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Depleted uranium and public health

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 20 January 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:123

Fifty years' study of occupational exposure provides little evidence of cancer

  1. Melissa A McDiarmid, professor of medicine
  1. University of Maryland School of Medicine, 655 West Baltimore Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-1559, USA

    Depleted uranium, used in anti-tank weapons, provides a common thread that links concerns about leukaemia and other health effects in peacekeeping forces returned from the Balkans and worries about the environmental impact of debris from weapons in this war-weary segment of Europe. Unlike many agents that seem suddenly to prompt health concerns,1 however, we know quite a lot about the health effects of depleted uranium.

    Depleted uranium is derived from natural uranium mined from the earth's crust. Uranium is composed of three radioactive isotopes, U238, U235, and U234, which decay to other radioactive elements and ultimately to stable non-radioactive isotopes of lead.24 Uranium isotopes emit α particles during decay, which possess high energy but are poorly penetrating. Thus, uranium poses primarily an internal radiation hazard to tissue in close proximity.

    Uranium is not very radioactive, owing to its isotopes' relatively long half lives (105-109 years). These compare with radon, a prominent member of the daughter progeny of the uranium decay cascade, which possesses a half life of 3.8 days and a radiological activity 10 000 times greater.24 Depleted uranium possesses only 60% of the radioactivity of natural uranium, having been “depleted” of much of its most highly radioactive U234 and U …

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