Depleted Uranium (DU) is a silvery white, lustrous, dense, and weakly radioactive element according to the World Health Organization. It is found in the natural environment in varying amounts in rocks, soils, water, the air, plants, animals, and in all human beings on the planet. On average about 90 micrograms of uranium exists in the human body due to normal intakes of water, food, and air. About 66% of that 90 micrograms is found in the human skeleton while 16% is found in the liver, 8% in the kidneys, and 10% in other body tissues.
Uranium is mainly used in nuclear power plants but it is also used in medical equipment and military armaments. It is also used in aircraft, medical radiation shields, medical radiation therapy machines, and containers used for the transport of radioactive material. The military used it in armor plating and in armor penetrating ordnance because of its high density and because it can ignite on impact when temperatures exceed 600 degrees Celsius. Normally DU posses no problem in terms of health for human beings but when exposure is intense it can cause problems. The greatest potential for DU exposure comes from contact with DU munitions used by the military.
The average annual intake of uranium, according to the WHO, by adults is estimated to be about 0.5 mg from ingestion of food and water and about 0.6 mg from breathing the air. Further, children may get small exposure amounts from soil while playing. The WHO states, “Contact exposure of DU through the skin is normally very low and unimportant.” They also note that intake of DU from wound contamination or embedded fragments in skin tissues may allow DU to enter the systemic circulation in the body. And example would be wounds and/or embedded fragments from military ordnance in the skin obtained during military combat in a war zone. In addition, the WHO notes that about 98% of uranium entering the human body is not absorbed but is eliminated via human waste. The small amounts of uranium absorbed into human blood are more likely due to inhalation (breathing) than it would be due to ingestion (eating). In its more soluble forms more than 20% of DU from inhaled material could be absorbed into the human blood stream. The kidneys normally would filter out about 70% of that amount via urine within 24 hours and this filtering amount would increase to 90% within a few days according to the WHO.
Despite the WHO downplaying of DU there ARE potential health effects due to exposure of DU. The kidneys are believed to be the primary site of such potential damage due to chemical toxicity of DU. However, there is only limited information from human studies about the effect on kidney function. Further, it is known that the time taken for the kidneys to return to normal functioning increases with the level of DU exposure. In other words, the more exposure to DU, the longer it takes your kidneys to return to normal functioning.
There have been several studies on uranium mine workers over the years that show they have an increased risk of lung cancer. However, other studies have shown that this is primarily due to exposure to radon in the uranium mines. These studies point out that very large amounts of exposure to dust would have to trigger lung cancer in these miners. Exposure to DU is not known to cause “Erythema” which is superficial inflammation of the skin or other effects on the skin even when DU is held against the skin for long periods such as weeks, according to the WHO. Further, the WHO says there are no effects from DU on the human reproductive system or developmental effects in humans nor on the skeleton or liver. Uranium released from embedded fragments can accumulate in the central nervous system, however, and there are some human and animal studies that indicate it does have effects on this biological system. The WHO says it is “difficult to draw firm conclusions from the few studies reported.”
After a war in which DU containing weapons are used the levels of DU contamination in food and water may be detectable even after a few years when the conflict is over. The WHO recommends monitoring these levels in the civilian population and if possible a clean up operation should be undertaken in the impact zones if there are a “substantial number of radioactive projectiles (missiles and bombs) remaining” in the war zone area. The WHO warns that if there are high concentrations of DU dust or metal fragments in the area then the area should be cordoned off until removal is possible.
So what do we make of this? Normally and in natural conditions uranium poses no real threat to human or animal life but in such conditions as war with high levels of exposure it can cause problems and even significant problems for soldiers and civilians alike. In addition to the WHO there is also and organization known as the “CADU” (Campaign Against Depleted Uranium). Their mission is to get governments to stop using DU weapons. On their website they state that DU is “toxic” and that many Cold War relic weapons were made using DU. On their website they have a very informative video about DU under their “Get Informed” section (ie: The Basics). As they point out DU is a waste product of the nuclear enrichment process. After natural uranium is taken and enriched for use in nuclear fuel and weapons what remains is DU. That enrichment process produces about 7 times more DU. CADU claims that despite claims that DU is much less radioactive than natural uranium it really emits about 75% as much radioactivity as natural uranium. Further, they point out the DU is stockpiled by nuclear states. In military ordnance DU is used as the penetrator end of a missile. That is the long core of the weapon that is used in armor piercing rounds and bullets as well. Normally it is alloyed with another metal. Th CADU points out that “When DU munitions strike a hard target the penetrator sheds around 20% of its mass, creating a fine dust of DU, burning at extremely high temperatures.” This dust can spread 400 meters from the site of impact and can be picked up by the wind and it has been reported it can travel up to 25 miles on air currents. The fires caused by DU igniting result in a ceramic dust that remains in the lungs for years if it is inhaled. Further, they report that at least 18 nations use DU in their weapons systems. In addition, they report that only the UK and USA are known to have fired such weapons in warfare (ie: the 1991 Gulf War, the 2003 Iraq War, the Bosnia-Herzegovina War in the 90s, and during the NATO war with Serbia in 1999). However, the use of DU in weapons has also been alleged in other conflicts but this has not been proven.
