Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.
E = M
Energy is eternal delight.
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My stimulative old friend wrote me to ask about depleted uranium, enclosing a recent article by Larry Johnson from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called “Use of Depleted Uranium Weapons Lingers as Health Concern.” 1 Apparently this piece is now being bruited about among antiwar leftist circles as supposedly yet more dirt they've dug up on guess who (his initials are GWB). Still these streams of doom articles are effective in raising doubts in the minds of many people. My friend asked:
Best I can make out, the depleted-uranium agitation by the antiwar left is more than just exaggeration, it's pretty much invented whole cloth — garbage, in other words. You recall the naive old saying, “Where there's smoke there's fire”? From what I've seen of propaganda mills blasting away full bore (full of lies), I'm much more taken by the comeback, attributed to John F. Kennedy, I believe: “Where there's smoke, you'll usually find somebody running a smoke-making machine!”
Depleted uranium has two possible modes of instigating biological damage — ionizing radiation due to the fact that it's a radioactive metal, and biological toxicity due to the fact that it's a “heavy” metal. Regarding the first of these, radioactively “depleted uranium” is basically as little radioactive as it's possible to be and still be radioactive and not inert. This may sound like a quibble, but the half-life of uranium-238, the major radioactive component of depleted uranium (since it's been “depleted” of other uranium isotopes) is 4.5 x 109 (i.e., billion) years (not "109" years as news pieces have erroneously reported). In other words, over the entire 4.6 billion year age of the Earth, the quantity of uranium-238 on this planet has decreased by only half. That is barely detectably radioactive at all, on the human timescale.
Even when it does decay, virtually all (> 99.99%) of uranium-238 follows the mode of alpha decay (emission of a Helium-4 nucleus), which cannot penetrate beyond a couple of inches in air and is stopped cold by sheet of paper. Contrast with gamma rays (high energy electromagnetic radiation emitted by some radioactive decayers) which can penetrate through feet or meters of lead and are highly destructive to biological tissue.
The possibility of heavy-metal toxicity by uranium is potentially of greater scientific import. That, though, is fundamentally no different than toxicity due to say lead, which has traditionally been used (without environmentalists' extraordinary complaints) as bullets on battlefields for centuries.
Rather than theorizing about either of these two possible toxicological modes of action, however, medical researchers have sought hard to see if any medical damage can be actually detected. Several hundred U.S. solders were exposed to depleted uranium during Gulf War I: from shrapnel pieces left embedded in their bodies, to vaporized aerosols accidentally inhaled, to other possible means of exposure. Because they're American, as well as the subsequent “Gulf War Syndrome” controversy following the first Gulf War, these people have been carefully studied. Beyond that, hordes of folks who worked in the uranium industry have been closely watched medically over the years. Plus the U.N., E.U., Britain's Royal Society, and others have repeatedly investigated the effects of depleted uranium in Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia as a result of its use in the wars that NATO and the U.S. have fought there. The results of all these studies are practically the same: essentially no adverse medical effects, even less than what might have been expected due to uranium's heavy metal character.
Don't take my word for it. In a recent general media article entitled “Assessing America's nuclear detritus,” after detailing (what I would consider to be only semi-reasonable) concerns many in Europe and elsewhere have about depleted-uranium munitions, Deborah Blum in the Baltimore Sun writes: 2
Could those pre-war (Gulf War II), Saddamite Iraqis making the charge perhaps have had an ax to grind in this affair? Just maybe? Could the leftists who've so avidly taken up the cry also?
There have, of course, been many articles in the general media, of varying degrees of quality, on the subject of depleted uranium. Numerous bloggers have also posted on the subject, and as with the general media, with varying degrees of quality and veracity. I'll mention only a couple of these, two posts by Steven Den Beste on USS Clueless. 3, 4
The major purpose of this article, however, is to point to (wrap ups of) the major scientific literature on the issue of depleted uranium.
