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Gulf war depleted uranium risks


US and British forces used depleted uranium (DU) in armor-piercing rounds to disable enemy tanks during the Gulf and Balkan Wars. Uranium particulate is generated by DU shell impact and particulate entrained in air may be inhaled or ingested by troops and nearby civilian populations. As uranium is slightly radioactive and chemically toxic, a number of critics have asserted that DU exposure has resulted in a variety of adverse health effects for exposed veterans and nearby civilian populations. The study described in this paper used mathematical modeling to estimate health risks from exposure to DU during the 1991 Gulf War for both US troops and nearby Iraqi civilians. The analysis found that the risks of DU-induced leukemia or birth defects are far too small to result in an observable increase in these health effects among exposed veterans or Iraqi civilians. The analysis indicated that only a few (5) US veterans in vehicles accidentally targeted by US tanks received significant exposure levels, resulting in about a 1.4% lifetime risk of DU radiation-induced fatal cancer (compared with about a 24% risk of a fatal cancer from all other causes). These veterans may have also experienced temporary kidney damage. Iraqi children playing for 500 h in DU-destroyed vehicles are predicted to incur a cancer risk of about 0.4%. In vitro and animal tests suggest the possibility of chemically induced health effects from DU internalization, such as immune system impairment. Further study is needed to determine the applicability of these findings for Gulf War exposure to DU. Veterans and civilians who did not occupy DU-contaminated vehicles are unlikely to have internalized quantities of DU significantly in excess of normal internalization of natural uranium from the environment.

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This work (Sandia document SAND 2006-4999J) was performed for the US Department of Energy. I am grateful for the review of this analysis by Dr. Celeste Drewien and Dr. Leonard Connell and the support of Dr. Clyde Layne and Dr. Jon Rogers from Sandia National Laboratories National Securities Studies Department. I am also grateful for the review of the medical aspects of this study by Dr. Larry Clevenger from Sandia National Laboratories Medical Department.

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Correspondence to Albert C Marshall.

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Marshall, A. Gulf war depleted uranium risks. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol 18, 95–108 (2008).

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  • analytical methods
  • cancer
  • exposure modeling
  • inhalation exposure
  • particulate matter
  • radiation
  • metals

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