CADU reports that there are many health problems associated with DU exposure. They state that it is radioactive and toxic and has been proven in lab tests to cause DNA mutations, damage to human cells, and other carcinogenic effects. Increases in cancer rates and birth defects have consistently been reported followed by DU use according to CADU. They also claim that “many veterans remain convinced DU is responsible for health problems they have experienced since combat.”
In animal studies, as reported on the CADU website, DU suggests it causes all kinds of cancers and birth defects in pregnant women. In one study involving rats it appered that DU built up in the blood stream and in the kidneys, bone, muscles, liver, spleen, and brain. In a 2008 study by the US Institute of Medicine possible links to DU exposure appeared related to causing lung cancer, kidney and testes cancers, along with lung disease, nervous system disorders, and reproductive and developmental problems.
The CADU notes that what is missing are large scale studies involving DU and health and environmental effects of exposure. They note that none of the studies done thus far on the effects of DU on soldiers have been large enough to make correlations. Further, no large scale studies have been done on civilian populations either. Iraq presently has the largest volume of DU that has been fired in bullets and missiles due to the war there. The CADU notes that it is the US and UK that are largely responsible for this lack of large scale studies yet these same two governments use “scientific uncertainties to maintain that it is safe, and that concerns about it are misplaced.”
Some people hold the belief that DU is used in the “bunker buster bombs” like the US used in Afghanistan. If that is true then there are far larger amounts of DU than previously believed in the Afghanistan-Iraq area. This according to the CADU website as well and they note also that there is “no hard evidence to suggest that DU has been used in such weapons” although patents for bunker busting bombs on record to use dense metals which is what DU is. DU weapons are effective against steel amor but not really against concrete and soil which is what the bunkers in Afghanistan were allegedly made of.
Unlike nuclear weapons, the CADU site points out under FAQs, uranium weapons rely on high velocity impact to damage their targets. Their kinetic energy (mass and speed) is the basis behind their ability to punch through armor. DU weapons are often referred to as “kinetic energy penetrators.” Uranium weapons burn when the impact their target. That leaves behind fine particles that are chemically toxic and radioactive. The CADU website notes that “Depleted uranium oxide aerosols are unlike anything created by nature and for this reason we are still learning about their effects on health and the environment.” In contrast, nuclear weapons rely on nuclear fission or fusion for their energy to destroy targets.
The CADU website also notes that we don’t understand the full impact of particles of DU oxide on the human body due to the gross lack of large scale and long term studies. However, they note that there is “mounting scientific evidence from both animal and in vitro studies that suggest deleterious effects on human health from inhaled DU particles.” In addition, the CADU states,
“Animal and cellular studies have shown clear evidence of the carcinogenic (transforming healthy cells into cancerous ones), neurotoxic and immuno-toxic effects of DU (the immune system defends the body from Infections and even some types of cancerous cells); as well as its ability to damage the reproductive system and fetus (which may cause birth defects). Some data also suggests that uranium can directly damage the DNA and enzyme proteins in living cells. Many scientific and medical papers on the chemical and radiological toxicities of uranium have been published.”
Also contained in the FAQs section on the CADU website is a question asking if DU causes Gulf War Syndrome. Gulf War veterans have suffered from any diseases including diseases of the circulatory system of blood, urinary problems, neuro-muscular problems, and reproductive system diseases. Further, they also appear to have higher rates of some types of cancers and congenital disorders of the next generation. The CADU states, “They cannot be simply attributed to psychological stress.” Using DU weapons is counter to the basic rules and principles as written and as are customary in international human law. This is pointed out by CADU as well in their FAQs section of their website.
