Campaign Against Depleted Uranium

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Potential Health Effects

In the areas where depleted uranium was used in southern Iraq, a number of serious health problems have emerged among both soldiers and civilians.
For instance, there has been a 66% increase in leukaemias and cancers in southern Iraq.  There has also been a marked increase in the numbers of children born with birth malformations, with horrific reports of 3 children in one family being born with severe congenital malformations.

There are also large numbers of soldiers who served in the Gulf with Allied forces and in the Iraqi army, who are now suffering from mysterious illnesses - often referred to as Gulf War syndrome.  Many of these illnesses reflect those seen among Iraqi children and civilians.  For example, of the 697,000 US troops who served in the Gulf, over 90,000 have reported medical problems. There are also defects reported among their newborn children.  In a veterans community in Mississippi, 67% of the children were born with malformations.

The area of southern Scotland used to test depleted uranium weapons has the highest rate of childhood leukaemia in Scotland.  The residents of the flats in Amsterdam into which the El Al jet crashed in 1992 have also reported mysterious illnesses (the jet had depleted uranium counterweights - see CADU News issue 3).

However, although we can point to these facts and statistics in relation to the use of depleted uranium, it is impossible to prove a causal link.  Just as it is impossible for scientists to prove a causal link between the leukaemia clusters around Sellafield nuclear power station, and radioactivity released from the plant.  It is not scientifically possible to categorically state that depleted uranium has caused any particular illness in any person - certainly, in relation to the Gulf War, there were many other 'compounding' factors - other toxics present which could be linked to illnesses.
What we can do though, is examine the toxic and radioactive properties of depleted uranium, and the potential adverse effects resulting from these - and place this alongside reported illnesses where depleted uranium has been used.

Like other heavy metals, depleted uranium is chemically toxic: it causes chemical poisoning of the body, particularly to kidneys and tubules.

However, it is its radiological properties which cause the most concern. On impact, depleted uranium burns and oxidises to form tiny ceramic aerosol particles.  These particles are between 1 and 5 microns in size, which means they are easily breathed in. As they are ceramicised depleted uranium, they are insoluble - they do not dissolve in bodily fluids, and so are not easily flushed through the body and may remain lodged in the lungs or other organs for years.  It is also important to note that these particles can be carried in air, by wind, or can be disturbed by movement of vehicles or people. Tests have shown they can be carried for at least 26 miles.
The Ministry of Defence, government scientists, among others, claim that as depleted uranium is only of low level radioactivity, it is not particularly dangerous.  In fact, it is this type of thinking which is dangerous, as they use a radioactive model based on the effects of gamma and beta radiation, external to the body.

Depleted uranium, however,  is an alpha particle emitter. Of all the types of radiation alpha particles when released internally (ie breathed in) are the most dangerous to living cells. They are the biggest and most heavy of the three types of radiation. Because they can be stopped by a piece of paper they are sometimes considered less dangerous than beta (which need a centimetre of aluminium to stop it.) or gamma (which need several feet of lead to stop it), but that is only when they are outside of the body.  As the Low Level Radiation Campaign and other scientists have proved, an alpha source next to living tissue can severely damage the DNA in the nucleus of the cell, cause mutations and later cancers. On its way from the lungs to the bladder the depleted uranium spends time in the blood and could get lodged in a capillary or tissue anywhere in the body and cause cancer there. This is why depleted uranium is so dangerous if it is in the body: particularly if it stays there for many years.
Government scientists claim that the radioactivity dose received from inhaling depleted uranium would not exceed the minimum radiation dose permitted.  However, this is because they take the effects of alpha particles in one small section of body tissue, and average the harm out over the entire body.  Yet as shown above, the damage to this small part can lead to cancers and mutations affecting the whole body.

The expected health effects of chronic lung burdens of depleted uranium include fibrosis of the irradiated lung tissue, lung cancer, eventual entry of depleted uranium into blood over subsequent years, with effects on liver and kidney, together with incorporation of depleted uranium into bone.  When in bone, the uranium can irradiate the sensitive stem cells which form the white blood cells, especially the monocytes.  Clinical manifestations of this toxicity include kidney and liver damage, anaemia, depressed cellular immune system and general heavy metal poisoning.  Uranium can pass the placenta causing congenital malformation and can be carried to the infant in mothers milk. It can damage the ovum and sperm causing genetic damage.

Therefore, when we look at the properties of depleted uranium, the effects it could have on the body, and compare this with the medical problems among depleted uranium workers, Gulf veterans, Iraqi civilians and so on, we cannot rule out depleted uranium as one of the caues.

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From CADU News 7: Spring 2001

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Page last updated: January 28, 2003