In November 2000, a UNEP field mission visited 11 of the 112 sites that were identified as being targeted by ordnance containing DU, including five in the Italian sector (MNB (W)) and six in the German sector (MNB (S)).
The UNEP team, consisting of 14 scientists from several countries, collected soil, water, and vegetation samples and conducted smear tests on buildings, destroyed army vehicles, and DU penetrators. Remnants of DU ammunition were found at eight sites. Altogether, 355 samples were analyzed, including 249 soil samples, 46 water samples, 37 vegetation samples, 13 smear tests, three milk samples, four jackets (specialized parts of ordnance), two penetrators, and one penetrator fragment.
Transuranic isotopes found
Seven-and-a-half DU penetrators were found during the field mission. Low levels of radiation were detected in the immediate vicinity of the points of impact, and mild contamination from DU dust was measured near the targets. There was also some evidence from bio-indicators of airborne DU contamination near targeted sites.
In addition to U-238, which makes up the bulk of depleted uranium, the penetrators contained uranium isotope U-236 and plutonium isotope Pu-239/240 (see UNEP press releases of 16 January and 16 February 2001). The presence of these transuranic elements in the DU indicates that at least some of the material has been in nuclear reactors. However, the amount of transuranic isotopes found in the DU penetrators is very low and does not have any significant impact on their overall radioactivity.
No widespread contamination
No widespread ground contamination was found in the investigated areas. Therefore, the corresponding radiological and chemical risks are insignificant. There were a great number of contamination points in the investigated areas, but there is no significant risk related to these points in terms of possible contamination of air or plants.
"These scientific findings should alleviate any immediate anxiety that people living or working in Kosovo may have been experiencing," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Töpfer. "Under certain circumstances, however, DU can still pose risks. Our report highlights a series of precautionary measures that should be taken to guarantee that the areas struck by DU ammunition remain risk-free."
It is highly likely that penetrators are still lying on the ground surface. Although the radiological and chemical risks of touching a penetrator are insignificant, if one was put into a pocket or somewhere else close to the human body, there would be external beta radiation of the skin, leading to quite high local radiation doses after some weeks of continuous exposure. Skin burns from radiation are unlikely.
Regarding contamination points, if a child were to ingest small amounts of soil, the corresponding radiological risk would be insignificant, but from a biochemical point of view, the possible intake might be somewhat higher than the applicable health standard.
"There are still considerable scientific uncertainties, especially related to the safety of groundwater," said Pekka Haavisto, Chairman of UNEP's Depleted Uranium Assessment Team. "Additional work has to be done to reduce these uncertainties and to monitor the quality of water."
Remaining penetrators and jackets that may be hidden at several metres depth in the ground, as well as any on the ground surface, constitute a risk of future DU contamination of groundwater and drinking water. Heavy firing of DU in one area could increase the potential source of uranium contamination of groundwater by a factor of 10 to 100. While the radiation doses will be very low, the resulting uranium concentration might exceed WHO health standards for drinking water.
Although the mission findings show no cause for alarm, the report describes specific situations where risks could be significant. There are also scientific uncertainties relating to the longer-term behavior of DU in the environment. For these reasons, UNEP calls for certain precautionary actions.
According to UNEP, this precautionary action should include visiting all DU sites in Kosovo, removing slightly radioactive penetrators and jackets on the surface, decontaminating areas where feasible, and providing information to local populations on precautions to be taken if DU is found.
UNEP recommends mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina
In order to reduce scientific uncertainty on the impact of DU on the environment, particularly over time, UNEP recommends that scientific work be undertaken in Bosnia-Herzegovina where DU ordnance has persisted in the environment for over five years. This could be done as part of an overall environmental assessment of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
UNEP's work in Kosovo was carried out in close cooperation with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR), which assisted with logistics, accommodation, transport and security.
The samples were analyzed by the Swedish Radiation Protection Institute (SSI) in Stockholm; AC Laboratorium-Spiez in Switzerland; Bristol University's Department of Earth Sciences in the UK; the International Atomic Energy Agency Laboratories (IAEA) in Seibersdorf, Austria; and the Italian National Environmental Protection Agency (ANPA) in Rome, Italy. The assessment work on depleted uranium has been financed by the Government of Switzerland.
IAEA, UNEP, and WHO on future cooperation
In view of the remaining scientific uncertainties surrounding the long-term effects of the possible health and environmental impacts from the use of depleted uranium (DU), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the World Health Organisation (WHO), in accordance with their respective mandates, will consider together whether it is necessary to prepare future missions to areas where depleted uranium has been used during military conflicts.
Note to journalists:
The report is available at http://www.unep.ch/balkans/.
For more information, please contact UNEP Depleted Uranium Assessment Team Chairman Mr. Pekka Haavisto at +41-79-477-0877 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or UNEP Spokesperson Mr. Tore Brevik at +254-2-623292 or email@example.com; or UNEP Press Officer Mr. Michael Williams at +41-22-9178242, +41-79-409-1528 (cell) or firstname.lastname@example.org.
UNEP News Release 01/36