NC Media Watch

A quest for reason and accuracy in letters to the editor, guest editorials and other issues of interest to the citizens of Western Nevada County.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Fallout from some unsupported information

Lynette Eldredge provides some unsupported facts in "Facing fallout of global proportions," July 19, 2005
Depleted uranium, the waste product of uranium enrichment, is of particular concern in today's world. It is used in a variety of applications, from stabilizers in planes to encasements for tanks, and in bullets and missiles. It is an extremely heavy metal; its weight and hardness make it desirable for these applications. It has been touted to have the same properties as natural uranium and to therefore be of low risk to human health. However, while DU and natural uranium are essentially equivalent chemically, there are important differences, stemming from how DU is used and where it is now found in the environment.
DU according to the World Health Organization fact sheet on DU:
* The uranium remaining after removal of the enriched fraction contains about 99.8% 238U, 0.2% 235U and 0.001% 234U by mass; this is referred to as depleted uranium or DU.
* The main difference between DU and natural uranium is that the former contains at least three times less 235U than the latter.
* DU, consequently, is weakly radioactive and a radiation dose from it would be about 60% of that from purified natural uranium with the same mass.
* The behavior of DU in the body is identical to that of natural uranium.
* Spent uranium fuel from nuclear reactors is sometimes reprocessed in plants for natural uranium enrichment. Some reactor-created radioisotopes can consequently contaminate the reprocessing equipment and the DU. Under these conditions another uranium isotope, 236U, may be present in the DU together with very small amounts of the transuranic elements plutonium, americium and neptunium and the fission product technetium-99. However, the additional radiation dose following intake of DU into the human body from these isotopes would be less than 1%.

The writer does not provide any data source for these claims of birth defects .
DU oxidizes when exposed to air and burns readily when it hits a target, releasing a cloud of radioactive particles. Because of the intense heat generated by the explosion, the aerosolized particles are "ceramicized" and when inhaled are very difficult to clear from the lungs and other target organs. Up to 70 percent of the particles are of respirable size, and some are in the nanoparticulate range (at least 31 percent, according to a 1984 Department of Energy finding). Inhaled nanoparticles pass freely throughout the body and into the nucleus of cells, where DNA damage occurs. These particles are likely responsible for the spectacular increases in cancers and birth defects observed in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq (childhood leukemia rose 242 percent between 1990 and 1999 in Basra, and rates of birth defects are astronomical).

From the World Heath Organization:
* Erythema (superficial inflammation of the skin) or other effects on the skin are unlikely to occur even if DU is held against the skin for long periods (weeks).
* No consistent or confirmed adverse chemical effects of uranium have been reported for the skeleton or liver.
* No reproductive or developmental effects have been reported in humans.
More unsupported claims:
American veterans of Gulf War I have developed the same symptoms observed among citizens of Iraq. Although there were only 147 deaths and 467 officially wounded, out of 580,400 who served, 11,000 are now dead, and by the year 2000 there were 325,000 on permanent medical disability.
According to the VA Web site, 419K Gulf War Vets were receiving benefits, of the total 228K have less than 30% disability, and 191K with greater than 30% disability. I could not find any data to ties these disabilities to DU. Disability is often given for many reason. When I retired the Air Force offered me a 20% disability for a slight hearing loss and one eight loss of lung capacity. I refused, as all could have been the result of simple aging. Vets often vie for a disability, as it can reduce their income taxes by the precent of disability. Maybe I should not have been so noble.

More on DU on my web log (here) and (here.)

UPDATE: Although the incidence of cancer and birth defects appears high in the Basra area, the link to depleted uranium is far from clear as no epidemiological studies have been made. Other factors include prenatal care, diet and posion gas used in the 80s war with Iran. On the other hand a the Royal Society found that most soldiers and civilians are unlikely to be exposed to dangerous levels of DU during and after its use on the battlefield. Because DU is so heavy and dense - all 320 tons of it used in the Gulf War would fit inside a cube just eight feet wide - it tends to fall quickly to earth and stay near the point of impact.

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