Serving in the armed forces leads to potential exposure to dangerous substances. Veterans who were deployed to missions in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, and Eastern Europe may have been exposed to depleted uranium. This byproduct of uranium enrichment was used in military vehicles and weaponry.
Because enriched uranium is a radioactive substance, there has been concern about the possible health effects of depleted uranium. While depleted uranium does not have the level of radioactivity of enriched uranium, some experts fear that it might cause health problems. The Department of Defense and Department of Veteran’s Affairs monitor exposed veterans to track any health problems they may have.
What Is Depleted Uranium?
Uranium is a naturally occurring element that has radioactive properties. All uranium isotopes are radioactive, but one particular isotope called Uranium-235 (U-235) is critical for providing nuclear energy and in nuclear weapons. The military has applications for U-235 in their weapons programs as well as non-lethal functions like powering submarines.
U-235 makes up a very small portion of uranium ore. It must be extracted through an enrichment process that leaves the remainder of the ore behind. This remainder is known as depleted uranium.
Depleted uranium is still radioactive, but it emits alpha particle radiation, which is not powerful enough to penetrate human skin. Just being around depleted uranium is not a danger to human health. If a person ingests depleted uranium, though, it can be a health hazard.
What Are Some Depleted Uranium Effects?
Natural uranium is a common element found in soil and water. Everyone consumes some amount of uranium without ill effects. Your body can excrete most uranium that you ingest.
The small amount that gets absorbed, though, spreads throughout the body. It is most likely to accumulate in the bones or the kidneys. Uranium can remain in bones for a long time; the half-life of uranium in bone tissue is 70–200 days. Uranium that settles in other tissue leaves the body as urine within 1 to 2 weeks.
Natural and depleted uranium have the same level of toxicity and typically do not cause health effects. If you take in very large quantities of the material, though, you may be at risk for health issues related to uranium toxicity, such as kidney damage.
There are no indications that either depleted or natural uranium can cause cancer. The major concern from uranium ingestion is damage to the kidneys. Typical uranium consumption has not been shown to lead to kidney damage. Kidneys have even been shown to heal within several weeks of above-average levels of exposure, such as exposure due to occupation.
How Are Veterans Exposed to Depleted Uranium?
Depleted uranium has a very high density, which makes it a good material for weapons and armored vehicles. The Department of Defense (DoD) has enriched uranium and had large quantities of leftover depleted uranium that they began to use for equipment. In the 1970s, they used depleted uranium for bullets and mortar shells. Later, the DoD manufactured tank armor and airplane weights from the material.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, service members who were deployed in certain military operations may have been exposed to depleted uranium. Possible sites of exposure include:
- Gulf War
- Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)
- Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)
- Operation New Dawn (OND)
The main points of exposure were for veterans who:
- Were in or near vehicles hit with friendly fire
- Entered or were near burning vehicles
- Were near fires involving depleted uranium munitions
- Salvaged damaged vehicles
There is an additional exposure risk for veterans deployed to the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base who may have encountered depleted uranium contaminated by Soviet forces.
The Department of Defense still uses depleted uranium for bullet and mortar casings. There is a risk of exposure on firing ranges where troops use these weapons.
What Are Depleted Uranium Exposure Symptoms in Veterans?
There are no defined symptoms related to exposure to depleted uranium among veterans. Most exposures to depleted uranium occurred during incidents such as fires, vehicular accidents, and salvage operations. Veterans may have been injured during those events and show symptoms consistent with their injuries. The main clinical sign of exposure is evidence of high uranium levels in urine.
What Should Veterans Exposed to Depleted Uranium Do?
The Department of Veteran’s Affairs and the Department of Defense established the Depleted Uranium Follow-up Program to monitor affected veterans for health problems related to depleted uranium exposure. The program operates out of the VA Medical Center in Baltimore, MD.
If you served in the relevant operations and were exposed to burning munitions, burning vehicles, or vehicles struck by friendly fire, you may be eligible for the program. Eligible veterans receive:
- Physical exams
- Tests of organ systems
- Treatment, including surgical removal of embedded shrapnel or other fragments
If you are not eligible for the Follow-Up Program but suspect exposure, the VA may ask you to fill out a questionnaire and provide a urine test to check for uranium levels.
The program has not yet discovered any depleted uranium effects on soldiers or other service members who were exposed to the substance. There has been no incidence of uranium-linked cancer or kidney disease among the veterans in the follow-up program. The program will continue, though, to monitor affected veterans.
If you are a veteran and you think you have been exposed to depleted uranium, you can contact the VA and speak to an Environmental Health Coordinator. They can give you more information about depleted uranium exposure and what options are available to veterans.