DOD and RAND Release Report on Health Effects

of Depleted Uranium


WASHINGTON, April 15, 1999 (GulfLINK) - After an extensive review of the scientific literature, the RAND Corporation has released a report on the potential health effects of depleted uranium in Gulf War veterans. At the low exposure levels experienced by Gulf War veterans, the scientific literature available today does not indicate negative health effects due to the chemical toxicity of depleted uranium. In addition, negative health effects have not been observed in humans from the exposure to ionizing radiation from depleted uranium or natural uranium.

At high levels uranium may cause chemical toxicity because it is a heavy metal. A lesser concern is the low level of radioactivity which it emits. There is only limited evidence that even chronic exposure to natural uranium is associated with illness in humans or animals, and this is only at extraordinary concentrations. This conclusion makes it unlikely that depleted uranium would have any such effects, because depleted uranium is 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium.

This report, "A Review of the Scientific Literature as it Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses: Volume 7 Depleted Uranium," is the latest report commissioned by Bernard Rostker, the special assistant for Gulf War illnesses. Rostker says he requested the report in response to veterans' concerns that depleted uranium might be the cause of some of their illnesses.

"To properly plan for future research and to put what we know into perspective, we believe it is important to take a detailed look at the work already done in this area," Rostker says.

RAND had five recognized experts review the literature, including Dr. Naomi Harley, an authority on radiation and health physics, and Dr. Ernest Foulkes, a heavy metal toxicologist. Their review encompassed literature relating to both risks published or accepted for publication in peer-reviewed journals, books, government publications and conference proceedings.

"This research is an expansion on previously completed work and is in concert with our mission: to do everything possible to understand and explain Gulf War illnesses, to inform the Gulf War veterans and the American public of our progress, and to ensure that DoD makes the necessary changes in equipment, policy and procedures." Rostker says. "The work includes a broad inquiry into such possible causes of illnesses as exposures to a variety of environmental hazards. Currently, there are more than 140 projects and clinical evaluations underway to find explanations for the symptoms reported by military people who served in the Gulf War. Literature reviews like this one are part of the groundwork for that research."

RAND is a nonprofit institution working to help improve policy and decision making through research and analysis. Rostker says its 50 years of experience and long history of working with the Department of Defense make the organization very well qualified to carry out this type of research.

RAND's researchers say very little literature directly addresses the health effects of depleted uranium. However, they found a wide body of literature dealing with natural and enriched uranium. That literature is relevant because experts say the toxicological effects of natural uranium are identical to those of depleted uranium, and depleted uranium's radiological effects are less pronounced because depleted uranium is less radioactive than natural uranium. Their research also found that heavy metal toxicity is regarded as a more serious risk than radiation.

The RAND authors found no peer-reviewed published reports of detectable increases in cancer or other negative health effects from radiation exposure to inhaled or ingested uranium at levels far exceeding those likely in the Gulf. According to the researchers the human body is very effective at eliminating ingested or inhaled uranium, and because the level of radiation is so low, the amount a person would have to swallow or inhale for significant internal exposure is almost impossible. External radiation from depleted uranium, the study says, is at levels below those expected to be of concern.

The study also points out that exposure to uranium in large doses can cause changes in kidney function if the dose is large enough. But the literature showed no increase in illness or frequency of kidney disease in fairly large occupational populations who were chronically exposed to uranium at concentrations well above the normal background levels of uranium radiation encountered by a person in the general population.

One source of current information is the Department of Veterans Affairs Baltimore Medical Center, where doctors are following a group of Gulf War veterans who appear to have received the highest level of exposure during the war. About half of these individuals have embedded depleted uranium fragments in their bodies from Gulf War friendly-fire incidents, and the uranium levels in their urine are elevated. Although many of these veterans have health problems related to their injuries in the Gulf War, researchers report no negative kidney effects attributable to the chemical toxicity of depleted uranium and no negative health effects related to depleted uranium radiation.

Although RAND's conclusions indicate no evidence of harmful effects directly linked to depleted uranium exposures, their report closes by urging continued research because they believe depleted uranium use is likely to expand in the future.

The Gulf War was the first conflict that saw the wide use of depleted uranium. The U.S. used it because of its extraordinary effectiveness in anti-armor munitions as well as protective armor in U.S. tanks. The new munitions and armor gave U.S. forces a tremendous operational advantage. Because of the unprecedented range and lethality advantages provided by depleted uranium sabot rounds (which are more dense and heavier than alternative tungsten rounds), they quickly became the round of choice among Abrams tank gunners. Depleted uranium munitions played a central role in destroying more than 4,000 Iraqi combat vehicles in some of the most lopsided exchanges in modern military history.

"Despite being engaged multiple times, often at close ranges by Iraqi tanks and anti-armor weapons, not a single U.S. tank protected by depleted uranium armor was penetrated by hostile fire," Rostker says. "Depleted uranium's contribution to America's battlefield success, and the protection and survivability it offered to American tanks and American lives, cannot be overlooked."

He admits that troop awareness of the hazards posed by battlefield depleted uranium contamination was generally low during the Gulf War. Today, his office is deeply involved in revamping the training given to service members who may be exposed to depleted uranium in the future to make them more aware of the simple measures they can take to reduce their potential risk. And he agrees that more research is called for, even though the Department of Defense has studied depleted uranium for many years.

"Burn tests and other evaluations performed under simulated battlefield conditions indicated that the health risk factors associated with the battlefield use of depleted uranium were minimal and in most cases could be prevented or lessened by simple, field-expedient measures," he says.

This report complements our own environmental exposure report on depleted uranium which was released in August of 1998, and it's the second RAND literature review released. Their report on oil well fires is already posted on GulfLINK. Literature reviews dealing with pesticides, pyridostigmine bromide, immunizations, infectious diseases and stress are still in preparation and are expected to be released over the next year. As each report is released, it will be posted on GulfLINK.