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Health Hazards of Use of Depleted Uranium in Wars

18th World Congress of IPPNW

We, the health specialists, who have been working for peace, disarmament and nuclear abolition from all over the world, have been deeply concerned about the potentially harmful effects on the environment and human health, which may be caused by the radioactive and chemical toxicity of DU following the use of DU weapons.

DU is ‘nuclear waste’ produced from the enrichment process and is mostly made up of the alpha emitting isotope Uranium 238 and is depleted in the fissionable isotope Uranium 235, as compared to concentrated natural uranium (NU). DU is somewhat less radioactive than NU, yet has about 60% of the radioactivity of concentrated NU (NU in nature is thousands of times less concentrated). DU is mostly an alpha emitter, a very damaging type of radioactivity inside the body. DU and NU are identical in terms of the chemical toxicity, which is also a source of potential damage to the body. With regard to DU’s radioactivity, it is well known that DU is one of a number of radioactive materials, which are strictly controlled by laws in most of the countries of the world.

Uranium’s high density gives DU shells increased range and penetrative power. This density, combined with uranium’s pyrophoric nature, results in a high-energy kinetic weapon that can punch and burn through armour plating. Striking a hard target, DU munitions create extremely high temperatures of more than 3,000oC. The uranium immediately burns and vaporizes into an aerosol, which is easily diffused in the environment, while the shell is penetrating the target. The uranium particles formed by this heat are unlike forms of naturally formed uranium in terms of their size (10 to 100 times smaller). These extremely small particle sizes are known to be much more toxic and more rapidly absorbed from the lungs than larger (micron-sized) particles.

Aerosolized DU dust can easily spread over the battlefield, and can be re-suspended by the winds especially where the climate is dry, spreading over civilian areas, sometimes even crossing international borders. Therefore, personnel but also the civilians, including children who are very sensitive to such toxic substances, might inhale the fine DU particles and internalize them in their bodies. It was also recognized that DU weapons were actually used even in highly populated residential areas. The contamination also continues after the cessation of hostilities. DU particles will remain in the environment and retain their radiation for decades and centuries. Taking these aspects of DU weapons into account, we consider that DU weapons are illegal under binding international humanitarian, human rights and environmental law and is one of the inhumane weapons of ‘indiscriminate destruction’.

Uranium is a radioactive element naturally distributed in the environment. However, we repeat that the very fine particles of DU created at the extremely high temperatures that result from the impact of a DU shell on a tank are micron- and nano-sized and can travel in the body once inhaled. They have no analogue in history. In addition, the high temperatures at impact sublimate the metals in the tank around the penetrating holes and in the shell casing, adding tiny particles of these metals and their oxides to the aerosol which can be internalized if inhaled, like the uranium, and which are toxic to the body. We have been facing an entirely new type of contamination to humans and the environment through these weapons.

It is true that we do not, as yet, understand the full impact of fine particles of DU oxide on the human body. However, there is a considerable amount of basic scientific evidence from both animal and cellular studies (including studies of human lung cells) that suggest deleterious effects on human health from inhaled DU particles through both radiological action and chemical toxicity. These data clearly indicate that the internalized uranium (both soluble component and insoluble particles) has genotoxic effect (carcinogenic, mutagenic), for it affects directly and/or indirectly the DNA, which codes the genetic information of the cell. It has also been pointed out that the internalized uranium may affect the intracellular organelles and/or enzyme proteins and damage some of the repair mechanisms of the cells. These harmful effects are possibly produced in the various tissues and organs in a body, including potential damage to the immune and nervous systems. If genotoxic effects are produced in the germ line cells, it might lead to trans-generational effects. A teratogenic effect to the fetus was detected in animal studies where rodents were exposed to DU during gestation, as well as exposed prior to mating; also a number of Gulf War veterans were found to have DU in their semen. We should in addition consider the possible synergistic effect of radio-toxicity and chemical-toxicity from DU exposure.

