When I first saw the headline, I guessed that Gina Kolata would be the
author. I guessed right, the purpose
of this article is clearly to cover the back end of the military with as
much bs as possible. I don't know
what resources people may have on this list to counter this article, but
it is certainly outrageous to claim
that science knows enough about depleted uranium to claim that its
health effects are nil.
Anyway, for those of you looking for another reason to distrust "the
paper of record", here it is:
January 13, 2001
Fray in Europe Over Uranium Draws Doubters
By GINA KOLATA
A furor has been growing in Europe for weeks over contentions that
some allied troops contracted leukemia from
exposure to depleted uranium used in NATO ammunition in the Balkans,
and that civilians were put at risk by
But physicists and medical experts say it is biologically impossible for
depleted uranium to have caused the leukemia,
and they doubt that the metal caused any illnesses in Europe.
If the uranium was causing leukemia, it would presumably do so by
emitting radioactive particles that would damage the
But Dr. Frank von Hippel, a physicist who is a professor of public and
international affairs at Princeton University, said
depleted uranium was not much of a radioactivity hazard. It is what its
name implies — depleted. It is what is left when
the more highly radioactive uranium 235 has been removed from its more
abundant atomic cousin, uranium 238.
Uranium 235 is used to fuel nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. But
uranium 238 "is very weakly radioactive," Dr.
von Hippel said.
Even if one assumes that there is a ton of depleted uranium dust for
every square kilometer in Kosovo, he said, its
radiation would be just one one-hundredth, or 1 percent, of the
naturally occurring level of radiation in the environment.
"So this is not a very significant hazard," he said.
Moreover, uranium 238 emits alpha radiation, said Dr. Michael Thun, who
directs epidemiological research for the
American Cancer Society, and that radiation does not even penetrate the
skin. The radiation that is known to cause
leukemia, gamma rays and X-rays, passes through the body and reaches the
marrow, damaging cells and giving rise to
Uranium is a heavy metal, and as with all heavy metals it can be toxic.
When it enters the body, it lodges in the kidney,
which it can damage. But studies of a handful of gulf war soldiers who
were hit by friendly fire and left with fragments of
uranium 238 in their bodies have been reassuring, said Dr. Charles
Phelps, the provost at the University of Rochester and
a member of an Institute of Medicine committee that reported on the
problem last year.
Uranium 238 clearly was leaching into the soldiers' kidneys, he said.
"They had very high levels of uranium salts in their
urine," Dr. Phelps said. "But there is no evidence of kidney disease."
Depleted uranium has long been used to strengthen weapons because it is
extremely dense, 65 percent denser than lead. A
weapon made with depleted uranium can penetrate even steel-armored
tanks. It also ignites when it hits.
"When you fire into or through steel, it actually vaporizes the steel,"
said Dr. Bruce Kelman, a toxicologist who is a
president of GlobalTox, a business in Seattle that studies industrial
hygiene and toxicology for governments and industry.
"You get a mist of depleted uranium and steel."
Dr. von Hippel said that although the metal was radioactive, "its half-
life is 4.5 billion years, which is, by coincidence,
the age of the solar system." That means that it would take 4.5 billion
years for half the uranium 238 atoms in a chunk of
the metal to decay by emitting radioactive particles.
Because the radiation does not go to the marrow, it is biologically
impossible for depleted uranium to cause leukemia,
said Dr. John Boice, scientific director of the International
Epidemiology Institute, a research concern in Rockville,
Md., and an expert on radiation and cancer.
"To get leukemia," Dr. Boice said, "you need to get the radiation to the
bone marrow. And uranium 238 will not get to the
Dr. Bruce Boecker, a radiation biologist at the Lovelace Respiratory
Research Institute in Albuquerque, said, "I don't
think it causes leukemia at all."
If a person inhales uranium 238, it lodges in the lungs where, in theory
at least, it might cause lung cancer or it might
travel to the lymph nodes and theoretically cause lymphoma.
But Dr. Boice said extensive studies of workers who processed uranium,
some exposed to high levels by breathing
uranium dust, did not find any association between inhaling uranium 238
and developing lung cancer or lymphomas.
Lymphomas do not seem to be caused by radiation in any case, Dr. Boice
said. But lung cancer can be, although the study
of uranium workers did not find that.
"We would not have been surprised at these high levels to find a link
with lung cancer," he said. "But there was none."
Dr. Thun of the cancer society said even though science might not
support the idea that depleted uranium is causing health
problems in Europe, that does not mean that scientists should turn their
backs on the concern. People think they have
leukemia because they were exposed to depleted uranium, and those fears
will not easily go away.
"What I've been telling people," Dr. Thun said, "is that we need a
systematic, open and prompt evaluation of the situation,
which would involve determining the cases of leukemia, determining the
age of the patients, the diagnosis, and the type of
"In most cases, one of the major reasons for doing a systematic
evaluation is to determine what is actually going on and to
provide some real information, rather than rumors."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
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