by Vesna Peric Zimonjic
(IPS) BELGRADE --
are growing in Serbia about possible health hazards following confirmation from NATO that it used depleted uranium (DU), in its air campaign against the country last year.
Pekka Haavisto, former Finnish ecology minister who heads Balkans Task Force (BTF) within the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said in Geneva recently that NATO was "still holding back" crucial data on where and how it used DU weapons.
NATO has said that the aim of such weapons is to penetrate the thick armor of military vehicles or underground bunkers.
As a result, contamination of land and water sources with radioactive and toxic particles occurs.
The use of DU was confirmed in a letter from NATO's Secretary-General, George Robertson, to United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.
Haavisto said that in the letter NATO added a map with areas where the DU weapons were supposedly used. He said the alliance admitted to having used 31,000 rounds of DU ammunition during some 100 missions throughout the southern province of Kosovo using United States A-10 aircraft.
"The question we now have today is whether it was also used in Serbia and Montenegro and other areas," Haavisto said.
He said according to the NATO map, DU-tipped weapons were used west of the Pec-Djakovica-Prizren highway, around the town of Klina, around Prizren and north of Suva Reka and Urosevac in Kosovo, all densely populated areas.
"People should have been protected and warned against the risks of intoxication, especially children," Haavisto said.
Predrag Polic, chemistry professor with Belgrade University and member of the UNEP team here, told IPS that his team found evidence of the DU weapons use on six locations outside Kosovo, around southern Serbian towns of Bujanovac and Vranje and the Adriatic town of Kotor in Montenegro.
"This kind of uranium has little radioactivity, but it acts as any other heavy metal" Polic said. "It has long chemical and toxic effects, enters the food chain and remains there for a long time. If its particles are inhaled by a man, it contaminates and poisons a person at the same time," he said.
Local experts here working with UNEP dismissed the response by the Pentagon which stated that the 31,000 rounds did not present a significant health hazard.
local UNEP experts have warned that, besides DU and the possible consequences it might have, NATO air raids substantially added to long lasting pollution in the whole area after dozens oil refineries, petrochemical complexes and factories were destroyed.
After extensive soil and ground water samples were taken from the worst damaged industrial sites in Serbia last July, almost immediately after the 10 weeks NATO campaign was over, the preliminary analyses showed that there were grounds for "many concerns and serious worries" about environment and health problems of population, Pekka Haavisto told IPS at the time.
From March 24 to June 8, 1999, at least 23 petrochemical plants, oil refineries and fuel depots in Yugoslavia were bombed by NATO, as well as at least another 121 major industrial plants containing various chemicals and substances dangerous to human health, both UNEP and Yugoslav Environment Ministry statistics say.
Thousands of tonnes of highly toxic chemicals were uncontrollably released into the air, soil and water in this densely populated country with an area of 102,173 square kms.
BTF carried detailed research in the worst hit town of Pancevo, 15 kms northeast of Belgrade, where a fertilizer plant, petrochemical complex and oil refinery were hit several times.
All three are situated within an eight square kms region and within hundreds of meters of residential buildings.
Srdjan Mikovic, Pancevo mayor, told IPS that the UNEP team, visiting the town and the area several times since July, found out that more than 100.000 tonnes of different substances were released into the atmosphere where they burned for days and later polluted ground and water.
After the petrochemical complex was hit, Mikovic says, eight tonnes of mercury went into Danube river. Two tonnes of ethylene dichloride, a carcinogenic, were also released into the atmosphere and into Danube after the fertilizer plant was hit.
"All this can have tragic consequences. Maybe not now, but certainly in years to come we'll see the rise in cancers in the area" Mikovic stressed.
Journalists who visited Pancevo during the NATO air campaign and immediately after it ended were told by local gynecologists that they recommended termination of early pregnancies to women, due to health hazards on the unborn children.
"The risks are unknown, women were scared about the health of their children and so were we" a local doctor told IPS at the time. Maybe they should wait for a year or two before having children at all."
UNEP sources say that the critical points remain the northern Serbian town of Novi Sad, where huge oil refinery was destroyed by NATO, central Serbian town of Kragujevac where Zastava car factory was hit and southern Serbian town of Nis, where a transformer factory was targeted several times.
The analyses of ground samples from those places show that traces of mercury, PCB Pyralene and asbestos still remain in the environment.
Severe and continuous NATO bombing of power stations and transformers all over Serbia last May released the highly dangerous pollutant, PCB Pyralene.
PCBs, man made organic substances used in transformer oils, are known to cause skin and liver cancer and male sterility. PCB poisoning can be passed from mother to child by breast-feeding. Traces of PCBs are still existent in the town of Kragujevac, Serbian experts working with UNEP told IPS.
"The whole situation is both scary and unfair" Budimir Babic, head of the small Green Party recently said at a press conference in Belgrade.
"NATO is hiding facts on DU and acting in a discriminatory manner against ordinary people here. They comment only what was used in Kosovo, where their forces are now. What about the others?"
April 17, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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