Report on an International Scientific Conference on Environmental Consequences of the Balkan Crisis

Catherine A. Euler, Ph.D., International Depleted Uranium Study Team (IDUST)

Report on an International Scientific Conference on Environmental Consequences of the Balkan Crisis, Medecins du Monde-Greece Athens 26 January 2001

The night before the conference enormous street demonstrations against DU and NATO had taken place in Athens, which were attended by some 2-3,000 people. However, no one at the conference mentioned the intensely political demonstrations. The conference positioned itself as a non-political event which tried to find out the scientific truth about DU. It was clear that depleted uranium had been a matter of great concern throughout the Balkans, and most of those attending were from the region. The programme began with an introduction by Dr Theophilos Rosenberg, the director, who emphasised that Medecins du Monde-Greece had developed an excellent reputation for complete impartiality throughout the Balkans Crisis, and that the doctors had continued to treat the ill and wounded in Kosovo and Serbia during the bombing.

He was followed by Mr. E. Sideris, a radiobiologist at the Democritus Institute, who said that the action of internal alpha particles could lead to "extensive degeneration in the DNA." However, he said, quoting from the last press release of the World Health Organisation, some 95% of uranium is eliminated by the faeces or excreted in urine after 180-360 days. While other scientists, like Dr. Durakovic and Dr Sharma, have shown that the insoluble uranium can last much longer in the human body than this, perhaps more than twenty years, Mr Sideris seemed unaware of this research. He also suggested that no problems whatsoever had been created for those people near the El-Al crash in Amsterdam, and repeated the increasingly popular myth that no increases in leukemia had coccurred after Chernobyl. Even though the McDiarmid American Armed Forces Radiobiology Institute (AFFRI) studies with rats had shown DU-caused alterations to the hippocampus, in the brain, he insisted that the risk of DU was mainly for the civilians, not the soldiers, and no risk at all for the people of Greece. Nevertheless, he ended his talk with the comment that, "only a sick mind could design a weapon of this sort." He appealed for anyone with more information on leukemias in Gulf War veterans to contact him, as he cannot find it on any of the databases.

Dr. Andjelka Vukicevic, of the Institute of Public Health, Serbia, focused his presentation on the chemical pollutants released by the bombing of Pancevo and other industrial locations, which released hydrocarbons, benzene, phenols, xylenes, toluene, phosgene, dioxins, vinyl chloride monomers, chromium, arsenic, nickel, etc. He reported no immediate increase in local health problems. Dr. M. Solos, Associate Professor of Environmental Chemistry at the University of Athens, emphasised the toxicity of DU as a heavy metal, saying that "the food chain in that region is expected to manifest the same consequences as with other heavy metals...the transfer from sediment to tissue causes a risk to the future." He said concentrations of heavy metals would be expected to increase particularly in organisms living at the bottom of lakes and rivers. Professor of Atmospheric Pollution at Thrace, Dr. S. Rapsomanikus, said there was a transport of toxic organic aerosol over Greece during the 1999 conflict, after the pollutants were ejected to the troposphere. His studies had mostly focused on the distribution of organic compounds, rather than DU, but he also said that the distribution of radioactivity monitors on the borders of Greece was not ideal.

Dr Predag Polic, the Chair for Applied Chemistry at the University of Belgrade, had been working with the UNEP team collecting samples. He emphasised the chemical pollution caused by the bombing, particularly the "tons and tons" of PCBs released by bombing transmitter stations in the national parks. He reported on a survey of natural and anthropogenic radioactivity in Yugoslavia which had reported no significant increase, though soil samples containing a uranium bullet had registered 100x higher than normal background. He suggested that most of the danger from radioactivity was limited to Kosovo.

Dr Maria Sotiropoulou-Arvaniti, President of the Greek section of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), said the radioactivity from the explosion of DU shells was very different from that at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She said there was an increase in leukaemia in southern Iraq, and a significant increase in infectious diseases, herpes, anaemias, etc. She said the uranium missiles used in Bosnia in 1994-1995 had not yet shown their full effect, and that banning radioactive weapons, as well as nuclear weapons, was the only way we were to survive as a species.

