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Dangers and Health Effects of Depleted Uranium

  • Synopsis: Published: 2013-09-04 (Revised/Updated 2017-04-19) - Information relating to Depleted Uranium (DU) a chemically toxic and radioactive heavy metal potentially hazardous to human health - Thomas C. Weiss (Disabled World).
Depleted Uranium (DU)

Also referred to in the past as Q-metal, depletalloy or D-38) is uranium with a lower content of the fissile isotope U-235 than natural uranium. Civilian uses include counterweights in aircraft, radiation shielding in medical radiation therapy and industrial radiography equipment and containers used to transport radioactive materials. Military uses include defensive armor plating and armor-piercing projectiles. Most depleted uranium arises as a byproduct of the production of enriched uranium for use in nuclear reactors and in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The use of DU in munitions is controversial because of questions about potential long-term health effects. Normal functioning of the kidney, brain, liver, heart, and numerous other systems can be affected by uranium exposure, because uranium is a toxic metal. It is weakly radioactive and remains so because of its long radioactive half-life (4.468 billion years for uranium-238, 700 million years for uranium-235).

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Quote: "Children in particular are susceptible to DU poisoning. They have a much higher absorption rate as their blood is being used to build and nourish their bones and they have a lot of soft tissues."

Depleted Uranium (DU) is a waste product, one that is left over when uranium is enriched to create fissionable material for nuclear weapons and reactors. DU consists of uranium from which most of the fissionable isotopes, uranium 235 and 234, have been removed. DU contains 99.5% Uranium 238.

The term, 'depleted,' carries with it the implication that it is not particularly dangerous; however, DU is a chemically toxic and radioactive heavy metal and because of this it is potentially hazardous to a person's health. It is believed by many that exposure to depleted uranium (DU), especially when a person inhales or ingests it as a particulate, causes severe and long-term health effects. The size and effect, as well as the political significance of it, remain in dispute at this time. DU is an extremely dense material, 1.7 times as dense as lead, and is also, 'pyrophoric,' and is combustible when it comes in contact with air.

DU is being used by the defense industry in the creation of armor piercing munitions and anti-tank projectiles, as well as in the manufacture of tank armor.

Chart showing biological damages due to depleted uranium
About This Image: Chart showing biological damages due to depleted uranium
Around 17 nations are thought to have weapon systems containing DU in their arsenals to include:

  • The United States of America
  • The United Kingdom
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Thailand
  • Pakistan
  • Bahrain
  • Taiwan
  • Greece
  • France
  • Kuwait
  • Turkey
  • Oman
  • Egypt
  • China
  • Russia
  • Israel
  • India

A number of these nations were sold DU ammunition by the United States of America, while others - to include Russia, France, India and Pakistan, are believe to have developed it on their own. DU is increasingly showing up in a number of civilian products as well. It is used as ballast in airplanes and ships, in flywheels and boat keels, and in helicopter rotors and gyroscopes. DU is also used as radiation shielding in radioactive material transport containers.

Depleted Uranium (DU) Health Concerns

Health concerns and DU center around the effect on the human body of nano-sized ceramic particles of uranium oxide (U238) that are released into the air when DU munitions are used in battle. Dr. Rosalie Bertell presented a concise explanation of the potential dangers of exposure to depleted uranium (DU). Dr. Bertell stated, "Uranium oxide and its aerosol form are insoluble in water. The aerosol resists gravity, and is able to travel tens of kilometers in air. Once on the ground, it can be resuspended when the sand is disturbed by motion or wind. Once breathed in, the very small particles of uranium oxide, those which are 2.5 microns (one micron = one millionth of a meter) or less in diameter, could reside in the lungs for years, slowly passing through the lung tissue into the blood."

