It is highly unlikely that a reported increase in the risk of cancer could be associated with the residues of depleted uranium (DU) munitions used during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the mid-1990s, according to a new report published by the United Nation's Environment Programme (UNEP).
The report Depleted Uranium in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment could not find any proven link between DU and increases in cancers or other significant health or environmental risks. The "radiological and toxicological risks at DU contaminated sites are, in most cases, insignificant". However, the report calls for precautionary clean-up steps at sites where DU residues were found.
The report contains the findings of a UNEP led field mission on the health and environmental impacts of the use of DU in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was conducted by a team of experts from international and national bodies in October 2002. The mission was the first in which all three UN organizations responsible for DU activities, the IAEA, UNEP and the World Health Organization (WHO) were represented. The methodology and risk assessment techniques for the report were based on two previous studies performed in the Balkans – in Kosovo in 2000 and in Serbia and Montenegro in 2001.
Findings and Assessment
The expert team investigated fourteen sites that were targeted with DU munitions during the conflict. There were clear indications that DU munitions had been used at three of these sites. A number of fragments of DU munitions were collected from these sites and about 300 contamination points were observed.
The report found that the only risk of "any potential significance" would be if someone came in contact with DU fragments or ingested DU dust soil. The radiological risk from ingestion of DU would be "insignificant", while from a toxicological point of view, "the possible intake might be somewhat higher than normal health standards," the report said.
Very low concentration of depleted uranium was found in one sample of water used for cooking and drinking. Although the report found the corresponding radiation dose was insignificant and would not pose any health risk. As a precautionary measure, it calls for water sampling to continue for several years.
One of the tasks of the mission was to assess the information on numbers of cancers and the possible link with DU. This part of the investigation was carried out by the WHO. It found "due to the lack of a proper cancer and reporting system, claims of an increase in the rates of adverse health affects stemming from DU cannot be substantiated".
"The extremely low exposure identified in this UNEP mission indicates that it is highly unlikely that DU could be associated with these reported health effects", the report said.
Of greater concern, is the need to improve the country´s radiation safety infrastructure, which had to be rebuilt after the war. A key task of the mission, carried out by the IAEA, was to investigate the country´s radiation protection infrastructure.
The report stresses the need for the Bosnian authorities to account and safely dispose of radioactive sources such as sources for industrial radiography and those used in lightning rods and smoke detectors – a large number of which were lost or damaged during the war.
"The risks from potential exposure to these sources are significantly higher than those from exposure to depleted uranium residues." Priority should be given to record, recover and safely store or dispose of these obsolete radioactive sources, the report recommends.
The team´s analysis comes seven years after the Bosnian conflict. The UNEP's report underlines that information on the correct locations for all DU-affected sites is still missing and that any delay in disclosing it could adversely affect any remedial measures.
"The longer the time that has elapsed since the time of the attack, the more difficult it is to implement countermeasures, including decontamination. As six NATO coordinates of confirmed attack sites are still missing, these coordinates should be disclosed without delay," the report said.
Key recommendations stemming from the report include:
- Awareness raising activities for the local population, military and demining personnel about depleted uranium and radioactive sources.
- Clean up and documentation of all marked depleted uranium contamination points, and for any sites found in the future.
- Efforts to strengthen the radiation protection infrastructure of Bosnia-Herzegovina and to improve collaboration between the authorities responsible for radiation safety in the two administrative entities in which the country was divided after the conflict.
- Priority given (by both of Bosnia-Herzegovina´s administrative entities) to record, recover and safely store or dispose of obsolete radioactive sources.
- Relevant health authorities should continue to develop a cancer reporting system and investigate all claims regarding alleged health effects from exposure to depleted uranium.
The IAEA is already helping to strengthen Bosnia and Herzegovina´s radiation safety infrastructure - one of the report´s key recommendations. There are currently eight national and nine regional IAEA-supported projects in Bosnia, covering different aspects of radiation protection, including control and prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials, monitoring of radioactivity in the environment, and management of sealed radiation sources in areas affected by war and technologies for managing radioactive wastes.
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