Depleted uranium (DU) is a by-product of uranium enrichment. It is only slightly radioactive, and its extreme density and ready availability make it suitable for a number of applications, both civilian and military.
Public concern about the toxic effects of DU on humans and the environment focuses on exposure of humans and the environment to DU following military use of DU, where DU ordnance is used primarily for armour piercing purposes.
Widespread public concern over the detrimental health effects of DU started at the time of the first Gulf War (1990-91) regarding its possible links to the "Gulf War Syndrome ” (widespread reports of symptoms including immune system defects, chronic pain, fatigue and memory loss by ex-combatants) and to an alleged high level of birth defects affecting ex-combatants’ children born after the conflict.
Subsequent widespread use of DU munitions was reported in the course of NATO operations in the former Yugoslavia from 1996 and the second Gulf War in 2003.
Studies by WHO1, IAEA2 and the Article 31 Committee established under the Euratom Treaty3 failed to find any conclusive evidence linking the use of depleted uranium weapons with significant risks to the health of the civilian population in former combat areas or to that of former combatants.
The International Coalition to ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) disputes the radiation- exposure and dose estimation model underlying the Art 31 Committee study arguing that DU weapons present an entirely new source of environmental contamination which may directly or indirectly affect humans and the environment itself. They argue that the health effects that may be caused by DU following military uses of DU containing weapons require additional comprehensive scientific assessments.
In May 2008, the European Parliament passed a resolution on DU weapons which called on the Commission and others inter alia:
- to commission scientific studies into the use of DU
- to establish an environmental inventory of DU contaminated areas and to provide
support for projects that could assist victims and their relatives as well as for clean-up operations in the affected areas, should a negative effect on human health and the environment be confirmed.
1) The SCHER is asked for an opinion building on an evaluation of available reports, including but not restricted to those referenced above, as to the environmental and health risks posed by DU.
2) In particular SCHER is asked to assess those risks that may arise from exposure to DU in contaminated areas following military activities with DU containing weapons.
3) SCHER is asked to take into account both the chemical and radiological toxicities of DU and, if appropriate, their possible synergistic relations.