Depleted uranium, depleted health?

Anes Alic


As a growing number of Italian soldiers who served in the Balkans meet their death due to serious illness, the specter of ‘Balkan Syndrome’ and the effects of depleted uranium are again in the spotlight, writes ISA Executive Director Anes Alic for ISN Security Watch.

An increase of the number of Italian soldiers who served in the Balkans during the 1990s who are falling seriously ill due to depleted uranium exposure is causing a public outrage in Italy, as the government downplays the extent of the problem, widely referred to as "Balkan Syndrome."

According to an October study by the Italian Military Health Observatory, a total of 164 Italian soldiers have died thus far due to exposure to depleted uranium while serving in the Sarajevo suburbs and in Kosovo during the 1990s. In 2007 alone, the study said there were nine such related deaths and 97 new cases of uranium infection.

However, these numbers contradict government data, which claims that a total of 255 Italian troops have contracted tumors up to this date not only in missions in Balkans but also in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. The government also said that there was no established connection between those cases and depleted uranium.

Speaking to the Senate commission of inquiry into depleted uranium, Italian Defense Minister Arturo Parisi said that 37 of those soldiers who had contracted tumors had died so far. During that same period, 1,427 troops not involved in missions abroad also contracted tumors, according to the government.

"Nevertheless, cases of soldiers discharged years ago who did not apply for military service to be recognized as the cause will be excluded. This means that their illness may only be known to the national, but not the military, health service," Parisi said.

Following the minister’s speech before the Senate investigation committee, which will release its own report on the depleted uranium allegations by the end of the year, questions were raised over the accuracy of the statistics provided with some members of the parliament expressing doubt over defense ministry’s methodology, according to Italian media reports.

"I fear the minister’s figures refer only to the number of soldiers who fell ill while in active service, and failed to take account of those who had left the military," Italian media quoted Tana de Zuleta, a Green MP in the majority coalition, as saying.

In addition, in late September, the Italian government passed a decree allocating €170 million (US$245 million) in compensation for military personnel who have contracted diseases during their service – some 28,000 of them in Balkan missions alone.

However, next year, the government is planning, due to contradictory statistics, to set up a center comprised of leading experts in the field to study the depleted uranium issue, as the identification of a relationship of cause and effect is still under investigation.

Concerns over possible health effects of depleted uranium shells in Bosnia and Kosovo have also been raised by service members or civilian aid workers in Spain, France, Belgium, Britain, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Several dozens deaths and illnesses of military personnel from these countries over the course of the past decade have been attributed to depleted uranium by their governments.




Weapon of choice

Up to one million rounds of depleted uranium-enhanced ammunition were used in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991. Many Gulf War veterans have argued that depleted uranium has been the cause of their serious illnesses.

The same munitions were the weapons of choice for US forces in air attacks on Bosnian Serb positions in 1995 and the former Serbia and Montenegro federation in 1999.

Depleted uranium is what is leftover from the production of enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and energy plants. It is used in armor-penetrating military ordinance because of its high density, and also in the manufacture of defensive armor plates. The element also leaves behind a very fine radioactive dust that has a half-life of 4.5 billion years.

The so-called Balkan Syndrome affair first came to attention in early 2001, when several European countries, members within a UN peacekeeping mission, reported a series of cancer cases among soldiers who had taken part in peacekeeping operations in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. There have also been cases of children of Italian Balkan veterans born with genetic malformations.

During NATO’s 1994 and 1995 bombings of Bosnian Serb positions near Sarajevo, aircrafts used munitions containing depleted uranium. Most of those bombs – 10,800 rounds of 30mm armor-piercing projectiles in total – were fired in Hadzici, where the Bosnian Serb army had a weapons depot. In one day in October 1995 alone, NATO planes fired 300 projectiles into this Sarajevo suburb.

Back in 2003, UN experts confirmed the discovery of two locations containing a high level of radiation from depleted uranium from NATO bombings. A UN research team found that depleted uranium had contaminated local supplies of drinking water and could still be found in dust particles suspended in the air in the Hadzici are and in a Bosnian Serb army barracks in Han-Pijesak, also near Sarajevo. Investigators also discovered uranium materials and dust inside the buildings.

Despite this, the 2003 UN report claims that there is no danger for the postwar residents of Hadzici, since the recorded contamination levels are very low, but recommended further measuring of the radiation.

Soon after, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report was published, Bosnian Federation medical officials began to speculate as to the possibility that depleted uranium might be the cause of an increase in cases of diseases such as cancer, cerebral palsy, and others – especially leukemia.

However, director of the Sarajevo Radiology Institute, Dr Lejla Saracevic, told ISN Security Watch that due to the lack of statistics and cooperation from citizens, the illnesses could not be definitively linked to depleted uranium.

