The hazards of DU are similar to those from other uranium metals suspected in new non-nuclear weapons. Official US and UK government documents have been warning about toxic-radioactive risks of DU as follows.
A 1983 literature study by the Batelle Pacific Nothwest Laboratory for the US Department of the Army, clearly discerns the two types of DU hazards: “The chemical toxicity is the critical limit for soluble uranium compounds, and the critical organ is the kidney. Insoluble compounds present a [radiological] hazard primarily to the lungs […] The exposure limits for toxicity are more conservative than most of the radiological limits and thus protect from either type of insult.” [Mishima et al., 1983] A 1984 US Federal Aviation Agency document cautions the investigators of aircraft crashes against the hazard from DU in counterweights of civilian airplanes: particles inhaled or ingested are toxic and can cause long-term irradiation of the internal tissue.
Six months before the Gulf War, a Science Applications International Corporation report wrote, “Short-term effects of high doses can result in death, while long-term effects of low doses have been implicated in cancer.” Shortly after the Gulf War in March 1991, a memo from the US Defence Nuclear Agency stated that alpha particles emitted from DU dust created from exploded DU ammunition pose a health risk, but beta particles from DU shrapnel and from intact DU bullets are a serious hazard to health. In the early nineties, the UK Atomic Energy Authority warned that if all of the DU fired by tanks in the Gulf War was inhaled, “there could be half a million deaths as a result by 2000.” Tanks fired only about 8% of all DU used in that war.
A 1993 US General Accounting Office report GAO/NSIAD-93-90 stated, “Inhaled insoluble [DU] oxides stay in the lungs longer and pose a potential cancer risk due to radiation. Ingested DU dust can also pose both a radioactive and toxicity risk.” A 1995 US Army Environmental Policy Institute report warned, “Toxicologically, DU poses a health risk when internalized. Radiologically, the radiation emitted by DU results in health risks from both external and internal exposures […] If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences.“
A January 2001 leak revealed that the UK Ministry of Defense was secretly testing for radiation poisoning among British soldiers just months before it sent troops to Kosovo. At the time the ministry was refusing screening for Gulf War veterans. The disclosure went much further than an earlier leak that showed only that officers knew 4 years earlier about the risk of developing lung, lymph and brain cancers from DU shells.
The industry is also well aware of the risks from airborne contamination by DU. Paul Loewenstein, vice president of Nuclear Metals Inc. (now Starmet Corporation, the prime US supplier of DU metal and related products) wrote: “The main hazard to health occurs in those fabrication steps where finely divided particles (dust or oxides) can become airborne. In operations such as melting and casting, machining, grinding, pickling and heating without using a protective atmosphere or vacuum, it is essential to provide extensive ventilation and to monitor worker’s breathing zones. Vents and fume hoods that protect workers are exhausted through carefully monitored filter systems. Workers must change footwear and clothing when leaving areas where finely divided uranium is present.” [Loewenstein, 1992]
The Boeing Corporation safety guide for DU counterweights in aircraft and missiles advises: ”Most heavy metals, such as uranium, are toxic to humans depending on the amount introduced into the body. For short-term (acute) exposures, the toxicological effects are the primary concern, and acute exposures to significant amounts of uranium may result in kidney damage.“[Section 4.1.2]. Section 4.1.3 spells out the radiological hazard: “The principal radiological hazard associated with uranium is due to high linear energy transfer of the alpha particles its radionuclides and daughters emit. A chronic exposure to these radionuclides result in an increased risk of cancer, typically in the bones, kidney, and lungs, since these are the organs where uranium is deposited.” Section 6.2.5 concerns airborne contamination with uranium fine particles: “Failure to control airborne contamination could result in inhalation of the contamination and spread of contamination to other areas.” To this end, Section 12.2.3 commands: “Wear a respirator […] whenever entering areas with airborne DU dust particles.” [Boeing, 2001]
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