After lunch, I spoke about the great divide in scientific opinion about DU. One side insists it is harmless, a view mostly promulgated by NATO and the US and UK ministries of defence, who do quote from several scientists. B. Rostker, from the US DoD, for example, reports that "no human cancer of any kind has ever been seen as a result of exposure to uranium." Other scientists, however, insist it could very well be the cause of the cancers, illnesses and genetic abnormalities we are seeing in Iraq and among Gulf War veterans. I suggested that the main reason for this difference in approach was due to varying theories of radiation risk. One model, the linear non-threshold model, held that risk decreased as radiation dose decreased. This was a mathematical model based on extrapolating from the external acute exposures of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki Survivors. However, several studies has shown empirical support for what Dr. Chris Busby calls the biphasic cellular response model, in which very low doses actually cause more harm than a higher dose, up to a certain point. The only way to contribute towards a settling of the dispute was to carry out an independent epidemiological survey, not another desk study. I then outlined the study as suggested by Dr. Rosalie Bertell, and indicated that the International Depleted uranium Study Team would like to co-ordinate it, and that we needed both more partners and more funding. I suggested that those needing more information about the competing models of radiation risk should consult the DU section at URL:

Dr. Hannu Vuori, the co-director of the Department of Health and Social Welfare for the UN Mission in Kosovo, then focused largely on UNMIK's role in rebuilding hospitals. He said the level of radioactivity in DU was extremely minimal, and could not be detected at a distance of ten centimeters from the shell. He said the World Health Organisation was currently in Kosovo conducting a study, and was carrying out a review of the literature. "UNMIK doesn't want to belittle the problem," Dr. Vuori said. "Cases have been found where scientists belittle theories later found to be right." He said all 112 sites where DU has been found would be marked in the field. He suggested one strategy would be to establish a testing facility for voluntary testing of the local population could take place. He said his department had been designated as the focal point for depleted uranium work. But, he said, in the light of what we have learned from the WHO, the radiation from badly maintained x-ray machines and heavy metals from the Mitrovica mines are a much greater radiation risk.

Dr. Theophilou, a nuclear physicist at the Democritus Institute, said he had worked for twelve years in the laboratory for atomic fission run by the European Union. He insisted that we know enough from physics to condemn DU munitions, and that epidemiology was not required but more molecular biology was. He said alpha particles have a charge of 4.5 million electron volts, and that to change a molecule one needed only one-fourth of an electron volt. Erroneous copies of cells will be produced, he insisted, and this leads to carcinogenesis and leukaemias. If the alpha particle damaged the DNA, then erroneous copies would be produced forever afterwards. He said that with the addition of only one alpha particle, the health of the individual was in a hostile environment. He emphasised that alpha particles were extremely energetic atoms, and that their high temperature could also damage nearby cells. He said he was extremely concerned when he heard there were particles of Pu mixed with the DU. Speaking of dust particles 1-10 microns in size, he said "these particles can reach all the different areas of our body, and most are insoluble." He indicated that harmful reactions could result from the entry of uranium to the stomach, where it would be transformed by hydrochloric acid. He said the dust could be transferred up into the atmosphere and travel very far, in the same way that dust from the Sahara has been found in Greece. He thought it certainly was theoretically possible that some particles of DU had travelled as far as Greece from Kosovo.