We think it critical to immediately launch a full-dress, long-lasting and independent environmental monitoring, exposure assessment as well as health and medical research on possibly exposed populations, both military and civilian, in the areas where the DU weapons have been used. We should also pay serious attention to the contamination and possible harmful health effects due to the manufacturing of DU weapons; a recent study clearly indicates that the workers of the DU weapons-producing factory as well as residents living nearby were contaminated by DU. However, we should also note that it may take many years, even decades, before we get statistically significant results on affected populations from epidemiological studies.

In the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which was adapted at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, they stated: ‘In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation; Principle 15.’ This ‘precautionary principle’ has been confirmed repeatedly in the UN. It is also recognized widely in the international community as one of the most important principles concerning the international as well as the domestic policies for environmental and public health protection. It is also a valuable and logical principle for us, scientists, when we take responsibility for our society. The issue of DU weapons should be also discussed seriously based on the 'precautionary principle' among the UN member countries.

On December the 5th, 2007, the resolution entitled 'Effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium' was passed at the UN General Assembly by an overwhelming majority. The resolution was drafted by the Movement of Non-Aligned States and submitted by Indonesia. We the scientists who have been concerned about the harmful effects of depleted uranium (DU) weapons, welcome this resolution.

The resolution was adopted, because the majority of UN member states took ‘into consideration the potential harmful effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium on human health and the environment’ (Preparatory Paragraph: PP 4); ‘convinced that as humankind is more aware of the need to take immediate measures to protect the environment, any event that could jeopardize such efforts requires urgent attention to implement the required measures’ (PP 3). It was also ‘guided by the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the UN and the rules of Humanitarian International Law’ (PP 1) and showed the determination ‘to carry forward negotiations on arms regulation and disarmament’ (PP 2) on the issue of DU weapons.

We are convinced that, and expect that, this resolution will be the first step to place the issue of DU weapons on the disarmament agenda, following the issues of Landmines and Cluster Munitions, and the beginning of a serious discussion about the deleterious nature of DU weapons and a possible ban, among the member nations of the UN.

Considering the basic scientific evidence we already have, including studies reported in the most recently peer - reviewed papers, it is not right to continue using DU weapons making the excuse that ‘no definitive conclusions had been reached’ in the present limited risk assessments of the health and environmental impact of DU. We think that the previous reports from a number of governmental bodies and international organizations, including WHO, have not yet fully reflected and referenced these scientific studies. They mainly focus on the radiological toxicity to the lung and the chemical toxicity to the kidneys. We should consider these omissions of the previous reports.

We request all the UN member countries to discuss seriously what concrete measures are needed, including the immediate clearance of contaminated remnants, and the protection of the environment and the public health of contaminated populations following the use of DU weapons. We request the member nations of the UN to refrain from using DU weapons, until the independent risk assessment on the health and environment is completed. The burden of proof is on the users, if they continue to insist that DU weapons cause “no problem” to health and environment. Furthermore, we urge the international community to go forward to ban DU weapons, one of the inhumane weapons of ‘indiscriminate destruction’.


References:
Keith Baverstock, ”Presentation to the Defence Committee of the Belgian House of Representatives, 20 November 2006”, www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/docs/15.pdf .

Rosalie Bertell, “Depleted Uranium: All the Questions about DU and Gulf War Syndrome are not yet Answered”, International Journal of Health Services 36(3), 503-520, 2006.

Wayne Briner and Jennifer Murray, “Effects of short-term and long-term depleted uranium exposure on open-field behavior and brain lipid oxidation in rats”, Neurotoxicology and Teratology 27, 135-144, 2005.

V. Chazel et al, Characterisation and dissolution of depleted uranium aerosols produced during impacts of kinetic energy penetrators against a tank. Radiat. Prot. Dosim. 105, 163-166, 2003.

Cooper, J.R. et al. "The behaviour of uranium-233 oxide and uranyl-233 nitrate in rats." Intl. J. Radiat. Biol. 41(4), 421-433, 1982.

