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Depleted Uranium [DU] Health Issues

The major health concerns about DU relate to its chemical properties as a heavy metal rather than to its radioactivity, which is very low. As with all chemicals, the hazard depends mainly upon the amount taken into the body. Medical science recognizes that uranium at high doses can cause kidney damage. However, those levels are far above levels soldiers would have encountered in the Gulf or the Balkans.

Because depleted uranium emits primarily alpha radiation, it is not considered a serious external radiation hazard. The depleted uranium in armor and rounds is covered, further reducing the radiation dose. When breathed or eaten, small amounts of depleted uranium are carried in the blood to body tissues and organs; much the same as the more radioactive natural uranium. Despite this, no radiological health effects are expected because the radioactivity of uranium and depleted uranium are so low.

Most soldiers and civilians will not be exposed to dangerous levels of depleted uranium. However, in certain circumstances the exposures may be high and there would be a risk of heavy metal poisoning that could lead to long-term kidney damage for a few soldiers, as well as the increased risk of lung cancer.

A small number of soldiers and civilians might suffer kidney damage from depleted uranium if substantial amounts are breathed in, or swallowed in contaminated soil and water. The kidneys of a few soldiers may be damaged if they inhale large quantities of DU after their vehicle is struck by a penetrator or while working for long periods in contaminated vehicles. Large numbers of corroding DU penetrators buried in the soil may also pose a long-term threat if uranium leaches into water supplies. Long-term sampling, particularly of water and milk, is required to detect any increase in uranium levels around areas where DU has been used on the battlefield.

Anecdotal reports of deaths and illnesses among US veterans of the Gulf War who worked for long periods in heavily contaminated vehicles prompted a number of investigations. The voluntary Veterans Affairs DU Medical Follow-up Program began in 1993-1994 with the medical evaluations of 33 friendly-fire DU-exposed veterans, many with embedded DU fragments. An additional 29 of the friendly-fire victims were added to the follow-up program in 1999. In 1998, the scope of the program was expanded to include Gulf War veterans who may have been exposed to DU through close contact with DU munitions, inhalation of smoke containing DU particulate during a fire at the Doha depot, or by entering or salvaging vehicles or bunkers that were hit with DU projectiles. The published results of these medical evaluations indicate that the presence of retained DU fragments is the only scenario predictive of a high urine uranium level, and those with embedded DU fragments continue to have elevated urine uranium levels ten years after the incident. It is unlikely that an individual without embedded DU fragments would have an elevated urine uranium level, and consequently any uranium-related health effects.

The "Kinetic Energy Penetrator Long Term Strategy Study" (Abridged), Final Report, [Picatinny Arsenal, NJ: US Army Production Base Modernization Activity, July 24, 1990] compared battlefield DU exposures to peacetime occupational limits. Civilian battlefield radiation exposures are not thought to be significant. "All combat-related internal and external radiation risks were in the range of 10-7 to 10-5. The most significant external radiation exposure occurs during the loading and unloading of ammunition lockers, with a theoretical lifetime increased cancer risk to the extremities as high as 3 x 10-4 resulting from a worst case, 20-year exposure. Even minimal safety precautions would reduce this risk to levels well below those tolerated in most occupational environments."

The report also addressed three theoretical exposures. Assuming the crew rides one-quarter of a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, with a half-filled DU kinetic penetrator ammunition rack, the maximum exposure (0.25 rem) would be well below the occupational limit of 5 rems/year. Assuming a DU penetrator hits a tank, a soldier taking refuge would receive a maximum exposure of 0.023 rem -- equivalent to a theoretical increased lifetime cancer risk of less than 5 x 10-6, which is three orders of magnitude less than the lifetime increased cancer risk calculated in the same manner resulting from all background radiation exposures. Assuming a two-month duration Major Tank Battle, the theoretical lifetime increased cancer risk for military personnel would be 1.5 x 10-7. Downwind of such a battleground, the public would experience an increased theoretical lifetime cancer risk of about 3 x 10-5

In late 2000 and early 2001, various news reports, mostly European, reported allegations of an increase in leukemia cases related to exposure to DU while serving in the Balkans. Subsequent independent investigations by the World Health Organization, European Commission, European Parliament, United Nations Environment Programme, United Kingdom Royal Society, and the Health Council of the Netherlands have all have discounted any association between depleted uranium and leukemia or other medical problems among Balkans veterans.

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