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UN: Uranium Levels Low Risk in Serbia, Montenegro - 2002-03-30

A study by the U.N. Environment Program, or UN-EP, finds widespread traces of depleted uranium from NATO munitions at six sites in Serbia and Montenegro. But the scientists say the levels of contamination are too low to pose a risk to health or the environment.

The team of 14 experts investigated five of 11 sites that were struck by depleted uranium ordnance - DU - in Serbia, and one site that was hit in Montenegro during the 1999 Kosovo conflict. They collected more than 160 samples, which were analyzed in laboratories in Switzerland and Italy.

The study finds that the DU sites do not present immediate radioactive or toxic risks for the environment or human health. This mirrors the findings of a similar study conducted last year in Kosovo.

Nevertheless, the scientists recommend taking precautionary measures. The team leader, Pekka Haavisto, said the team was surprised to find DU particles still in the air two years after the conflict ended.

"We found very few particles with very advanced measuring methodology. So, it is not at the moment a health risk if you walk there, and if you don't have any major soil disturbance. But, let us put it this way, we don't know if it could be a bigger health risk if you make major soil removals or soil disturbance," Mr. Haavisto said.

Based on these findings, Mr. Haavisto said, the authorities should carefully plan how DU-targeted sites are used in the future. He said any soil disturbance at these sites could risk releasing DU particles into the air.

He says continued monitoring is needed and that the local population should be informed about DU issues. Mr. Haavisto said the biggest long-term concern is the possible contamination of ground water by penetrators that are corroding. Penetrators are ammunition tips made from depleted uranium.

"At the moment, the depleted uranium in the soil is still limited to some, let us say, maximum half-a-meter, so not touching the ground waters and others. But the speed of this corrosion is quite rapid, and this gives a risk for the future of having ground water contaminated by depleted uranium," he said.

The report recommends that water quality at the sites be monitored on an annual basis. It also recommends that all DU sites be posted and fenced off. It says children should not be allowed to play in these areas.