The health hazards of depleted uranium munitions: Part I

22 May 2001

 The first of two reports that the Royal Society has published examining the health effects of depleted uranium munitions was published in May 2001. Due to the lack of experimental data, the approach taken was to estimate the typical levels of exposure on the battlefield over a wide range of scenarios, and the worst-case exposures that individuals are unlikely to exceed. These estimated values have then been used to assess the potential health risks from radiation. The report also considers epidemiological studies of occupational exposures to uranium in other situations as an independent source of information on the risks of inhaling DU particles, although it recognises that the parallels may not be precise.

The Part II deals with the risks from the chemical toxicity of uranium, non-malignant radiation effects from DU intakes, the long-term environmental consequences of the deployment of DU munitions and responses to Part I. 

An eight-page summary covering both reports has been produced that covers the key conclusions and recommendations.

The Part I report draws the following conclusions:

Except in extreme circumstances any extra risks of developing fatal cancers as a result of radiation from internal exposure to DU arising from battlefield conditions are likely to be so small that they would not be detectable above the general risk of dying from cancer over a normal lifetime.

The greatest exposures will apply only to a very small fraction of the soldiers in a theatre of war, for example those who survive in a vehicle struck by a DU penetrator. In such circumstances, and assuming the most unfavourable conditions, the lifetime risk of death from lung cancer is unlikely to exceed twice that in the general population.

Any extra risks of death from leukaemia, or other cancers, as a result of exposure to DU are estimated to be substantially lower than the risks of death from lung cancer. Under all likely exposure scenarios the extra lifetime risks of fatal leukaemia are predicted to be too small to be observable.

Many soldiers on a battlefield may be exposed to small amounts of DU and the risks of cancer from such exposures are predicted to be very low. Even if the estimates of risk for these conditions are one hundred times too low, it is unlikely that any excess of fatal cancer would be detected within a cohort of 10,000 soldiers followed over 50 years.

Epidemiological studies complement assessments of actual exposures and radiation risks. Although epidemiological studies of occupational exposure to uranium are not sensitive enough to detect small increases in overall risks of cancer, they nevertheless tend to confirm the calculations of the risks derived from estimates of actual exposures to DU

The Part I appendices refers to the following technical annexes (A to J) which are listed in the related documents and the bottom of the page.