Europeans are worried that soldiers who served in the Balkans, and residents of the area themselves, may have been exposed to dangerous levels of contamination from mostly U.S-manufactured depleted uranium weapons. What is depleted uranium, and how is it used in weapons?
Uranium ore contains three major isotopes (or types) of uranium: uranium 234, uranium 235, and uranium 238. At the refinery, the ore is "depleted" of its highly fissionable U-235, which is used in bombs and reactors. About 99 percent of the remaining uranium is of the U-238 variety. U-238 is the stuff used in DU weapons.
DU weapons come in two types: armor and projectile. Because of DU's extreme density it has been used since the Gulf War as tank shielding. (It has a similar civilian use as a medical radiation shield.) The weapons that have come under the greatest scrutiny, however, are the DU-enhanced projectiles first used in the Gulf War and then in great numbers in the Balkans. DU-tipped bullets have not only tremendous penetrating capacity but two bonus qualities: Instead of flattening out when striking a target, the bullet resharpens itself, and particles of DU released during impact spontaneously combust.
Now health questions are arising about exposure to DU weapons because a number of European veterans of the Balkans have died of leukemia. The U.S. Department of Defense says the primary risk to exposure to DU is not its radioactivity, which is low, but the toxic effects it shares with its fellow heavy metals, mercury and lead. Soldiers can get DU fragments imbedded in their bodies and also inhale DU particles if close to an impact. The department says studies of Gulf War veterans, some with DU shrapnel still in their bodies, have not shown increased kidney damage--a known side-effect of high exposure to uranium--or birth defects in the soldiers' children. Not surprisingly, this kind of reassurance is not reassuring the Europeans. Both NATO and the European Union have ordered investigations into the health effects of exposure to DU.