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Depleted Uranium, DU

Sabot
Concern about the chemical toxicity and radiological properties of DU and the possible health risks from its use prompted DU studies.

The Gulf War was the first time that depleted uranium was used on the battlefield. Because depleted uranium is very dense (1.7 times denser than lead), projectiles made of this metal can pierce heavy armor from longer distances than other high-velocity rounds. Moreover, armor fashioned from depleted uranium is very resistant to penetration by conventional anti-tank munitions. The use of depleted uranium munitions and armor played a key role in U.S. forces� success during the Gulf War.

Depleted uranium is what is left after most of the highly radioactive isotopes of uranium are extracted from natural uranium. The highly radioactive isotopes are used for reactor fuel and for nuclear weapons. The leftover uranium, which is 40% less radioactive than natural uranium, is called depleted uranium or DU.

During the Gulf War, US forces fired about 320 tons of DU munitions. Most of this amount (about 270 tons) consisted of 30 mm rounds fired from US aircraft. US tanks fired about 50 tons of 120 mm DU penetrators. Forces from the United Kingdom fired fewer than 100 such rounds.

In the first few years after the end of the Gulf War, the onset of illness in many Gulf War veterans prompted understandable concerns about a variety of factors associated with the Gulf War that might have contributed to some of these ailments. One of the many factors that were considered was exposure to DU. Veterans have raised concerns about DU because it is a heavy metal capable of causing kidney damage and because it is radioactive. The primary form of radioactivity emitted by uranium is the alpha particle, which is unable to penetrate even the most superficial layer of skin. The concern about DU�s radioactivity has focused on potential damage to internal organs caused by DU which has been taken inside the body.

DU can enter the body through inhalation, ingestion, contamination of a wound, and penetration of DU fragments into the body. When a DU round strikes a hard target, some of the metal burns or is oxidized. The impact releases particles of DU and DU oxides. Rounds subject to a hot fire will also give off particles of DU oxides. If such particles are suspended in the air, persons in the vicinity may inhale or ingest them with contaminated food or water they consume. People very near a target struck by a DU round may suffer penetrating wounds due to DU fragments which can remain in their bodies.

During the Gulf War, about a hundred US soldiers were exposed to DU as a result of friendly-fire incidents in which their vehicles were hit by DU rounds fired by other members of the US forces. These soldiers� exposures to DU were through shrapnel wounds, inhalation, and wound contamination. The health status and amount of uranium in the bodies of most of these soldiers have been monitored since the war by the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, which has published periodic updates on these veterans� health.

Other military personnel in the Gulf were potentially exposed to aerosolized dust of DU and its oxides due to their proximity to fires involving tanks and DU rounds or due to their entry into vehicles which had been struck by DU rounds. DoD and VA have jointly offered medical evaluations to any Gulf War veteran concerned about exposure to DU. The evaluation includes urinary uranium testing as well as the administration of a questionnaire to evaluate the potential for DU exposure. The VA Medical Center in Baltimore coordinates this program and has published initial results.

The government has funded numerous research projects on DU since the Gulf War. Of these, most examine the effects on animal health of imbedded DU fragments or injected or inhaled DU. These studies examine effects such as brain uptake, behavior, immune function, reproduction, and carcinogenicity.

Major reports on DU have been published by RAND�s National Defense Research Institute and by the National Academy of Science�s Institute of Medicine.

REFERENCES

Toxicological Profile for Uranium. Washington, DC: ATSDR, US Public Health Service, US Department of Health & Human Services, September 1999.

Harley N, Foulkes E., Hilbourne L, Anthony R, Hudson A., A Review of the Scientific Literature As It Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses, Volume 7: Depleted Uranium, RAND Corporation, National Defense Research Institute, Santa Monica, CA, 1999.

Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Science. Committee on Health Effects Associated with Exposures During the Gulf War, Gulf War and Health, Volume 1. Depleted Uranium, Sarin, Pyridostigmine Bromide, Vaccines, 2000.

Office Of The Special Assistant To The Deputy Secretary Of Defense For Gulf War Illnesses. Environmental Exposure Report: Depleted Uranium, December 13, 2000.

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