News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Report suggests small link between depleted uranium and cancer

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.322.7301.1508/a (Published 23 June 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:1508
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. London

    Depleted uranium in weapons results in a very small increased risk of lung cancer in people with high exposure, but soldiers exposed in the Gulf and the Balkan conflicts should undergo monitoring. This is the finding of a report published this week by an independent working group from the Royal Society.

    The report is the first of two being prepared by the Royal Society in an attempt to review the scientific evidence available on this highly contentious issue. The aim of the first report was to assess the amount of depleted uranium to which soldiers could be exposed on the battlefield and to calculate the risks of radiation from what has been seen previously in epidemiological studies.

    A second report, to be published later this year, will address the risks from toxic poisoning and environmental effects of depleted uranium. The issue has provoked a great deal of debate about possible health effects of depleted uranium munitions, which were deployed in the Gulf war in 1991 and in the Balkans conflict in the late 1990s.

    The Royal Society's working group estimated the potential intake of depleted uranium for different battlefield settings: high exposure (for example, soldiers in a tank hit by a depleted uranium penetrator), medium exposure (soldiers working with vehicles contaminated by depleted uranium), and low exposure (soldiers downstream of aerosols containing depleted uranium). The group then used mathematical models to estimate how much depleted uranium could reach different organs and tissues and then calculated the associated risk of cancer.

    The chairman of the working party, Professor Brian Spratt, said: “We thought that the main risk of DU [depleted uranium] was associated with inhalation of particles so we concentrated on this.” The working group calculated that the best estimate of the additional life time risk of fatal lung cancer in soldiers with high exposure was 1.2 per 1000.

    This would take the expected number of deaths from lung cancer in 10 000 soldiers with highest exposure to 597 by the age of 75, compared with the 585 expected deaths from lung cancer in the general population. For medium and low exposures, the estimated excess number of deaths from lung cancer was less than 3 per 100 000. The risk of leukaemia and other cancers was estimated to be extremely low.

    Professor Spratt concluded: “The greatest radiological risk associated with DU exposure is lung cancer, but this is very low for soldiers except for those with the highest level of exposure.” He noted that no UK soldiers have been reported as receiving exposure at this high level. The report urged more research, however. It called for careful monitoring of soldiers exposed to depleted uranium weapons. “We should monitor DU in the urine of any veterans with substantial exposure to DU,” he suggested.

    A member of the Gulf War Veterans Association attending the meeting held at the Royal Society to release the report pointed out that veterans have never had their urine checked for depleted uranium levels, even though measurement techniques have become available in the past few years. The report recommended the publication of a protocol for measuring depleted uranium and suggested that all UK veterans with high level exposures of depleted uranium should be identified and invited to participate in an independent evaluation programme.

    The report was heavily criticised at the meeting for its reliance on mathematical models derived from previous studies based on exposure of people working with uranium rather than with depleted uranium weapons. Scientists working with the Gulf War Veterans Association also pointed out that the report failed to address other potential health effects of depleted uranium, such as on the immune system. Professor Spratt said that the report looked at cancer risk because models exist only for the carcinogenic effects of uranium. He acknowledged, however, the need to look at wider health effects.

    The Health Hazards of Depleted Uranium (DU) Munitions Part 1 is available from Jacqueline Knapp, Royal Society, 6 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1 5AG (tel 020 7451 2645; email sales{at}royalsoc.ac.uk

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