Ahead of Annan's Balkans trip, UN agency chief reports on depleted uranium in area

Ahead of Annan's Balkans trip, UN agency chief reports on depleted uranium in area

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As United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan prepares to travel to the Balkans later this week, the senior UN environment official has reported to him on the presence of depleted uranium (DU) in the region.

Studies in Kosovo and other parts of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia found that "contamination at the targeted sites was widespread," the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), writes in a letter to Mr. Annan. The agency also conducted studies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where DU was used during bombings in the mid-1990s.

The substance - a byproduct of nuclear power which has been used for heavy tank armour, anti-tank munitions, missiles and projectiles - has significant chemical toxicity, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO).

The radioactivity from the DU dust found in Bosnia is low, corresponding to around 200 times the background radioactivity, "but as heavy metal DU is also toxic and even smaller amounts cause, for example, kidney problems," Mr. Toepfer writes.

Given the theoretical potential for DU impacts on groundwater, UNEP will conduct a laboratory analysis of the nearly 200 environmental samples it collected at the affected areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Based on the work UNEP has already done in the Balkans, the agency is calling for "precautionary action" at locations where the public has access to DU sites.