Virginia Coryell and Diane Stearns, “Molecular analysis of s hprt mutations generated in Chinese hamster ovary EM9 cells by uranyl acetate, by hydrogen peroxide, and spontaneously”, Molecular Carcinogenesis 45(1), 60-72, 2006.

J.L. Domingo, Reproductive and developmental toxicity of natural and depleted uranium: a review, Reproductive Toxicology 15, pp. 603-609, 2001.

Wendy J. Hartsock et al, “Uranyl Acetate as a Direct Inhibitor of DNA-Binding Proteins”, Chem. Res. Toxicol. 20, 784-789, 2007.

Arjun Makhijani et al., “Science for the Vulnerable: Setting Radiation and Multiple Exposure Environmental Health Standards to Protect Those Most at Risk”, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), October 19, 2006. (http://www.ieer.org)

Melissa A. McDiarmid et al, “Health Effects of Depleted Uranium on Exposed Gulf War Veterans”, Environmental Research Section A 82, 168-180, 2000 ,(p. 172 on DU in semen of Gulf War veterans).

Alexandra C. Miller (editor), Depleted Uranium: Properties, Uses, and Health Consequences, Boca Raton: CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group, 2007. See Chapter 1 by David McClain and A.C. Miller and Chapter 4 by Wayne Briner (Neurotoxicology of depleted uranium in Adult and Developing Rodents), as well as other chapters.

A.C. Miller et al., “Observation of Radiation-Specific Damage in Human Cells Exposed to Depleted Uranium: Dicentric Frequency and Neoplastic Transformation as Endpoints”, Radiation Protection Dosimetry 99, 275-278, 2002.

Marjorie Monleau et al. “Genotoxic and Inflammatory Effects of Depleted Uranium Particles Inhaled by Rats”, Toxicological Sciences 89(1), 287-295, 2006.

Randall R. Parrish et al., “Depleted uranium contamination by inhalation exposure and its detection after approximately 20 years: implications for human health assessment”, Science of the Total Environment, 2007 October 30 [E-pub ahead off print]

Adaikkappan Periyakarupan et al, “Uranium induces oxidative stress in lung epithelial cells”, Arch. Toxicol. 8(16)389-395, 2007.

Diane M. Stearns et al., “Uranyl acetate induces hprt mutations and uranium-DNA adducts in Chinese hamster ovary EM9 cells”, Mutagenesis 20(6), 417-423, 2005.

G.N. Stradling et al. "The metabolism of ceramic and nonceramic forms of uranium dioxide after deposition in the rat lung." Human Toxicol. 7, 133-139, 1988.

Bin Wan et al. “In Vitro Immune Toxicity of Depleted Uranium: Effects on Murine Macrophages, CD+T Cells, and Gene Expression Profiles”, Environmental Health Perspectives 114(1), 85-91, 2006.

H.B. Wilson et al. "Relation of particle size of uranium dioxide dust to toxicity following ingalation by animals: II." Archives of Industrial Hygiene and Occupational Medicine 6(2), 93-104, 1952.

H.B. Wilson et al. "Relation of particle size of U3O8 dust to toxicity following inhalation in animals." Arch. of Indust. Health 11, 11-16, 1955.

Sandra S. Wise et al, “Particulate Depleted Uranium Is Cytotoxic and Clastogenic to Human Lung Cells”, Chem. Res. Toxicol. 20(5), 815-820, 2007.


This statement was originally drafted and proposed by:
Katsumi Furitsu M.D. Ph. D., Member of Steering Committee and Science Team of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW), Member of JPPNW
Angelika Claussen M.D., Chairperson of the IPPNW-Germany
at the workshop on March 10, 2008.

We welcome any comments as well as your support for this statement.

Contact address:
Katsumi Furitsu
Satonaka-cho, 2-1-24
Nishinomiya-shi, Hyogo
663-8183 JAPAN
Tel.: +81-798-44-2614
E-mail: f-katsumi@titan.ocn.ne.jp

 

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