Another doctor, Dr. Asaf Durakovic, who founded the Uranium Medical Research Center, stated that over the course of a year 1 milligram of DU emits 390 million alpha particles, 780 million beta particles, as well as associated gamma rays for a total of more than one billion high energy, ionizing, radioactive particles and rays that may produce extensive biological damage to a person's ovaries, kidneys, lungs, lymph nodes, blood, bones, breasts, stomach, and to fetuses. The health concerns, especially for people who live in Iraq, are particularly acute because of the young ages of the people being exposed.

The Department of Defense continues to deny health risks associated with the use of DU's, yet it's own actions belie their claims. May 15th of 2003 found Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor reporting that in Iraq, "Six American vehicles struck with DU "friendly fire" in 1991 were deemed to be too contaminated to take home, and were buried in Saudi Arabia. Of 16 more brought back to a purpose-built facility in South Carolina, six had to be buried in a low-level radioactive waste dump."

Studies performed by The Uranium Medical Research Center in Afghanistan show very high levels of, 'non-depleted,' uranium in not only bomb craters, but people. Of the 700,000 United States Veterans from the first Gulf War, greater than 240,000 are on permanent medical disability and 11,000 have died. An investigation by Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News found 4 of 9 soldiers of the 442nd Military Police Company of the New York Army National Guard returning from Iraq tested positive for depleted uranium (DU) contamination; they are the first confirmed cases of inhaled depleted uranium exposure from the Iraq war.

A study performed in April of 2007 by researchers at the University of Southern Maine concluded that, "exposure to particulate DU may pose a significant genotoxic risk (risk of genetic mutation) and could possibly result in lung cancer." A paper published in the same year in the scientific journal, 'Science of the Total Environment,' found high concentrations of DU particles in soil, stream sediments, as well as household dust in the vicinity of a DU weapons factory in Colonie, New York 23 years after the plant had closed and despite massive efforts at clean up by the U.S. Army Corp of engineers. It also presented the fact that traces of DU contamination still remain in the urine of former workers and neighbors of the plant.

According to an article by Robert C. Koehler in 2007, the Veterans Administration presented figures of 205,000 soldiers who returned from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of these soldiers, one-third have sought medical care for issues such as:

Chart showing ailments experienced by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans
About This Image: Chart showing ailments experienced by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans
Perhaps the most compelling evidence of all is the sheer number of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts suffering physical ailments. In an April 12, 2007 article, Robert C. Koehler examined the issue:

  • Malignant tumors (1,584)
  • Mental disorders (73,157)
  • Mystery conditions (67,743)
  • Nervous system diseases (61,524)
  • Musculoskeletal diseases (87,590)
  • Digestive system diseases (63,002)
  • Endocrinal and metabolic diseases (36,409)

Many times these conditions are lumped together under the convenient catch all heading of, 'Gulf War Syndrome.' It is very likely that at least some of these illnesses are caused by exposure to depleted uranium (DU). The effects of DU contamination may take up to 10 years to manifest and it is likely the number of veterans who will need medical care will be higher than from prior conflicts.

Dr. Jawad Al-Ali, Director of the Oncology Center at the largest hospital in Basra, Iraq stated in a conference in Japan, "Two strange phenomena have come about in Basra which I have never seen before. The first is double and triple cancers in one patient. For example, leukemia and cancer of the stomach. We had one patient with 2 cancers - one in his stomach and kidney. Months later, primary cancer was developing in his other kidney-he had three different cancer types. The second is the clustering of cancer in families. We have 58 families here with more than one person affected by cancer. Dr Yasin, a general Surgeon here has two uncles, a sister and cousin affected with cancer. Dr Mazen, another specialist, has six family members suffering from cancer. My wife has nine members of her family with cancer. Children in particular are susceptible to DU poisoning. They have a much higher absorption rate as their blood is being used to build and nourish their bones and they have a lot of soft tissues. Bone cancer and leukemia used to be diseases affecting them the most, however, cancer of the lymph system which can develop anywhere on the body, and has rarely been seen before the age of 12 is now also common."

