By MARLISE SIMONS
Published: January 9, 2001
PARIS, Jan. 8— After the NATO bombing campaign of 1999, the United States urged allied armies to take special precautions on entering Kosovo because American ammunition littering the landscape contained depleted uranium that posed possible health risks.
A document called ”hazard awareness” issued by the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned soldiers and civilians against touching spent ammunition or other contaminated materials. It said personnel handling the heads of anti-tank shells or entering wrecked vehicles should wear protective masks and cover exposed skin, and people involved in the more hazardous clearing tasks should undergo health assessments afterward.
The document, dated July 1, 1999, was circulated among the militaries of the countries involved in the Kosovo campaign, and Germany, France and other countries passed along the warnings to their soldiers.
The Dutch defense ministry said it gave specific instructions about how troops were to confront the uranium problem before they went to Kosovo. ”Our troops were told to mark or cordon off contaminated areas, avoid any contact and call in special demolition units,” a spokesman at the foreign ministry said.
A growing number of former peacekeepers from Europe and Canada have contracted cancer or cancerlike diseases. At least 15 have died of leukemia — 6 in Italy, 5 in Belgium, 2 in the Netherlands and 1 each in Portugal and Spain.
While acknowledging the hazards, both the Pentagon and NATO, pointing to medical experts, have denied that any links could exist between exposure to depleted uranium and the illness and deaths of veterans.
Defense ministries in several countries have acknowledged receiving the American document, which has not been released. It was made available to The New York Times in Europe today by a military official from a NATO country.
While NATO officials said it was normal practice to inform troops about hazardous materials, the warnings about depleted uranium are likely to deepen concern in Europe. Ten countries have ordered investigations into possible links between the illness of soldiers and their exposure to depleted uranium.
Only American planes fired such uranium-tipped weapons during the 11-week Kosovo air campaign, using some 30,000.
Uranium is one of the heaviest metals, which makes it effective in piercing targets like tanks or concrete. A byproduct of enriched uranium, the depleted form is only mildly radioactive, but when it pulverizes in an explosion or fire, its dust is considered potentially hazardous if ingested or inhaled.
The German government said today that while it would not order mandatory screening of those who served in the Balkans, all 50,000 of them could ask for a free checkup at a military hospital.
Portugal dispatched three cabinet ministers to Kosovo today and also sent a team of military inspectors after the recent death of a soldier from leukemia. The Dutch ministry of Defense said it was reopening the investigation into the recent deaths of all soldiers, although only two died of leukemia.
Several governments said they were still poring over health records to establish whether cancer rates among peacekeepers were different from those of the same age group of the population.
The American document said that D.U., as depleted uranium weapons are known, ”is a safe and effective munition.” But ”residual heavy metal toxicity in armored vehicles struck by D.U. perpetrators could pose possible health risks for those that access those vehicles,” it said.
The document says soldiers entering armored vehicles hit by depleted uranium weapons should wear masks and cover exposed skin, and should be examined and their potential exposure recorded. The document does not mention radiation, which is said to be weak in the employed form of depleted uranium. It recommended that suspicious debris be reported for clearance. It also said potential risks should ”be passed on to both nongovernmental organizations and returning refugees.”
Despite such warnings, 14 scientists from the United Nations Environment Program said they found remnants of uranium-tipped ammunition still lying around. The team, recently returned from a two-week mission in Kosovo, said it found remnants of depleted uranium ammunition accessible to playing children and animals. The team has urged that contaminated sites be restricted and cleaned as soon as possible.
Photo: A radioactivity expert checked the ruins of a chicken farm in the village of Krivova for radioactive materials. (Agence France-Presse)