Dr. A.K. Geranios, a Professor of Nuclear Physics at Athens University, said there were six or seven labs performing tests on alpha exposures to cells, and that the alpha energy seemed to travel only as far as one or two cells, and therefore caused limited damage. However, he insisted that the current model used to estimate the risks from radiation may not be correct, because we have only had 55 years to study the effects of radiation, and we need a much longer time period before we know very much. "We can't have an overt model of results at very low levels because of the long period of time in which they need to be determined." He spoke at length about how several radiation limits were in fact set by economic or financial considerations between countries, and not according to their biological effects. He said the levels of radiation standards had continuously dropped since the 1930s. "Some people say we are exaggerating the risks. Since the 1930s we have never had an exaggeration of risk. On the contrary, we have tended to underestimate risks." He said it was not right to use ordinary risks, such as the risk of an automobile accident, to calculate risks from radiation hazard, because the latter are not repeatable and observable in the way the one-off events of the former type of risk are. Radiation risks were not one-off events, but continued as long as the decay continued. To wait until we have further proof of the harm of DU was "utterly fallacious," he said, "and until then we must make sure the weapon is abolished."

Dr. Dugachuini Binishi, the director of Pristina University Hospital in Kosovo, said a leukaemia risk for soldiers there was highly unlikely, and that there had been no cancer increase reported amongst the civilian population in the last five years. There had been no increase in leukaemia as a result of Chernobyl, he said. [This is based on an error-filled study reported by UNSCEAR, and is inaccurate]. He said there is no association between DU and lung disease or renal dysfunction, according to US scientists. While it was important to identify and mark off sites where DU was used, "we need help to treat our current leukaemia. We don't have drugs, or anything, to help solve it...If each European country would take 1-2 of these patients, that would be the best help we could receive."

Dr. G. Rigatos, a doctor of oncology, said that "no matter what the quantity, we know uranium may be carcinogenic." There had been studies in 1902, 1921, 1931 and 1934 showing the relationship between radiation and cancer, and the Minister of Health in the Ukraine had certainly reported an increase in leukaemia after Chernobyl. There is an increase in malignant neoplasmas in Iraqi patients, and 100,000 US soldiers are also ill. We are now seeing localised nuclear war, he said.

Dr. Milan Orlic, the president of the Nuclear Sciences Institute in Belgrade, went through all the decay products of U238, and said radiation levels in Serbia had not increased, and there was an extremely small risk from DU, and that over 200 metres from an impact site, there were no dangers at all. Even if there were one gram of DU aerosol present per square metre of air, this might result in 3-30mg in humans, and thus only in 0.1-0.3 mSv exposure to the human being, averaged out over the body. He said the so-called Balkans Syndrome was more likely to be correlated with other agents present besides DU. [Of course, the energy from alpha particles is not averaged out over the whole body, it is deposited within a 30-micron radius of cells, but this was not mentioned.]

Dr. K. Pangalos, a professor of genetics, spoke next. He listed the kind of genetic abnormalities which could be attributed to genetic effects, and those most likely to be the cause of environmental or teratogenic changes (occurring during foetal development). He said there had been an increase in miscarriages in the Middle East region, with a peak increase in 1994. He said some of the dysplasias, or extremity abnormalities, had not been integrated into statistical assessment of the region, and that some of these were attributable to classical genetic mutations. Manifestations in children of one eye and enlarged heads (macroencephaly) could be teratogenic, but could be hereditary. Eventual changes in genetic material may not be apparent even in the next generation. He would say that in the third or fourth generation it would be more apparent. He suggested that those countries using DU must ban these weapons if "they don't wish to mourn the consequences in their populations."

He was followed by Dr. Dimistris Moghnie, who had spent ten years working as a doctor in Iraq after the Gulf War. He said the cancers in Al Basarah had increased from 1,713 in 1991 to 22,000 in the year 2000. In the district of Kerbela, they had increased from 943 in 1991 to 16,000 in 2000. In the district of Muthanna, they had increased from from 511 to 9600.

The conference ended with presentations on the role of international law. One professor said that although International Humanitarian Law should protect civilians, there had been no clear law prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons, so it was unclear whether they were illegal or not. Another said DU weapons were more likely to be illegal under conventions protecting the environment from warfare. Although DU weapons were not included in a prohibition, they were included in a general way because of their effects on civilians and the environment.

The conference was reported on the front page of the Athens daily paper, Ekathimerini, with the headline: "NGOS: Toxic Pollution May Be Worse Than DU"