DEPLETED URANIUM FACT SHEET
February 3, 2003
by Dan Fahey (1)
• Depleted uranium (DU) is a toxic heavy metal used in armor-piercing ammunition because its extreme density enables it to penetrate thick tank armor.
• Laboratory research has found DU may cause cancer, central nervous system damage, reproductive effects, and other health problems in rats.
• Evidence of human health effects caused by DU is inconclusive, due largely to the fact that the health status of very few people with verified exposures has been assessed.
• After DU munitions have been used in combat, the presence of DU in soil and water, or on equipment and in buildings, may present risks to the health of local populations.
What is depleted uranium?
Depleted uranium is the waste product of the process to create highly radioactive enriched uranium from natural uranium. Enriched uranium is used for nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons; DU is stored as toxic waste.
DU emits alpha radiation and is chemically toxic. Alpha radiation is hazardous inside the body, where its high energy emitted over a short distance may kill or damage cells. DU’s chemical toxicity is similar to lead and other heavy metals. DU’s chemical toxicity appears to be a greater hazard to human health than its radioactivity (2).
How is DU used in munitions?
DU is primarily used in armor-piercing ammunition. This ammunition is simply a solid rod of dense metal shot at a high velocity from a variety of guns. Large caliber DU tank rounds (105mm, 120mm, 125mm) are manufactured in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and Pakistan (3).
The US manufactures small caliber DU rounds that are shot by aircraft (25mm, 30mm) and lightly armored fighting vehicles (25mm). The US Navy is phasing out its use of small caliber DU rounds (20mm).
Other military uses of DU include tank armor, ballast in aircraft, and as a catalyst in certain anti-personnel mines (4).
DU is used as a casing for some bunker-busting missiles and bombs (5), and as a counterweight in some missiles (6).
Why is DU used in munitions?
There are two main reasons DU is used in munitions.
DU exists in large quantities and its use in munitions relieves governments of their fiscal and legal responsibilities to properly store it (7).
In addition, DU’s extreme density (1.7 times that of lead), pyrophoricity (it burns when it fragments), and resistance to deformation (when alloyed with a small amount of titanium) enable it to effectively penetrate tank armor (8).
Where has DU been used in combat? (9)
Iraq, Kuwait (1991), 286 metric tons, from US Aircraft, US Tanks, and UK Tanks
Bosnia (1994-95), 3.2 metric tons, from US Aircraft
Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro (1999), 9.5 metric tons, from US Aircraft
Afghanistan (2001-03), uncertain amount, uncertain sources
How are people exposed to DU?
The impact of DU ammunition against a hard target creates a fine DU dust that contaminates the impact site, though small amounts of DU dust drift downwind.
People may be wounded by DU fragments, inhale the DU dust particles created by an impact, suffer wound contamination by DU dust, or ingest DU through hand-to-mouth contact or consumption of contaminated food or water.
Who is at risk?
Those at greatest risk are combat soldiers in or near vehicles at the time they are struck by DU rounds; soldiers or civilians who work in contaminated areas (e.g. on or in destroyed equipment, inside buildings where DU is present); and children who play in contaminated equipment or soil (10).
What are the health effects?
Laboratory studies on rats indicate short-term effects include kidney damage, while long-term effects may include cancer, central nervous system problems, immune system disorders and reproductive effects (11).
Few humans exposed to DU have been studied, therefore little is known about the effects DU has had or may have in the future on exposed populations.
The US government claims it has not found evidence of significant health effects caused by DU in a study of a few dozen Gulf War veterans (12), although Pentagon spokesmen have lied about the existence of cancer among these veterans (13).
There have been many claims made about DU causing a large number of serious health effects in Iraq, the Balkans, and Afghanistan, but these claims has not been confirmed by credible, independent sources.
What are the environmental effects?
DU may contaminate soil, water, and air, as well as plant and animal life. The extent of the contamination and its risk to public health depend upon several factors including the quantity and size of the DU released, its concentration in a given area, and local environmental conditions.
1. Dan Fahey (email@example.com) has written extensively about DU munitions, and is a Board Member of Veterans for Common Sense. He is a contributor to “International Law and the Use of Depleted Uranium Weapons,” forthcoming 2003.
2. See e.g., Jose L. Domingo, “Reproductive and developmental toxicity of natural and depleted uranium: a review,” Reproductive Toxicology (2001) 15: 604.
3. See Dan Fahey, “Use, Effects and Legal Standing of Depleted Uranium Munitions,” 10 December 2001, http://www.du.publica.cz/papers/Fahey.htm.
4. U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, Radiological Sources of Potential Exposure and/or Contamination, (Aberdeen Proving Ground, 10 December 1999) 114 – 120.
5. See e.g., Matthew L. Wald, “U.S. Refits a Nuclear Bomb To Destroy Enemy Bunkers,” New York Times 31 May 1997: A1.
6. US Army Environmental Policy Institute, Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use by the U.S. Army, Technical Report (Atlanta: AEPI, 1995) 25.
7. See e.g., Joint Technical Coordinating Group for Munitions Effectiveness (JTCG/ME), Ad Hoc Working Group for Depleted Uranium, “Special Report: Medical and Environmental Evaluation of Depleted Uranium,” (Richland, WA, 1974) Vol. I: 1, 2.
8. The Royal Society, The health hazards of depleted uranium munitions, Part I, (London, 2001) p. 2; R. Pengelley, “The DU Debate: what are the risks,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 15 January 2001).
9. See Dan Fahey, “Use, Effects and Legal Standing of Depleted Uranium Munitions,” 10 December 2001, http://www.du.publica.cz/papers/Fahey.htm; Dan Fahey, “The Use of Depleted Uranium in Afghanistan,” 23 Dec. 2002, http://www.antenna.nl/wise/uranium/dissafdf.html.
10. The potential for health effects depends on a number of factors, including the quantity and size of the DU a person’s body absorbs, the location where DU deposits in the body, and the age and health of the exposed person.
11. See D.E. McClain, et al, “Biological effects of embedded depleted uranium (DU): summary of Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute research,” The Science of the Total Environment (2001) 274: 117; Fletcher F. Hahn, Raymond A. Guilmette, and Mark D. Hoover, “Implanted Depleted Uranium Fragments Cause Soft Tissue Sarcomas in the Muscles of Rats,” Environmental Health Perspectives (2002) 110: 51; D.E. McClain, “Project Briefing: Health Effects of Depleted Uranium,” U.S. Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (Bethesda, MD, 1999).
12. See e.g., U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Health Support Directorate, “DU – Health Concerns,” undated, http://www.deploymentlink.osd.mil/du_library/health.shtml.
13. See Dan Fahey, “Depleted Legitimacy: The U.S. Study of Gulf War Veterans Exposed to Depleted Uranium,” 4 May 2002, http://www.ngwrc.org/conf2002/NGWRC-DU-Atlanta.pdf