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Published: Saturday, 1/20/2001

Liability issues also have moral dimension

A controvsery very much reminiscent of the one surrounding the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam is brewing in Europe. This one concerns the use by NATO forces of radioactive ammunition during the Serbian offensive. The controversy is being fueled not by the innocent wayside victims of the bombings but by the European peacemakers who were sent into Serbia after the offensive.

A number of Italian peacekeepers have come down with deadly leukemia and their illness is being blamed by the Italian government on the radiation emitted by the bombed sites in Serbia.

Some of the ammunition used in Serbia was tipped with armor-piercing depleted uranium. The defenders of using such ammunition claim that once uranium is depleted of its radioactivity, it become inert and does not pose any environmental risks.

The evidence gathered by independent experts, however, contradicts that claim. In a number of bombed sites in Serbia they have discovered increased levels of radioactivity in the soil. Some of these contaminated sites are near populated areas where children have been exposed to the radiation while playing in the vicinity. Even areas not close to the bombed sites are at risk because of wind-blown contaminated dust.

The sleuths might have found the proverbial smoking gun, but the smoke from the gun is being camouflaged and dissipated by those responsible for the damage. In a public relations blitz, the United States and Great Britain have, through hired experts, asserted that the ammunition used in Serbia was quite safe. I hope they are right, but it is hard to believe their assertions because of past deceptions on similar issues.

Take the case of defoliant Agent Orange. Even though the U.S. government initially denied use of the chemicals in the Vietnam War, it finally confessed to its use. The result of that inhuman chemical warfare is now clearly evident in the form of increased incidence of cancers and birth defects both in humans and in animals. Agent Orange is now part of the environment and the food chain and continues to exact a heavy toll on the impoverished country.

In that conflict the Vietnamese were not the only victims. A large number of U.S. soldiers also suffered physical effects that were initially brushed off by the “experts” as not related to their tour of duty in Vietnam. One wonders if the symptoms exhibited by some of the participants of the Gulf War, despite our government's denial, have some factual basis.

This brings into focus the wider subject of liability and responsibility. In this regard one could, for the sake of discussion, consider the denial of various governments for the results of their actions and the denial of companies for the manufacture of defective products in the same vein. In all these controversies there is a moral dimension that they totally ignore and instead busy themselves with dodging the liability claims.

Whether it is the uranium-tipped ammunition or the health hazards of smoking tobacco, the response and the spin is the same and quite predictable: stonewall, deny responsibility, and try to place blame on the victim. And when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, settle the case but continue the practice. It is cheaper and is considered a necessary cost of doing business, but it leaves behind a trail of devastation.

A balance between moral responsibility and fiscal liability needs to be struck if we are to have faith in our governments or in the companies that manufacture the goods we use. So far they have failed the test.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade. E-mail him at aghaji@buckeye-express.com.



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