Society News Archive
Depleted Uranium: Not the Cause of Military Personnel Illnesses
Recently, there has been much concern expressed in the media and among the general public with respect to the hazardous nature of depleted uranium, including allegations of leukemias, cancers, and other deaths caused by this material. While it is in fact true that depleted uranium is weakly radioactive, it is also a heavy metal and, except in certain very unusual situations, it is the chemical toxicity and not the radioactivity that is of concern. And, from a chemical toxicity standpoint, uranium is on the same order of toxicity as lead. Largely from work with animals, along with a few instances in which humans inhaled very large amounts of uranium, the chemical toxicity of uranium is known to produce minor effects on the kidney. In humans who have suffered large acute exposures, these effects have been transitory and wholly reversible. Because depleted and natural uranium are only weakly radioactive, radiological effects from ingested or inhaled uranium have not been detected.
Human experience with uranium has spanned more than 200 years. In the early part of the 20th century, uranium was used therapeutically as a treatment for diabetes and persons so treated were administered relatively large amounts of uranium by mouth. Tens of thousands of persons have worked in the uranium industry over the past several decades and have been followed up and studied extensively, as have populations in Canada and elsewhere who have high levels of uranium in their drinking water. The types of illnesses apparently suffered by those exposed to depleted uranium from weapons have never been observed in these groups. This is not surprising since the radiation dose from uranium is far overshadowed by its potential chemical toxicity and intakes of uranium of sufficient magnitude to produce chemotoxic effects are unlikely in and of themselves. That notwithstanding, any such effects from ingestion or inhalation of uranium would likely manifest themselves first in the form of minor effects associated with the kidneys. That military personnel and others who may have had contact with depleted uranium from munitions are suffering from various illnesses is not in dispute. That their illnesses are attributable to their exposure to uranium is very, very unlikely. A truly enormous body of scientific data shows that it is virtually impossible for uranium to be the cause of their illnesses.
Ronald L. Kathren
Washington State University
Past President, Health Physics Society
Past President, American Academy of Health Physics