The lethal consequences of depleted uranium

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28th August 1995, Sarajevo. After avoiding the Serbian-Bosnian or the Muslim snipers people wander about the market stands to find something to eat. For a year now the streets of the city are full of clashes between the Serbian-Bosnian group, which is faithful to the ideals of Yugoslavia and linked to the government of Belgrade and the Bosnian-Muslim group, which won the referendum in 1992 and established independence from Bosnia. Five mortar rounds are fired among the fruit stands left half empty at around 11.00am. The result of the attack is 43 dead and 75 wounded. 

The market massacre on 28 August 1995 is still today a story covered with many mysteries. Some think it was a deliberate attack made by the Serbian-Bosnian army, while others accuse the Muslim group of having “sacrificed” their own citizens to push NATO totake an active part in the conflict.   

On 30 August  the helicopters of the Atlantic Charter soar into the air from Aviano; from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, in the Adriatic Sea, the A-10 Thunderbolt antitank aircraft equipped with depleted uranium rounds in their Gatling guns attack fifteen targets, but the information on the munitions used and the targets hit become accessible only some years after the conflict.   

In Bosnia after the Dayton Agreement and the reorganization of the territory on an ethnic-religious basis people start to die of cancer. Lung cancer, lymphoma and leukemia destroy the population of the villages near the Thunderbolts’ targets. In 2002 the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) starts a programme of screening and recovery in the Bosnian territory. In many of the places they analyse there are no alarming levels of radioactivity.

In 2002 UNEP releases  an accessible report which puts a figure on the number of rounds that need to be fired on a target to make it reach a certain level of contamination, and suggests that some areas should be prohibited to the population as they are not at all “clean”.

After 22 years the use of munitions with depleted uranium is still a subject of discussion. Some States  have eliminated them from their armaments after discovering that thousands of soldiers coming back from their foreign missions started to suffer from different diseases that would sometimes kill them. Among these nobody can forget the case of the 333 Italian soldiers who died and the 3600 more who got ill due to depleted  uranium (the source is the “press release of the military centre”, May 2016).

A logical question rises : if the depleted uranium was proved to be deadly for those who worked with it even for just few months in the affected areas, what can happen to those who normally live in these areas? It is really complicated to investigate this problem, as the States which were targets of NATO in the nineties are today trying to join it.

A study on the formation of blood cancers published by the European Haematology Association and carried out by some Bosnian doctors made a comparison between the  population of Hadzici, a village a few kilometres from the Bosnian capital hit by depleted uranium rounds in 1995 and the population of Ilijas, north of Sarajevo, which was not hit by the NATO bombardments. The research analysed the  data collected from January 1996 to December 2015 and reported that in the areas hit by depleted uranium there is a higher concentration of patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

Dr. Antonietta Gatti, who together with Dr. Stefano Montanari  is carrying out a study on the pathologies caused by nanoparticles, reports that the danger is not strictly linked to radiation, which is barely present in depleted uranium, but by the aerosols formed during the explosion of depleted uranium rounds.

As a matter of fact, the nanoparticles move within the body after inhalation or ingestion and then they form a sediment in the organs. It is not possible to foresee exactly where they will sediment, but we can assume that they can become the cause of some forms of cancer.

Also in Bosnia, in conformity with these studies Dr. Lamija Tanovic,  professor of nuclear physics at the  University of Sarajevo, has started a screening process to better analyse the pollution level in Hadzici.

“On 1 October we started a study which will last one year and which is financed by the Bosnian government. For the first time we will have the possibility of investigating in the areas hit by depleted uranium rounds with a team made up of physicists, chemists, biologists and doctors. This study is a preparatory study to seeking access to the European funds of the Horizon Programme 2020.   Our aim is to understand if the health condition of the population is put at risk by the radioactivity of the depleted uranium rounds or, as Dr. Gatti claims, by the formation of nanoparticles during the explosion of the rounds.” And she adds : “We want to analyse the influence on the animals who live in those areas and on the genetic mutations we may find in plants. We will test  the radioactivity and the composition of the ground and the water to evaluate the risks for the human health. It will be difficult to find remains of munitions after 20 years, as some of them were removed by UNEP, while those in the ground are difficult to identify. The best markers are the people who continue to live in Hadzici and those who moved after the end of the war. The particles which can be inhaled stay in the body for years and we can analyse them in the kidneys, in the liver, in the bladder and in the lungs”.

The analysis of the studies on the civil population in the war areas where depleted uranium rounds were used also enables us to better clarify what is happening  in the Polygons in Sardinia and at the NATO base on the Italian territory where these rounds were tested.     

Born as a weapon to stop a possible Russian advance at the end of the 1970s it then turned out to  be something which has marked the future of the populations involved, penetrating into the surrounding environment.

As you can read in some documents of the United States government and Air Force, the use of depleted uranium was also a way to recycle the waste materials coming from the process of enrichment  of uranium used in nuclear plants. The result, or better the collateral damage, has been to transform the areas of the conflict into dumps where people continue to live, unaware of the potential risk they are still running after all these years.      



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