Depleted Uranium: 
The Vieques-Kosovo Connection

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by Toby Eglund

February 12, 2001. For years, residents of the Puerto
Rican island of Vieques have claimed that there is a
link between the use of their land as a U.S. bombing
range, and the abnormally high rate of cancers and
other serious illnesses. According to Puerto Rico's
figures, the numbers of people in Vieques suffering
from cancer of the breast, cervix and uterus have
increased by 300% over the past 20 years. 

Of particular concern is the Navy's use of shells
containing depleted uranium (DU), a possible
carcinogen. There is evidence the DU shells have
been in use for at least a decade, though the Navy
only admits to using them in February of 1999, while
practicing for the war in Yugoslavia and Kosovo. 

The Navy said DU shells were used by mistake, and
they made some efforts to recover the radioactive
shell casings afterwards. They now say the
unrecovered casings don't matter, anyway, because
DU is a "natural" material of relatively low
radioactivity. "Stories of cancers and illness are just
part of a campaign of misinformation by those
opposed to our presence on the island," said U.S.
Navy Commander John Carrera. 

European scientists are not so sure. There is growing
anxiety among NATO members over the recent
cancer deaths of 15 European troops, and the
unexplained illnesses of many more deployed in
Kosovo, Yugoslavia, and Bosnia. European critics
suspect depleted uranium, though U.S. officials argue
that DU is safe. 


While the scientific jury is still out on that issue, the instant bestseller, "Depleted Uranium: The Invisible War" [Uranium appauvri: la guerre invisible] released in France on January 23, reveals that, in fact, "safe" depleted uranium in U.S. bombs had been contaminated at least six years ago by highly radioactive waste, probably in the munitions plant in Paducah, Kentucky. The U.S. was aware of the problem, but used them, anyway. 

The charges of contamination by "Depleted Uranium"
authors, Martin Meissonnier, Frederic Loore and
Roger Trilling, were confirmed by researchers at a
Swiss government laboratory, which analyzed spent
U.S. munitions from Kosovo. The lab found that the
shells did contain traces of an isotope of uranium
which occurs only in nuclear waste. Four other
European labs are also analyzing data from samples
of soil, water, and spent shells from Kosovo, and
their findings are due to be released in March. 

Puerto Ricans may be the beneficiaries as Europeans
continue to investigate. The Puerto Rican legislature
just passed a unanimous resolution asking to be
included in any future investigations by NATO,
individual countries, and the World Health
Organization (WHO). The new revelations may help
evict the Navy from Vieques, and bolster the lawsuit
filed by the Mississippi-based law firm, John Arthur
Eaves, on behalf of 3,600 sick Vieques residents.
The firm, which specializes in class action lawsuits
involving industrial pollution, will be claiming more
than $100 million in damages from the US Navy. 

The lawsuit is being closely watched by Europeans
critical of NATO's use of DU shells, and by the
stricken NATO soldiers and their supporters. If the
Vieques people win, an avalanche of European
lawsuits against NATO and their home governments
may follow. Conversely, any lawsuit against a
European NATO member will strengthen the
Vieques lawsuit in the U.S.