When the Dust Settles
This video is a great introduction to issues around depleted uranium weapons.
What is DU?
- Depleted Uranium is a waste product of the nuclear enrichment process.
- After natural uranium has been ‘enriched’ to concentrate the isotope U235 for use in nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons, what remains is DU.
- The process produces about 7 times more DU than enriched uranium.
Despite claims that DU is much less radioactive than natural uranium, it actually emits about 75% as much radioactivity.1 It is very dense and when it strikes armour it burns (it is ‘pyrophoric’).2 As a waste product, it is stockpiled by nuclear states, which then have an interest in finding uses for it.
DU is used as the ‘penetrator’ – a long dart at the core of the weapon – in armour piercing tank rounds and bullets. It is usually alloyed with another metal. When DU munitions strike a hard target the penetrator sheds around 20% of its mass, creating a fine dust of DU, burning at extremely high temperatures.3
This dust can spread 400 metres from the site immediately after an impact.4 It can be resuspended by human activity, or by the wind, and has been reported to have travelled twenty-five miles on air currents.5 The heat of the DU impact and secondary fires means that much of the dust produced is ceramic, and can remain in the lungs for years if inhaled.6
Who uses it?
At least 18 countries are known to have DU in their arsenals:
- Saudi Arabia
Most of these countries were sold DU by the US, although the UK, France and Pakistan developed it independently.
Only the US and the UK are known to have fired it in warfare. It was used in the 1991 Gulf War, in the 2003 Iraq War, and also in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s and during the NATO war with Serbia in 1999. While its use has been claimed in a number of other conflicts, this has not been confirmed.7
- DU is both chemically toxic and radioactive. In laboratory tests it damages human cells, causing DNA mutations and other carcinogenic effects.8
- Reports of increased rates of cancer and birth defects have consistently followed DU usage.
- Representatives from both the Serbian and Iraqi governments have linked its use with health problems amongst civilians.9
- Many veterans remain convinced DU is responsible for health problems they have experienced since combat
Information from animal studies suggests DU may cause several different kinds of cancer.10 In rats, DU in the blood-stream builds up in the kidneys, bone, muscles, liver, spleen, and brain. In other studies it has been shown to cross both the blood-brain barrier and the placenta,11 with obvious implications for the health of the foetus. In general, the effects of DU will be more severe for women and children than for healthy men.
In 2008 a study by the Institute of Medicine in the US listed medical conditions that were a high priority to study for possible links with DU exposure: cancers of the lung, testes and kidney; lung disease; nervous system disorders; and reproductive and developmental problems.12
What is missing from the picture is large-scale epidemiological studies on the effects of DU – where negative health effects match individuals with exposure to DU. None of the studies done on the effects on soldiers have been large enough to make meaningful conclusions. No large scale studies have been done on civilian populations.13
In the case of Iraq, where the largest volume of DU has been fired, the UK and US governments are largely responsible for the conditions which have made studies of the type required impossible. Despite this, these same governments use the scientific uncertainties to maintain that it is safe, and that concerns about it are misplaced.
However, in cases where human health is in jeopardy, a precautionary approach should prevail. Scientific scepticism should prevent a hazardous course of action from being taken until safety is assured. To allow it to continue until the danger has been proved beyond dispute is an abuse of the principle of scientific caution.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has studied some of the sites contaminated by DU in the Balkans, but it has only been able to produce a desk study on Iraq. Bullets and penetrators made of DU that do not hit armour become embedded in the ground and corrode away, releasing material into the environment.14
It is not known what will happen to DU in the long term in such circumstances. The UNEP mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina found DU in drinking water, and could still detect it in the air after seven years – the longest period of time a study has been done after the end of a conflict.15
Uranium has a half life of 4.5 billion years, so DU released into the environment will be a hazard for unimaginable timescales.
Decontaminating sites where DU has been used requires detailed scrutiny and monitoring, followed by the removal and reburial of large amounts of soil and other materials. Monitoring of groundwater for contamination is also advised by UNEP.16 CADU calls for the cost of cleaning up and decontaminating DU affected sites to be met by the countries responsible for the contamination.
- Ian Farlie (2008) 'The health hazards of depleted uranium' Disarmament Forum 2008 (3) United Nations Institue for Disarmament Research. p4. Available for download at http://www.unidir.ch/bdd/fiche-article.php?ref_article=2756
- Committee on Toxicologic and Radiologic Effects from Exposure to Depleted Uranium During and After Combat (2008) Review of the Toxicologic and Radiologic Risks to Military Personnel from Exposures to Depleted Uranium During and After Combat. National Academies Press. p12. Available for download at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11979.html
- Dan Fahey (2008a) 'Depleted Uranium and its Use in Munitions' in Avril McDonald (ed.) The
International Legal Regulation of the use of Depleted Uranium Weapons: A Precautionary Approach. pp3-28 Den Haag: Asser Press
- Dan Fahey (2008b) 'Environmental and Health Consequences of Depleted Uranium Munitions' in Avril McDonald (ed.) The International Legal Regulation of the use of Depleted Uranium Weapons: A Precautionary Approach. pp3-28 Den Haag: Asser Press
- Leonard A. Dietz (1999) Contamination of Persian Gulf War Veterans and Others by Depleted Uranium. Available at http://www.wise-uranium.org/dgvd.html
- Committee on Toxicologic and Radiologic Effects from Exposure to Depleted Uranium During and After Combat (2008). See above. p19.
- Dan Fahey (2008a). See above.
- Ian Farlie (2008). See above. p4.
- For Serbia see UN Secretary-General (2008a) Effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium. United Nations document A/63/170. pp15-17. Available for download at http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/63/170&Lang=E
For Iraq see Iraqis blame U.S. depleted uranium for surge in cancer. RIA Novosti. Available at :http://en.rian.ru/world/20070723/69509899.html
- Ian Farlie (2008). See above. p9.
- Committee on Toxicologic and Radiologic Effects from Exposure to Depleted Uranium During and After Combat (2008). See above. p22.
- Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (2008a) Committee on Gulf War on Health: Updated Literature Review of Depleted Uranium. National Academies Press. pp193-215. Available for download at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12183.html
- Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (2008b) Epidemiologic Studies of Veterans Exposed to Depleted Uranium. National Academies Press. Available for download at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12200.html
- Dan Fahey (2008b). See above.
- UN Secretary-General (2008b) Effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium - Addendum. United Nations document A/63/170/Add.1 pp5-7. Available for download at http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/63/170/Add.1&Lang=E
- UN Secretary-General (2008b). See above.
This is the text of the most recent CADU leaflet, all details are correct as of November 2008. You can download a pdf of the leaflet in high resolution (1.6MB), and low resolution (658KB). You are very welcome to distribute this material, so long as it is not for financial gain, but please attibute it to CADU & do not make any alterations without prior persmission.
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