The U.S. military used depleted uranium to create armor-piercing bullets and armor plating on Abrams tanks to protect the lives of our troops. However, in doing so, they created a health hazard that has become very misunderstood. Radioactivity is the most studied area of depleted uranium, which is actually the least hazardous problem. Toxicity through breathing and embedded fragments of armor plating and munitions is the main health hazard most veterans face and the studies to support their health conditions is seriously lacking.
What are the Routes of Exposure of Depleted Uranium?
Depleted uranium is not stated to be specifically dangerous due to its radioactivity. In fact, it is 40% less radioactive than natural uranium. Most of the radioactive particles emitted by depleted uranium are blocked by skin and BDUs (battle dress uniforms). Radiation that is exposed when “hot” such as after a weapon is fired, poses extremely low radiological threats as long as it remains outside the body and the exposure is not long-term (such as over a lengthy period of time – months or years of constant exposure). This is where there is a problem. Where depleted uranium is not considered a radiological concern except when “hot,” it is considered more of a chemically toxic concern, especially when fragments of armor plating or munitions puncture the skin.
Also, while not considered a radiological concern, there are those scientists who believe that the damage to cells caused by breathing radioactive particles can become cancerous over time. Because the cells’ triggers for becoming cancerous are different among different individuals, this is an area of study that may never be resolved one way or the other.
Prior to the Gulf War, extensive studies were conducted on depleted uranium while developing armor-piercing munitions and armor plating protection. The studies were focused on radioactivity and exposure in battlefield simulations. Since studies show exposure issues to be low, many personnel did not practice (or were not directed to practice) prevention measures during exposure situations because most studies conducted were on the radioactive components, not the chemical toxicity of exposure.
Two areas of exposure that were also not studied adequately and turned out to be the major health hazards to troops during the Gulf War were embedded fragments and respiratory exposure through friendly fire, recovery, and incidental contact scenarios. These include such incidents as being in, on, or near burning vehicles hit with friendly fire; entering or being near burning vehicles; being near fires involving depleted uranium munitions; or salvaging damaged vehicles. There are three main groups at risk for health problems due to depleted uranium exposure.
- Personnel who were struck by depleted uranium metal fragments, some of whom still retain fragments embedded in their bodies. These fragments could have come from either munitions or from fragments of armor plating that broke off during firefights or explosions;
- Personnel who worked in or around combat vehicles struck by depleted uranium such as those participating in the clean up after the fire at Camp Doha; and
- Personnel whose entered Iraqi equipment or personnel downwind from vehicles that burned after being struck by depleted uranium rounds.
What are the Health Hazards of Depleted Uranium?
There are two basic types of exposure risks; radiological and chemical toxicity.
Radiological: Depleted uranium is not a known carcinogen like other radioactive substances, meaning there are no known scientific links that it causes cancer in humans. However, there are theories that long-term exposure to radioactive dust can lead to accumulation in the lungs, leading to lung, lymph, and brain cancers. There are also studies that long-term exposures may lead to genetic birth defects in children of persons exposed to DU. However, these studies have not been shown to apply to veterans whose exposures were not long enough to pose this threat.
Chemical toxicity: According to the World Health Organization, the main health risks associated with chemical exposure is kidney damage. Direct contact exposure such as with embedded particles does not seem to show any adverse health effects once the particles are removed, but those with particles not removed need to be monitored for kidney problems. The World Health Organization said that once the source has been removed, kidney functions should return to normal, provided exposure was not long-term. However, they also acknowledge that there are significant gaps in research and studies need to continue specifically in long term kidney function. Embedded fragments are also suspected to cause damage to the blood, muscles, lungs, bones, lymph nodes, liver, and digestive tract.
Many Gulf War veterans have also associated depleted uranium with conditions such as:
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Neurological conditions
- Upper and lower respiratory conditions
- Menstrual disorders
Studies are limited in support of these conditions being related to and not being related to depleted uranium, but as in all compensation claims, the benefit of the doubt must go to the veteran and in the absence of evidence that depleted uranium does not cause these conditions, a claim for compensation could be winnable.
What Does This Mean for Veterans?
Veterans who have been exposed to depleted uranium, specifically by being exposed to burning vehicles or munitions or salvaging vehicles should file for compensation if they have any health conditions related to respiratory or kidney issues. A medical doctor can determine if the conditions are at least as likely as not related to the depleted uranium exposure. Veterans from theaters of operations in the following are most likely to have been exposed:
- Gulf War
- Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom
- Operation New Dawn
Because studies are vague, there is no presumption of illness caused by exposure so having a medical authority provide a nexus statement is vital to a claim for compensation. An independent medical evaluation by a doctor is excellent to acquire medical evidence and it will be worth the price in the long run if a mild kidney or lung condition eventually develops into something worse later. Getting service connection now ensures that complications later will be covered. Veterans can later file for an increase in their rating if the conditions become more serious. Because the studies are limited, the evidence only has to show that the condition is “at least as likely as not” related to the exposure, not that it was absolutely related, so the chances are on the side of the veteran to win a compensation claim if it is filed with the correct evidence and documentation.