DoD Launches Depleted Uranium Training
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 13, 1999 Beware. Be careful. But don't be overly alarmed. Depleted uranium, found in some ammunition and armored vehicles, is a potentially toxic heavy metal, but defense officials say limited exposure is not dangerous.
The Defense Department has launched a DoD-wide training initiative to ensure service members know the pros and cons of the substance known as "DU."
"Depleted uranium carries a 'radioactivity tag' that makes some people nervous," said Dee Dodson Morris, a retired Army chemical corps colonel and the Lessons Learned Implementation director in the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses. "What we're trying to do is make sure service members understand the hazard and what they can do to mitigate it."
The services have incorporated DU awareness training into their overall training programs. Recruits' basic training now includes DU instruction, and more advanced training is given to such service members as nuclear, biological and chemical specialists and others likely to encounter DU.
Depleted uranium is used in M-1 Abrams tanks, Phalanx gun systems and some cruise missiles, as well as A-10s, Harriers and other military and civilian aircraft. The Abrams, Bradley fighting vehicles and other weapon systems use ammunition containing DU penetrators.
DU is used in armor because its superior strength, hardness and density can defeat conventional armor-piercing ammunition. By the same token, ammunition with needle-like DU penetrators punches right through conventional armor.
Morris said the U.S. armed forces first used DU munitions and armor during the Gulf War and decisively demonstrated its effectiveness. In one incident, a DU round went through a bermed revetment, through an Iraqi vehicle and through the berm on the far side. In another incident, three Iraqi vehicles ganged up on and couldn't stop a lone Abrams tank -- the Abrams crew destroyed all three Iraqis.
Radiation is the "bogey" associated with DU, Morris explained, but it's not the real health problem. She said DU emits only extremely low levels of gamma radiation and low levels of alpha and beta particles that are easily blocked by skin and clothing. Running a radiation meter over DU armor or ammunition would indicate radioactivity, but at a level so low that career-long exposure wouldn't be enough to hurt you, she said.
"DU is about 40 percent less radioactive than naturally occurring uranium, and natural uranium is something we live with every day," Morris said.
She said the primary health concern is DU's chemical toxicity. "Uranium is a heavy metal, like lead. It can, in fact, poison the body, but it takes an awful lot to do that." Prolonged exposure is known to cause kidney failure, Morris said, but Department of Veterans Affairs studies done since the Gulf War have found no evidence of kidney damage, even among veterans who still have DU fragments embedded in their bodies.
Gulf War friendly fire incidents exposed American troops to the heavy metal. About 113 soldiers were in or near combat vehicles hit by DU rounds. Another 30 to 60 rescuers entered these vehicles immediately after the hits. Some soldiers inhaled or ingested DU particles or were struck by DU fragments. Others had DU contaminate their wounds.
A VA program in Baltimore is assessing the health effects on 33 of these service members. About half still carry DU fragments in their bodies. They've shown higher than normal levels of uranium in their urine since monitoring began in 1993, while veterans with no retained fragments show normal levels, VA officials said.
Overall, Morris said, the study has found no adverse health effects that can be attributed to DU. Tests of kidney functions in the 33 subject veterans have all been normal. Their reproductive health also appears to be normal -- there have been no birth defects in any of the babies they've fathered since 1991.
The Army, executive agent for the training initiative, has produced a video slated to reach the field by October. The film explains how to operate safely and effectively in environments where service members could encounter DU contamination.
Working with DU is safe if done in accordance with the training the military provides, Morris stressed. Ammo handlers should take the same precautions with DU that they would with any other ammunition, she said. Service members in a vehicle struck by a DU munition, or in a DU armored vehicle struck by any munition, can safely exit their vehicle without any concern for what they might be breathing, she added.
"There is no need to take specific precautions at that time because it would take an awful lot of the aerosolized uranium oxide from the impact to harm them," Morris said. "Their first concern should be emergency exit and life saving."
People assigned to decontaminate those vehicles and to assess battle damage, however, should protect themselves by wearing a respirator and covering exposed skin, she added. "It's a simple precaution, because they are on the site a lot longer," she said.
In fact, Morris pointed out, the vast majority of Gulf War DU exposure cases didn't occur in combat, but were people who toured the battlefields and climbed in and on vehicles struck by DU munitions.
"So the big message in the video is: Leave things alone. If you don't need to touch something, don't," she said.