Did NATO cause cancer, birth defects and infertility in the Balkans?

We came across the following post on a Telegram channel with over 138,000 followers:

The post, which was viewed over 21,000 times at the time of writing, relays that the Serbian health minister Danica Grujicic told national media that NATO had carried out an ‘inhumane experiment’ in the Balkans and that depleted uranium (DU) shells had caused cancer, birth defects and infertility in Serbia.

The article was sourced from the news site of the Russian state-funded television network RT. The news report was also published on Fars News, which is an Iranian news site managed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In the report, Grujicic said that Serbian doctors had begun observing increases in leukemia, lymphoma, oncological diseases, pathological pregnancies, autoimmune diseases, mental disorders in children, and infertility in men several years after the Kosovo War in 1999, in which NATO used DU weapons.

Grujicic called for an international investigation into the effects of the weapons and stated that DU weapons should be banned. RT noted that Grujicic had also called for an inquiry into the issue in the past.

Old Fears Resurrected

Depleted uranium is a by-product of enriching uranium for use as fuel in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. DU itself cannot generate nuclear reactions and it is mildly radioactive, emitting alpha particles that cannot travel far or penetrate the skin layer. However, it is highly dense, which increases its utility as a projectile or material for armour in military applications. The US army has developed DU weapons since the 1970s.

When we looked into the allegations of cancer and other health issues caused by DU weapons, we found that such health concerns had been reported by credible outlets such as RFERL, the BBC and The New York Times in the years after the Kosovo War.

According to RFERL, several soldiers and peacekeepers had died from leukaemia and other cancers after serving in Kosovo, a phenomenon that became known as ‘Balkan syndrome’. This reflected concerns among other veterans who had fought in the Bosnian War and Gulf War, two other conflicts where DU weapons were used.

As a result of these allegations by its own soldiers, Western armies began testing their own soldiers who had served in the Balkans. These coincided with investigations by the US Department of Defense (DoD), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), as well as NATO itself into the health effects of DU weapons use.

The studies found no links to establish that the use of DU weapons had resulted in adverse health effects. The DoD, for example, monitored a group of veterans and found that even those with DU fragments and elevated uranium levels in their bodies ‘had not developed kidney abnormalities, leukaemia, bone or lung cancer, or any other uranium-related adverse outcome.

A post-conflict assessment by UNEP in Serbia and Montenegro found that the radiological and toxicological risks from DU weapons contamination were ‘insignificant’, and a UNSCEAR scientific review found that ‘no clinically significant pathology related to radiation exposure to depleted uranium was found’.

Grujicic does not provide material to substantiate her claims, and it is not possible to prove or disprove her assertions. However, it is clear that her claims contravene the body of evidence currently available from other reliable sources. Without new, conclusive evidence, a link cannot be established between cancer, birth defects and infertility in Serbia and the actions taken by NATO in the Balkans.

International bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warn that the toxicological risks of uranium exposure are higher than the radiological risks, and can cause kidney and organ damage when ingested in high concentrations. However, according to the IAEA, claims that DU weapons use causes cancer, birth defects and infertility are not supported by current scientific evidence, and are therefore false.

Rehashing Past Propaganda

We have noted an uptick in false claims relating to depleted uranium since the Russian President Vladimir Putin commented that delivery of depleted uranium weapons to Ukraine (for use in the war in Ukraine) would prompt a response as they had a ‘nuclear component’ (a false statement as depleted uranium cannot initiate the nuclear reaction).

It is therefore significant that the news about Serbia appears to have originated on a Russian state-linked network, as well as being reported on a state-linked network from Iran, one of Russia’s few allies in its war effort in Ukraine. We also found past reports of health and environmental issues stemming from NATO use of DU weapons in Serbia has been periodically reported in Russian state-owned media such as TASS and Sputnik News.

RT News is rated by the media bias resource site Media Bias/Fact Check as a questionable source promoting pro-Russian propaganda, conspiracy theories, numerous failed fact checks, and a lack of author transparency.

NATO has assessed Serbia to be highly susceptible to Russian disinformation, and the country has taken a more friendly approach to Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, refusing to impose sanctions together with its regional partners.

An unnamed White House official was quoted by AP News saying that Russia had exhausted its own supply of depleted uranium weapons and sought to prevent Ukraine receiving them and obtaining a battlefield advantage.

In the RFERL article from 2001, a Kosovar leader is quoted saying that he believed the campaign against DU weapons to be an attempt to discredit NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo.

It is not possible to tell whether the claims in this post were originally designed in Belgrade or in Moscow, and neither is it possible to uncover the extent to which Serbian claims reflect genuine grievances.

However, the current furore over DU weapons does appear to have been aligned with, or amplified by, Russia as part of its broader disinformation campaign in the war in Ukraine, reflecting similar goals to the campaign from over two decades ago.

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