National Defense Research Institute. The U.S. National Defense Research Institute has done a review of the scientific literature with regard to Gulf War illnesses, of which its Volume 7 pertains to depleted uranium. Among its conclusions, for example, I will emphasize three: 5
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Nor are these conclusions limited to United States agencies. On the contrary, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) did an investigation, in which it dispatched teams of researchers to Kosovo to inquire after the effects of depleted uranium in that conflict. A report on the UNEP's findings, presented last year, appears in the journal Science (requires subscription or pay-per-view). Here are pertinent quotes: 6
World Health Organization (WHO). The World Health Organization has done its own reviews of the (considerable) scientific information available on the health effects of uranium, depleted or un. Here's a selection of its results: 7
The Royal Society. The Royal Society of the U.K., Britain's Academy of Sciences, has done its own study, discussed here in the journal Science (requires subscription or pay-per-view). 9 The study “concludes that health risks from DU radiation are ‘for the most part low.’ There are possible exceptions, however, including a likely higher risk of lung cancer in tank crew members who inhale the ‘impact aerosol’ created when a DU shell pierces their vehicle's armor.” Note that this is primarily a danger for tank crews, who are likely killed anyway directly from the penetration fireball.
National Institutes of Health/National Academy of Sciences. The U.S. Institute of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health in conjunction with National Academy of Sciences has produced a massive study on the “Health Effects Associated with Exposures During the Gulf War,” of which its Volume 1 (a 24 megabyte file, in PDF format) exhaustively examines depleted uranium, among other things. The NIH/NAS report arrives at similar conclusions to all the others: 11
Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)
at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), put it most concisely in its
Public Health Statement for Uranium:
“No human cancer of any type has ever been seen as a result of exposure to natural or depleted uranium.”
Among other recent scientific articles discussing depleted uranium, perhaps typical is
from the British journal
(requires subscription or pay-per-view).
In the midst of arguing that “toxicology research should urgently appraise its performance and join mainstream biomedical science,” the authors (a Briton and Italian) express the point that “there is no evidence for radiological or chemical carcinogenic risk [from depleted uranium in, e.g., Kosovo] at any conceivable level of exposure.”
In these studies, depleted uranium gets off the hook from both a theoretical and a practical, what-are-the-observed-results? point of view; thus it's very difficult to take any leftist-fanned-up commotion with regard to this matter seriously.
They're just lying, I'm sorry to say.
1 Larry Johnson, “Use of Depleted Uranium Weapons Lingers as Health Concern,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2003.08.04.
2 Deborah Blum, “Assessing America's nuclear detritus,” Baltimore Sun, 2003.06.08.
5 A Review of the Scientific Literature As It Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses, Volume 7: Depleted Uranium, by Naomi H. Harley, Ernest C. Foulkes, Lee H. Hilborne, Arlene Hudson, C. Ross Anthony; RAND Report, National Defense Research Institute, 1999.
11 Gulf War and Health, Volume 1: Depleted Uranium, Sarin, Pyridostigmine Bromide, Vaccines, Edited by Carolyn E. Fulco, Catharyn T. Liverman, and Harold C. Sox, Committee on Health Effects Associated with Exposures During the Gulf War, U.S. Institute of Medicine, National Academy Press, 2000; pp. 14-16.
12 Public Health Statement for Uranium, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), CAS #7440-61-1, 1999.09.
UPDATE: 2003.08.21 15:15 UT. Made some formatting changes.
UPDATE: 2003.08.22 13:00 UT. Added a paragraph (alpha emission from U-238).
UPDATE: 2003.08.27 13:00 UT. Eugene Volokh at The Volokh Conspiracy has linked to Impearls' article. Armed Liberal at Winds of Change picked the link up from him. Bargarz in turn noticed the link there. (Bargarz is one of those bloggers who has posted extensively on depleted uranium before.) Donald Sensing at One Hand Clapping posted a link to the article. Bill Herbert at COINTELPRO Tool also linked to it. Roger Schlafly at Roger's View posted a link too.
Clayton is correct that alpha radiation occurring within a living organism is a totally different bear from alpha radiation simply impacting the skin of that organism (which typically blocks it without harm). Recall, however, that depleted uranium's rate of alpha emission is still subject to U-238's extraordinary 4.5 billion year half-life. Thus the proper question to ask is whether that alpha emission occurs at a rate which produces damage that is detectable — and the answer which comes back from all the studies is that it does not. That answer is obtained, as it should be, not only from theoretical considerations but also from practical medical investigations of people and patients, including detective-like following and connecting of dots with regard to places where exposures to toxicologically questionable materials could have occurred, versus where individual people were who have been reported sick.
CPO Sparkey reminds us in his tale that cosmic rays — far more powerful than alpha particles — continually sheet through our bodies, even at sea level (though less in magnitude at lower altitudes). Any other radiation, even if originating within one's own cells, which quantitatively constitutes only a small fraction of that constant cosmic bombardment, isn't going to produce any noticeable effects. As the European Commission put it in their study above, “exposures to DU give low doses, comparable to the natural background.” 8
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