The first widespread use of depleted uranium (DU) by the U.S. military occurred in the 1991 Gulf War. DU is almost twice as dense as lead, and is relatively low in cost. It was used widely due to it being cheap and widely available as a by-product of nuclear energy and nuclear weapon production (DU is what is left over when most of the highly radioactive types of uranium are removed for use as nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons). DU makes metals stronger and was used by the U.S. military for tank armor and some ammunition. While, DU has 40% less radioactivity than natural uranium, it has the same chemical toxicity.
How Veterans May Have Been Exposed
When an object, such as a bullet penetrates a vehicle, small pieces of DU can scatter and become embedded in a person’s muscle and soft tissues. Additionally, veterans may have been exposed to DU by inhalation or accidentally swallowing small airborne DU particles.
- Inhalation: This is the most likely route of exposure. Inhalation typically would occur during or following the use of DU munitions in conflict. Accidental inhalation may also occur as the result of a fire in a depleted uranium storage facility, an aircraft crash, or the decontamination of vehicles from, within, or near conflict areas.
- Ingestion: This could occur if drinking water or food became contaminated with DU.
- Dermal (skin) contact: This is unlikely to be much of a concern as DU doesn’t pass through healthy skin. Exposure to DU through the skin would more likely come from contact with open wounds or embedded shrapnel.
- Body retention: Most of the DU that enters a body would not be absorbed by the body. The body retains very little of the DU that enters it, with most of the DU being filtered out by the kidneys. However, some DU does stay in the body especially when the source of exposure is embedded fragments and shrapnel.
Gulf War veterans that may have been exposed to DU are those who:
- Were in or near vehicles hit with friendly fire
- Were entering or near burning vehicles
- Were near fires involving DU munitions
- Were salvaging damaged vehicles
Health Problems Associated with DU
DU is a potential health hazard if it enters the body. As explained above, DU can enter the body through embedded fragments, contaminated wounds, and inhalation or ingestion. Potential health effects from exposure to DU are related to the amount of DU that enters a person’s body. Research of veterans who were struck by shrapnel containing DU shows that DU continues to seep out of the shrapnel for at least a decade. This results in an increase in the concentration of DU in body tissues over this time. Studies also show that an accumulation of DU in the kidneys is associated with increased incidence of functional kidney disease. DU is also recognized as a possible cause or accelerator of cancer, but the evidence is not conclusive yet.
DU has two different effects on the body. The first is chemical poisoning, and the second is radiation poisoning. Symptoms of exposure to DU are similar to the symptoms associated with Gulf War Syndrome. Symptoms include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Neurological signs or symptoms
- Signs or symptoms involving upper or lower respiratory system
- Menstrual disorders
- Kidney problems (it is believed that the kidney is the organ that first shows effects from exposure to DU)
The long-term effects of DU remain a subject of debate. There are studies that suggest exposure to DU is related to Gulf War Syndrome, but there is not enough information to confirm the link. The Baltimore VA Medical Center has a Depleted Uranium Follow-up Program that screens and monitors health problems associated with depleted uranium exposure. This is especially geared towards veterans who were on, in or near vehicles hit with friendly fire, rescuers that entered burning vehicles, veterans who were near burning vehicles, veterans that spent time salvaging damaged vehicles, or veterans near fires involving DU munitions. The Depleted Uranium Follow-up Program involves conducted detailed physical exams, clinical tests of organ systems’ function, and recommendations for treatment (such as surgical removal of embedded fragments). To be eligible for the program, you must have had active duty service in the following conflicts:
- Gulf War
- Operation Enduring Freedom
- Operation Iraqi Freedom
- Operation New Dawn
VA Disability Claims & DU
Although exposure to DU is linked to health problems among Gulf War veterans, because of the lack of conclusive evidence, there is no presumption available for service connection. If a veteran can show that they had high exposure to DU during service (such as shrapnel fragments in their body), and can get a doctor’s opinion that their condition was “as likely as not” caused by the DU exposure they can prove service-connection that way.