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07 October 2002

Fact Sheet on the Health Effects of Depleted Uranium

Studies find no evidence linking DU to serious health risks

Following is a Department of State fact sheet on the health effects of depleted uranium, based on U.S., U.N. and other investigative sources:

  • World Health Organization and other scientific research studies indicate Depleted Uranium poses no serious health risks.

  • Depleted Uranium has not affected the health of Gulf War veterans.

  • There have been no independent studies related to Depleted Uranium inside Iraq. Since 1991, Iraq has refused to allow health inspectors assess the alleged impact of Depleted Uranium.

  • Depleted Uranium does not cause birth defects. Iraqi military use of chemical and nerve agents in the 1980's and 1990's is the likely cause of alleged birth defects among Iraqi children.

What is Depleted Uranium?

Depleted Uranium (DU) is what is left from natural uranium when most of the radioactive isotopes U234 and U235 have been removed. Depleted Uranium is forty percent less radioactive than the natural "background" uranium that is prevalent in the earth's air, water and soil. Depleted Uranium is hard and dense; it is almost twice as dense as lead.

What is DU used for?

Due to it density, depleted uranium is used in aprons to protect patients in hospitals and dentists' offices from excessive x-rays, and as ballast in 747 planes and in the keels of large sailboats.

Again, because of its strength and density, depleted uranium is sometimes used in defensive plating on armored vehicles and other platforms to deflect ammunition rounds that might otherwise kill or wound personnel inside the vehicle. It has been a component in munitions used against hostile tanks and other armored vehicles.

Isn't uranium highly radioactive and therefore dangerous to humans and the environment?

No. Studies conducted through March 2002 consistently indicate the health risks associate with radiation from exposures to depleted uranium are low - so low as to be statistically undetectable, with one potential exception: Radiation doses for soldiers with embedded fragments of depleted uranium.

Uranium is a naturally occurring chemical element that is mildly radioactive. Humans and animals have always ingested particles of this naturally occurring substance from the air, water and soil. Only when uranium is enriched to produce material for nuclear reactors is the radiation level hazardous, requiring very careful handling and storage. Depleted uranium is roughly 127 times less radioactive than 90% enriched uranium.

Natural and depleted uranium have not been linked to any health risks. There have been 16 epidemiological studies of some 30,000 workers in U.S. radiation industries. Some of these workers, particularly in the early days of the industry, had very significant exposures to uranium particles. According to scientists in the field, there have been no recorded cases of illness among these workers as a result of their exposure to uranium.

Can exposure to DU cause leukemia?

According to environmental health experts, it is medically impossible to contract leukemia as a result of exposure to uranium or depleted uranium.

Can exposure to DU cause cancer?

Cancer rates in almost 19,000 highly exposed uranium industry workers who worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory projects between 1943 and 1947 have been examined, and no excess cancers were observed through 1974. Other epidemiological studies of lung cancer in uranium mill and metal processing plant workers have found either no excess cancers or attributed them to known carcinogens other than uranium, such as radon.

Can DU cause kidney damage?

Recent studies have examined possible health effect from exposure to depleted uranium from chemical heavy-metal effects, unrelated to radiation. The best understood of these potential health risks, as determined by high-dose animal experiments, is kidney damage.

These studies indicate, however, kidney damage would require an amount of uranium in the human body would have to absorb quantities well above the level present in soldiers who have survived a direct contact with vehicles struck by DU munitions.

Some media reports suggest that dust from depleted uranium munitions and armor has caused health effects among soldiers and civilians in areas where such armaments have been used.

According to a number of comprehensive studies and reviews, no health effects have been seen in U.S. soldiers who are known to have had substantial exposure to depleted uranium dust and fragments.

  • During the Gulf War, 15 U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicles and nine Abrams tanks were mistakenly fired on and hit by shells containing depleted uranium. Thirty-three survivors of these incidents, roughly half of whom have retained fragments of depleted uranium in their bodies, have been studied in the Depleted Uranium Follow-Up Program (DUP) of the Baltimore Veterans' Affairs Medical Center.

To date, although these individuals have an array of health problems related to traumatic injuries resulting from their wounds, none of those studied had any clinically significant medical problems caused by the chemical or radiological toxicity of depleted uranium.

A survey of publicly available studies concludes the health risks to the general population in and near a war zone are low.

Among the U.S. and international groups whose research support the this finding are the World Health Organization; the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP); the United States Veterans Administration; the RAND Corporation; and Britain's Royal Society.