"Yet, the UN measured the level of radiation seven years after the bombing. No one knows the level of contamination in 1995 and the following years and how many people were in contact with the depleted uranium," Saracevic said.

Furthermore, all UN experts’ activities related to measuring the radiation have since stopped and local institutions lack the funding to continue the task, she said.

Hadzici and Han-Pijesak were not the only sites held by Bosnian Serbs during the war to be targeted by NATO. Bosnian officials suspect that eight other locations were bombed using depleted uranium-enhanced ammunition. However, those locations, the surroundings of four small towns near Sarajevo and four others in eastern Bosnia, are still too risky to investigate due to the possible presence of land mines.

After the war ended in December 1995 and the town came under the control of the Federation entity dominated by Bosniaks and Croats, most of the Serbs left Hadzici and relocated to the town of Bratunac, in eastern Bosnia, and also to other parts of Republika Srpska and neighboring Serbia. After the UN report was released, doctors there reported a greatly increased incidence of cancer-type illnesses in Bratunac.

To date, up to 30 percent of some 30,000 wartime Hadzici residents have died of various cancers, tumors and heart attacks, according to official statistics. Only in Bratunac, the only town to have kept track of possible depleted uranium illnesses, out of 4,500 wartime Hadzici residents who fled to Bratunac, nearly 1,000 of them died of illnesses believed to be related to depleted uranium exposure.



From the Balkans eastward

According to the Serbian government, NATO’s use of armor-piercing depleted uranium shells in its 1999 air strikes left five areas of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo contaminated by radiation. The zones include sites near Serbia‘s southern border with Kosovo, near the towns of Presevo, Bujanovac and Vranje, and two zones bordering Montenegro.

UN experts who in 2001 tested 11 out of a total of 112 bombed sites, said that in eight they found increases of harmless radiation. The remaining sites were unapproachable due the presence of land mines.

Serbian military officials alleged that US jets fired some 50,000 rounds of depleted uranium ammunition on military and civilian targets. However, US officials claim that the remains of the heavy metal shells did not present a significant health hazard.

Peacekeeping forces in those zones included Italian, German and Dutch contingents of the multinational peacekeeping force KFOR and some of them had been previously stationed in Bosnia. Only a couple dozen people living near the zones have sought medical checkups and they have not shown signs of illness related to uranium exposure.

However, the Bosnia and Kosovo missions are not the only concerns for international military and civilian personal regarding depleted uranium risks.

Three Bosnian experts interviewed by ISN Security Watch said they believed that munitions containing depleted uranium were used during the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and are still used on a daily basis and could cause 50-100 greater health hazards than in the Balkans.

These experts, who asked not to be named, have calculated that in Iraq alone, some 150 tonnes of depleted uranium were used by the coalition during the first three weeks of the invasion.

Also, since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, US and UK forces delivered between 500 and 600 tonnes of depleted uranium to destroy Taliban-held concrete aircraft hangers and to penetrate underground bunkers.

UN experts urged an immediate restoration of the water supply and sanitation systems, and a cleaning of pollution hot spots and waste sites to reduce the risk of epidemics among the population and coalition forces, but there are no reports that this task was undertaken.

Some NGOs speculate that cancer rates among children have increased by 400 percent in Iraq since the invasion started. However, just like in the Balkans, neither officials in Afghanistan nor Iraq have the funds to or interest in keeping track of the numbers of deadly illnesses and their potential causes.

Since 2003, dozens of US veterans, using the positive results of depleted uranium in their urine, sued the US Army, claiming that military officials were aware of the hazards of depleted uranium, but had concealed the risks. The US Defense Department claims that depleted uranium was powerful and safe, and not that troubling.

For, now the case for or against depleted uranium remains unresolved, but military personnel are increasingly calling for answers.


Anes Alic is a senior correspondent for ISN Security Watch in Southeastern Europe. He is also the Executive Director of ISA Consulting. He is based in Sarajevo. This article originally appeared in ISN Security Watch, run by the International Relations and Secuirty Network at ETH Zurich.

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m829 M919diag 


Who are the stakeholders in this situation? NATO/UN troops are at direct risk of DU. DU ammo is usually used in initial stages of war and conflict. Aircraft (such as A-10 anti-personnel aircraft), artillery, smart bombs, etc. are first used in initial bombardment of enemy targets. Crucial targets (e.g. radar, air defense, armored divisions, etc.) are taken out and your soldiers eventual move in. By using DU, you are directly putting the lives of your troops in great danger! Is this justifiable? Is it necessary? Not only that, but should we send troops without telling them the full dangers of DU? If it is dangerous, shouldn’t we better protect our soldiers? Would a conflict we engage in then be politically correct? The DoD and MoD finally admit that DU ammo could have serious consequences.14i, 15 No wonder we kept DU use in Kosovo a secret for a while. In addition, enemy troops are direct stakeholders for they receive the full and direct threat of DU ammo.


