were returning to Kosovo–efforts that he said had later been thwarted by the UN administration, by NATO and by the local Albanian political leaders.

Others share this skepticism. Dr. Chris Busby, a low-radiation specialist, recently conducted his own field assessment, whose results were presented to Britain’s Royal Society. In addition to finding radiation more than a hundred times higher than natural background levels near target sites, he has concluded that most of the uranium oxide particles are constantly being resuspended in the air, allowing them to be blown by the wind throughout the country and easily inhaled.

For those long critical of US influence in European affairs, whether they are concerned with the Continent’s military structure or simply a European identity with reduced US influence, the DU dispute is heaven-sent. The latest UN report, as well as a whitewash from the European Commission a week earlier, far from calming the storm, seem to have intensified mistrust. The extent to which such feelings affect EU public policy will depend on how long the European public keeps up its demand for a reliable explanation of what is behind the “nonissue” now known as Balkans War Syndrome.