By David Steigman, Office of Force Health ProtectionFebruary 28, 2007
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
The Department of Defense (DoD) uses depleted uranium (DU) for armor on some of its tanks and in some munitions used to penetrate enemy tanks because it is the most effective material for these purposes. The use of DU has saved countless U.S. Service members' lives by offering additional offensive and defensive capability against hostile forces.
Medical science has evaluated natural uranium for health effects for more than 50 years and depleted uranium for about 30 years. We encounter uranium every day of our lives. More than four tons of natural uranium exists in the top foot of soil in every square mile on earth. All humans eat and breathe natural uranium every day, and there are approximately 80 micrograms of uranium in each individual's body.
Natural uranium becomes depleted uranium when the more radioactive
isotopes are removed to make nuclear fuel. Depleted uranium is 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium and is not nuclear waste. There are multiple scientific studies to validate that DU does not pose an environmental threat to people in areas where it has been used in combat. Many are listed on the Internet at http://www.deploymentlink.osd.mil/du_library.
The DoD's DU Medical Monitoring policy, requires urine uranium testing for Service members who are wounded by DU munitions or are in, on, or near a tank or combat vehicle that has been hit by a DU round; as well as for those who are conducting battle damage assessment or repairs in or around a vehicle that has been recently hit by a DU round. The policy also directs such testing for any Service member who requests it. Each individual returning from a deployment is asked about possible DU exposure.
More than 2,215 Service members and veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) have been tested for DU exposures. Of this group, only nine had positive tests for DU and all these had fragment exposures.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has an active medical follow-up program in place for those veterans who were in or near armored vehicles penetrated by DU munitions in the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Of the 74 victims of the Persian Gulf War who are in a VA follow-up study, only a quarter have retained DU fragments in their bodies. To date, none of these individuals has developed any uranium-related health problems, including kidney abnormalities, leukemia, bone cancer, or lung cancer. This DU medical follow-up program is in place today for all Service members with similar exposures.
Current scientific knowledge indicates no environmental or radiological exposure concerns with DU. This is based on studies by more than 20 U.S. and international government agencies, including the World Health Organization:
http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/pub_meet/en/DU_Eng.pdf; the United Nations Environment Programme:
http://www.deploymentlink.osd.mil/du_library/pdfs/unep_du_serbia.pdf; and the toxicological profiles developed by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry of the Centers for Disease Control:
http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp150.html. Many outside agencies, including the Institute of Medicine and the "RAND Review of the Scientific Literature as it Pertains to Depleted Uranium," http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/library/randrep/du/cover.html, also have looked closely at the potential health impact of DU munitions.
The Services have a DU training requirement for Service members who may be exposed. The purpose of the training is to ensure Service members know that even though there are minimal health risks associated with most DU combat exposures, some special measures should be taken to prevent unnecessary DU exposure from occurring. Exiting a vehicle that has been struck by a DU round - if operationally possible - can reduce the exposure. Using a vehicle's ventilation system can reduce the levels of DU particles remaining in the vehicle's air. Proper field and personal sanitation techniques also can reduce or prevent exposure to DU. Unfired, intact DU munitions are safe to handle and are not a source of DU exposure.
The DoD will continue to monitor those individuals with DU fragments that cannot be removed because they are continuing to be exposed. Research on DU and other armor-piercing munitions will continue to make certain there are no health consequences. Protecting the health of the men and women in uniform is important to the DoD.