Civilians and collateral damage is another issue that should be strongly considered. Civilians are the unfortunate stakeholders of DU ammo use. As previously mentioned DU decay is long and the lives of future civilians will be greatly affected. DU storage has known to cause contamination to sewers, soil, groundwater, and water supplies. Cleanup easily costs hundreds of million of dollars and is an extremely difficult process.14d Leaving behind DU ammo is just like leaving behind landmines. DU litters the land and has the potential to kill innocent people of future generations!

m829 m829a2-s m829

Every military in the world are also stakeholders of DU ammo use. Since DU ammo can be easily constructed, it will be very likely that in the future many countries will arm their current weapon systems with DU ammunition. As previously mentioned, a very important fact that one should consider is that since DU can easily be created from natural uranium ore, non-nuclear power countries can easily produce DU ammunition. The final stakeholders are companies that produce DU ammo (e.g. US ammo companies are given DU for free by the US government and given lucrative contracts to produce DU ammo to arm common military land, sea and air base weapon systems.)9,10


Afbeelding 003 

If the proliferation of DU ammo continues, chances are that even high caliber sniper rifles (e.g. Barrett M82A1 shown here) will be developed to fire conventional DU rounds (testing of DU sniper ammo was done during the Gulf). Image source: P16





There are a few possible actions that can be carried out to answer the ethical question concerning DU ammo usage. We can allow the widespread promotion of DU ammo or ban DU ammo completely and consider it illegal in combat. We can also permit limited use of DU ammo (e.g., halt DU use pending extensive research on DU side effects).



If we allow the widespread promotion of DU ammo, then the consequences of that could be devastating. Eventually everyone might have it! Russia and China could become mass producers and distributors of DU weapons (even though Russia currently claims that their armed forces are not using DU ammo20, it is still a possibility). Terrorists will have it as well. By having a few countries use DU weapons now will only provoke an arms race that will emphasize that a modern military needs DU ammo for its weapons! Remember, DU ammo can penetrate DU armor! When every major country eventually equips their military with DU ammo, then the benefit of only you having DU on the battlefield is eliminated! You are hence fighting the same battle fought before, just at greater distances. You are back to the previous scenario. And let’s not forget the contamination that will result from this. With this decision we will continue to violate the rights of our soldiers, society, and future generations. DU will persist to inflict collateral damage on all societies throughout the world. Hence the common good out of this situation is absolutely nothing! Certain government armies will get more power for a brief moment, only until all modern armies are equipped with DU ammunition.



The second alternative is to ban DU ammunition completely. Countries will be penalized for the use of DU ammo. This follows similarly to the rules of military engagement when using advanced weapons such as biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. There is enough mutual respect and consideration that such weapons are not to be used on the battlefield. The fear of mutual reciprocity is enough to indicate that such negative side effects are not desirable to both sides. However, there is no guarantee that such a rule would be enforced. For example, the US still continues to use horrific “overkill” weapons such as napalm, white phosphorous, cluster bombs, autonomous landmine systems, etc. These are weapons that are not necessary at getting the job done. However, if we do ban DU weapons we will stop the spread of DU contamination and hence stop the collateral damage that occurs due to the use of DU ammo. The common good here is probably the best one in that we begin to limit the negative effects of DU for our society and future generations.




The third alternative is to limit the use of DU ammo or to halt DU usage pending research on the full side effects of DU and DU weapons. There simply isn’t enough research going on into this area of technology. More research has to be done to determine all the side effects in greater detail. If tests do show negative consequences of DU ammo use, then that information needs to be made public and DU proliferation should be stopped! However, the circumstantial evidence is overwhelmingly obvious that DU causes horrific side effects, however the notion for publication of such consequences needs to be made! Individual rights are somewhat respected in that by limiting DU we limit the collateral damage associated with DU usage. The common good is simply that we limit the effects of DU (pending on what research indicates).



“I don’t think the government actually realizes how many lives they are ruining, and they need to …they’re just killing the veterans, and killing their families along with them, with all the worry – and it’s not fair.” – Mandy Duncan, wife of Kenny Duncan, US Army driver during the Gulf War.8


The final decision is to ban DU ammunition completely. DU ammunition is extremely unethical. To use such tactical weapons for a war without considering its horrible side effects or ramifications for future generations is unacceptable! DU ammo is not the ultimate alterative in the battlefield. It is an overkill technology and not necessary at all for victory in battle. DU ammo use would most likely produce an arms race that would require all modern militaries to arm themselves with DU ammunition. The only time an army has any tactical advantage with DU ammunition is if your enemy doesn’t have it, but due to the ease of constructing DU ammo, it is obvious that it won’t be long before every major military has armed themselves with DU ammunition. Hence, in the long run DU will become obsolete. It is better to put more research into defensive/offensive tactics rather than destructive weaponry.

