Depleted Uranium All That Deadly?

While the subject of how the U.S. military uses white phosphorus munitions is getting such discussion in the blogs and media (and please note this Denver press clip - thanks, Stygius), the other related issue that will get people's hackles up is the topic of depleted uranium-tipped munitions.du graphic.gifConsider this publication as a small example of one extreme in this discussion. I've seen many people, in the same blog posting, talk about the WP munitions and the DU munitions in the same breath as evidence that the U.S. military is committing war crimes.The Defense Department's official position has been, and continues to be, that the extremely low level of radiation detected from these rounds and their use in combat is not detrimental to the health of U.S. troops or to the environment in general. My wife pointed out this August 2005 Science News article (subscription required) that supports the military's point of view.Albert Marshall, of the Sandia National Laboratories, conducted a study to calculate the battlefield health risks of exposure to DU shells (here is the SNL press release - also see this local Albuquerque Tribune article). His results indicate only small risks of leukemia or birth defects, even among those troops who breathed heavy amounts of DU-tainted dust. From the Science News article:

The average U.S. adult faces a 7 percent lifetime risk of death from lung cancer, Marshall notes. That number might climb to 8.5 percent in a person who breathed a heavy dose of uranium dust, Marshall estimates. He also calculates that a child could play inside a vehicle destroyed by a depleted-uranium munition for 300 hours and outside it for another 700 hours and face an increased risk of only one death in 1,000 people from colon and lung cancers combined."I thought [depleted uranium] was going to be a major player," in causing health effects from radiation, Marshall says. These new calculations "changed my mind." Whether they convince the critics of the military use of depleted uranium remains to be seen.
Now from the critics' point of view, any increase in the chance of cancer is unacceptable, and it may be that they do not believe a report coming from a scientist from the Department of Energy, considering its role in the development of nuclear weapons. But from a practical point of view, considering the military utilities of using DU-tipped uranium (its awesome capability to penetrate most armors) and all the other potential hazards on a battlefield, a 1.5 percent increase in the overall chance of cancer for those few people that might have been close enough to a vehicle hit by DU rounds seems pretty negligible. It's good to have some real science to examine in the highly emotional discussion surrounding this topic.-- Jason Sigger, crossposted at Armchair Generalist
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