The American Gulf War Veterans Association also has a lot of information on their website about DU and its effects on soldiers. When you go to their website you can’t miss the vet standing in front of a billboard reading “DEPLETED URANIUM KILLS OUR TROOPS.” This site has a lot of indepth information about DU on it including some internal US Defense Department briefing documents in pdf. First on the list is a document by Colonel J. Edgar Wakayama OSD/DOT&E/CS. Part of this document states that the alpha particle taken in the body in large doses is “hazardous producing” and that DU causes cell damage and cancer and that “lung cancer is well documented.” Further, it states that the beta particles in DU are hazardous to the skin and eye lens. That document also states the the gamma radiation from DU munitions “penetrates through the body.” This same document also states the DU is “chemically toxic and that the “target organ” in the human body is usually the kidneys and bone. The document then gives a list of ammunition containing DU used by the military. Further, this documents states that during the Gulf War a number of allied soldiers “internalized DU fragments as a result of several friendly fire incidents.” It cites the 3 major routes of human exposure to DU as wounding by shrapnel, inhalation, and ingestion of soil or contaminated water and food.” During the Gulf War there were about 340 tons of DU weapons fired. During the Balkans conflict in 1990 there were about 11 tons of DU weapons fired. It is estimated, according to this same report, that 70-80% of all DU munitions remain buried in the soil. Regarding environmental concerns the documents sites concerns over DU seeping into local water supplies over years and the eating of contaminated foods by animals and also DU in plants. This documents recommends monitoring of cancers among soldiers who survived friendly fire incidents and soldiers who work for long periods in heavily contaminated vehicles. It recommends such monitoring via uranium testing, kidney function testing, and neurological evaluations. It also recommends long term annual water and milk testing in DU impacted areas.
The Gulf War Vets website also has a document reflecting that the US Department of Transportation has no requirements for DU weapons shipped to have radiation symbols or DOT markings on the trucks or trains that transport such weapons. Another document claims that DU is “on of the greatest environmental horrors in the history of the world.” Yet another document on this website is about the US importing “6700 tons of radioactive sand from Kuwait.” In the synopsis about this article it says that half of the containers will be loaded onto 76 rail cars and taken to an ecology disposal site in Idaho. The other half of the containers will remain at the port until trains return to haul them to Idaho. All of those containers should have been in Idaho by April of 2008. Is that smart Idaho? There are other sites in the US as well where DU has been detected from DU weapons housed in those areas during the Cold War but the US says they pose “no health risk” to the civilian population. I bet!!
Another document on the Gulf War Vets site concerns how DU contaminates remain in the human body for 20 years after initial exposure. There is also a document about how in 1993 a group of 24 soldiers who had fought in the Gulf War were found to have “many times” the “safe” level of DU in their bodies. These soldiers had become very ill with debilitating symptoms. The list of material on this website is extensive and a quick scan of the contents makes one thing clear beyond doubt. DU is DANGEROUS!!
The BBC has done numerous reports on DU and links to all of their reports can be found at the BBC links listed below in the Sources section of this report. Among some of the more “enlightening” BBC articles is one about how troops were NOT told about uranium risks and another about how the dangers of DU were known before the Gulf War. There’s another article from the BBC listed that says Israel denies the use of DU even though Palestinians claim Israel has used DU weapons on them.
There is a very enlightening article about DU exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan on the Global Research, ca website also (see link below). That report contains statements from Dr. Asaf Durakovic at Georgetown University in Washington and in one statement he says the Veteran’s Administration asked him “to lie about the risks of incorporating” DU in the human body! The doctor was a US Army Colonel at the time. This same report quotes a former US Army contractor who cleaned up DU after the first Gulf War as saing DU is a “crime against God and humanity.” That same contractor said that his entire crew of 100 was “devastated by exposure to the fine dust” DU produces. That contractor crew apparently cleaned up DU for the Army and failed to wear protective clothing. About 30 crew members died and most of the others contracted serious health problems after their exposure to the clean up site which include airway/lung diseases, neurological damage, cataracts, and kidney problems. That contractor also says in the article that they warned the US Defense Department in 1991 after the Gulf War about the dangers but that the DOD ignored them due to the department’s “arrogance” and continued insistence that ingestion of DU is “not sufficient to make troops seriously ill in most cases.”
According to the Global Research article in 2002 a field team investigated in Afghanistan and found a larger exposure to DU than previously suspected. That team found that about 30% of people interviewed by the team displayed symptoms consistent with radiation sickness. Their report states that they were “shocked by the breadth of public health impacts” that correlated to bombings with DU weapons. It also states that “Without exception, at every bombsite investigated, people are ill” and that a “significant portion” of civilians in those areas that have been bombed people have symptoms consistent with “internal contamination by uranium.”
The Guardian in the UK has done several reports on DU over the years. You can find an index of those special reports at the link below. One of those reports is entitled “Our gift to Iraq” and it states that that “gift” is cheap and almost twice as heavy as lead which makes it “splendid for shells.” The Guardian site also has two key documents posted about DU which include the UK Defense Ministry’s DU page and their DU document files.
A simple search on the worldwide web regarding DU easily turns up over 2 million results! While governments maintain DU exposure is insignificant their own internal documents seem to indicate otherwise as does the mounting evidence about DU exposure. In future reports we will look at some more of the information found on the web regarding DU and human exposure both by soldiers and civilians. In my short review of DU one thing became rather clear to me quickly. DU is dangerous, toxic, and deadly so why all the government denial that it is not? Does human life mean anything anymore in this 21st Century? Or is all life, including human life, just cheap and insignificant? That’s something we are going to look into in future reports on this subject as well.