120 mm HE PENETRATOR                                                    120N mm KE PENETRATER                                              30 mm DU PENETRATER

120mm KE penetrator                                          30mm DU penetrator                                            120mm HE penetrator

Source: P6                                             Source: P17                                                           Source: P6


In conclusion, war is a last alternative and its side effects should be limited as much as possible, especially for the innocent civilians. However, regardless of what the international community does to stop the use of DU ammo, the research into harmful military technologies will only continue to increase! There is simply too much money, power, and politics involved! It is up to the people to obligate themselves in becoming more aware of such actions by higher authorities. It is up to the people to exercise their democratic powers so as to keep their governments and their affiliated branches in check.







1.      “120mm Ammunition.” FAS (Federation of American Scientists): Military Analysis Network. 3/8/2002.


2.      Bertell, Rosalie. “Gulf War Veterans and Depleted Uranium.” Hague Peace Conference. [May 1999]. 2/27/2002. <>

3.      “Bullets for Beginners.” FAS (Federation of American Scientists): Military Analysis Network. 3/8/2002.


4.      Department of the [US] Army. “Chapter 2 – Hostilities.” U.S. Army’s Field Manual 27-10, The Law of Land Warfare. [15 July, 1976]. 3/5/2002. <>

5.      Edwards, Gordon and Chenier, Marc. “Wanted: An Ethical Stance Against Depleted Uranium Weapons.” The Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. 2/27/2002. <>

6.      Kirby, Alex. “A Soldier’s Experience.” BBC News. [10 June, 1999]. 2/22/2002.


7.      Kirby, Alex. “Depleted Uranium: The Lingering Poison.” BBC News. [7 June, 1999]. 2/22/2002.


8.      Kirby, Alex. “Depleted Uranium: The Next Generation.” BBC News. [18, January, 2001]. 2/22/2002. <>

9.      “M829 120mm, APFSDS – T.” FAS (Federation of American Scientists): Military Analysis Network. 3/6/2002.


10.  “M919 Cartridge 25mm, Armor Piercing, Fin Stabilized, Discarding Sabot, with Tracer (APFSDS – T).” FAS (Federation of American Scientists): Military Analysis Network. 3/6/2002.


11.  “Should NATO’s Uranium Weapons be Banned?” BBC News. [16 January, 2001]. 2/22/2002.


12.  “The Military Uses of DU.” BBC News. 2/22/2002. <>

13.  “What is Depleted Uranium?” 2/27/2002. <>

14.  Zajic, Vladimir S. “Review of Radioactivity, Military Use, and Health Effects of Depleted Uranium” [1 August, 1999]. 2/27/2002. <>

14a) Zajic, Vladimir S. “Chapter 1 – Radioactivity.” [1 August, 1999]. 2/27/2002. <>

14b) Zajic, Vladimir S. “Chapter 2 – Origins” [1 August, 1999].

2/27/2002. <>

14c) Zajic, Vladimir S. “Chapter 3 – Applications” [1 August, 1999].

2/27/2002. <>

14d) Zajic, Vladimir S. “Chapter 4 – Manufacturers” [1 August, 1999].

2/27/2002. <>

14e) Zajic, Vladimir S. “Chapter 5 – Ammunition Testing” [1 August, 1999]. 2/27/2002. <>

14f) Zajic, Vladimir S. “Chapter 6 – Combat and Accidents” [1 August, 1999]. 2/27/2002. <>

14g) Zajic, Vladimir S. “Chapter 7 – Radiological Effects” [1 August, 1999]. 2/27/2002. <>

14h) Zajic, Vladimir S. “Chapter 8 – Chemical Toxicity” [1 August, 1999]. 2/27/2002. <>

14i) Zajic, Vladimir S. “Chapter 9 – Gulf War Illness” [1 August, 1999].

2/27/2002. <>

14j) Zajic, Vladimir S. “Chapter 10 – Conclusion” [1 August, 1999].

2/27/2002. <>

15.  “Depleted Uranium Legacy.” Right Livelihood Foundation. Earth Island Journal. v16 i4 (2001): 22

16.  “What is [depleted] uranium.” 2/27/2002. <>

17.  Kirby, Alex. “Q&A: Depleted Uranium Weapons.” BBC News. 2/22/2002. <>

18.  Koppel, Naomi. “UN Scientists: Yugoslavia still contaminated by depleted uranium three years after NATO bombing.” Associated Press. March 27, 2002. 

19.  Arkin, William M. “Still Glowing.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. V53 n5 (1997): 64.

20.  “No ammunition with depleted uranium in Russia army – official.” ITAR/TASS News Agency. January 11, 2001.



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