The U.S. Army's own contractor, Doug Rokke, who headed a clean up of depleted uranium (DU) after the first Gulf War stated, "Depleted uranium is a crime against God and humanity." Mr. Rokke went on to state that when his crew went to the Gulf they were all very healthy people, yet after performing clean up operations, 30 members of his staff died and the majority of the others, to include Mr. Rokke himself, "developed serious health problems."Mr. Rokke has reactive airway disease now, as well as neurological damage, kidney issues, and cataracts.

How Bad Does it Get

Doctors in southern Iraq are making comparisons to the birth defects that followed the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII and have numerous pictures of infants who have been born without brains, internal organs outside of their bodies, no sexual organs, no spines, and other deformities. Birth defects of these kinds were exceptionally rare in Iraq before the large scale use of DU weapons; now they are commonplace. Mothers no longer ask, 'Doctor, is it a boy or a girl' Instead they ask, 'Doctor, is my child normal'

Before her death from leukemia an accomplished Iraqi author and artist, 'Nuha Al Radi, author of the, 'Baghdad Diaries,' wrote, "Everyone seems to be dying of cancer. Every day one hears about another acquaintance or friend of a friend dying. How many more die in hospitals that one does not know? Apparently, over thirty percent of Iraqis have cancer, and there are lots of kids with leukemia. The depleted uranium left by the U.S. bombing campaign has turned Iraq into a cancer-infested country. For hundreds of years to come, the effects of the uranium will continue to wreak havoc on Iraq and its surrounding areas."

A special adviser to the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the Iraqi Ministry of Health, Dr. Ahmad Hardan, documented the effects of depleted uranium (DU) use in Iraq. Dr. Hardan stated, "American forces admit to using over 300 tons of DU weapons in 1991. The actual figure is closer to 800. This has caused a health crisis that has affected almost a third of a million people. As if that was not enough, America went on and used 200 tons more in Bagdad alone during the recent invasion. "

The military is aware of depleted uranium's harmful effects on the human genetic code. A study performed in 2001 related to DU's effect on DNA was done by Dr. Alexandra C. Miller of the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Md. And indicates that DU's chemical instability causes 1 Million times more genetic damage than would be expected from its radiation effect alone. We are poisoning the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, yet we are making a concerted effort to keep out specialists from other nations who can help. The U.S. Military does not want the rest of the world to find out what we have done.

A Limited Strike on Syria

The question of whether or not Syria's government has used chemical weapons on its own population is one that may or may not be answered adequately. What comes to mind is the question of the devastation the United States of America would leave in the wake of even a limited strike on Syria using any kind of weaponry containing depleted uranium. The United States of America has already left apocalyptic devastation in two Middle Eastern nations, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as killing and wounding its own soldiers and military contractors, leaving behind cancer and major health issue causing depleted uranium that can cause horrifying consequences for years to come in these nations.

Perhaps we should all play poker on our iPhones and simply ignore the call for further devastation. Maybe we should align ourselves behind the patriotic call to support yet another military strike on a nation that presents no real threat to Americans at home. Maybe we should ignore the civilians in other nations that American tax dollars paid to kill, maim, and wound, as well as the veterans this nation continues to under-serve.

Resources and Citations

Depleted Uranium, VA Perspective - www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/depleted_uranium/index.asp

Depleted uranium used by US forces blamed for birth defects and cancer in Iraq - rt.com/news/iraq-depleted-uranium-health-394/

Depleted Uranium - web.ead.anl.gov/uranium/guide/depletedu/index.cfm

Related Information:

  1. Brown University (Jul 02, 2011). 225,000 Lives - Up to $4 Trillion - Estimated Cost of Post 9/11 Wars
    https://www.disabled-world.com/editorials/costs-of-war.php
  2. Wendy Taormina-Weiss (Jun 08, 2011). We Don't Care - We Don't Have To
    https://www.disabled-world.com/editorials/war.php
  3. Nilutpal Gogoi (Jan 06, 2009). Damage Caused to the Respiratory System by Pollution
    https://www.disabled-world.com/health/respiratory/pollution-lungs.php


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