Military uses of depleted uranium (DU) include defensive armor plating and armor-piercing projectiles. DU munitions are controversial because of unanswered questions about potential long-term health effects.
When DU munitions penetrate armor or burn, they create depleted uranium oxides in the form of dust that can be inhaled or contaminate wounds. Additionally, fragments of munitions or armor can become embedded in the body.
Health effects of DU are determined by factors such as the extent of exposure and whether it was internal or external.
Increased rates of immune-system disorders and other wide-ranging symptoms, including chronic pain, fatigue, and memory loss, have been reported in over one quarter of combat veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, who were found to have up to 14 times the usual level of chromosome abnormalities in their genes.
DU is less toxic than other heavy metals, such as arsenic and mercury, and is only very weakly radioactive because of its long half-life. While any radiation exposure has risks, no conclusive epidemiological data have correlated DU exposure to specific human health effects, such as cancer. However, studies using cultured cells and laboratory rodents continue to suggest leukemogenic, genetic, reproductive, and neurological effects from chronic exposure.
A 2005 epidemiology review concluded: “In aggregate the human epidemiological evidence is consistent with increased risk of birth defects in offspring of persons exposed to DU.”
A 2001 study of 15,000 February 1991 U.S. Gulf War combat veterans and 15,000 control veterans found the Gulf War veterans were 1.8 (fathers) to 2.8 (mothers) times more likely to have children with birth defects, and after examination of their children’s medical records two years later, the birth defect rate increased by more than 20 percent.
Veterans who may be at a higher risk include those who have internally retained fragments of DU from shrapnel wounds. A laboratory study on rats produced by the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute showed that, after a study period of 6 months, rats treated with depleted uranium coming from implanted pellets, comparable to the average levels in the urine of Desert Storm veterans with retained DU fragments, had developed a significant tendency to lose weight with respect to the control group. In addition, substantial amounts of uranium were accumulating in their brains and central nervous systems and showed a significant reduction of neuronal activity in the hippocampus in response to external stimuli.
The conclusions of the study show that brain damage from chronic uranium intoxication is possible at lower doses than previously thought. Results from computer-based neuro-cognitive tests performed in 1997 showed an association between uranium in the urine and “problematic performance on automated tests assessing performance efficiency and accuracy.”
Despite the information presented above, however, a number of other scientific studies have concluded that DU ammunition has no measurable detrimental health effects.