Sierra Club of Canada Media Release

Background on Depleted Uranium Weapons

April 1999

First extensively used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, depleted uranium (DU) weapons are made from nuclear waste products produced by enrichment of uranium for light water reactor fuel and nuclear warheads. The American nuclear industry’s stockpiles of DU provide cheap material for munitions production, and spare the nuclear industry the expense having to place the waste in long-term storage.

Munitions made of DU are heavier than lead or steel and penetrate tank armour more effectively. DU, which is composed of 99 percent Uranium 238, is highly pyrophoric (fine particles of DU are capable of spontaneously igniting). On impact DU produces uranium dioxide dust which is both chemically toxic and radioactive and can readily be carried in the wind. These airborne particles are small enough to be inhaled.

Health Impacts

Health problems among the civilian population in Iraq as well as American, British and other soldiers who participated in the Gulf War have been attributed to DU weapons.

A report on the genetic effects of DU on the population of the Gulf Region was tabled by Dr. Beatrice Boctor at a 1996 United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) meeting. The tabling of the report as well as other efforts led an UNCHR sub-commission to adopt a resolution calling for a ban on the use of depleted uranium and other weapons. (United Nations Commission On Human Rights, Report of the Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities on its Forty-eighth Session, Geneva, 5-30 August 1996, Resolution 1996/16)

In 1998, another report was submitted to the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights suggesting that the current health and environmental problems in Iraq may in part be linked to DU weapons used in the Gulf War. The report noted that the death rate per 1000 Iraqi children under 5 years of age increased from 23 in 1989 to 166 in 1993. Cases of lymphoblastic leukemia more than quadrupled with other cancers also increasing “at an alarming rate”. In men, lung, bladder, bronchus, skin, and stomach cancers showed the highest increase. In women, the highest increases were in breast and bladder cancer, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (source: The Lancet, volume 351, issue 9103, 28 February 1998). In October 1998 the World Health Organization initiated a two year study of the increasing cancer rates, particularly leukemia in children.

Abstracts of preliminary (unpublished) results at the U.S. Defense Department’s Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute obtained in 1997 showed that the insertion of shrapnel-like DU pellets in the legs of rats leads to the occurrence of oncogenes (tumorous growths which are thought to be precursors to cancerous growth in cells) and the destruction of suppressor genes. Researchers found that the embedded DU is unlike most metals in that it dissolves and spreads through the body. Once dissolved, the DU deposited itself in organs such as the spleen and the brain. Researchers also found that a pregnant female rat will pass depleted uranium along to a developing fetus. (source: The Nation (U.S.), May 26, 1997)

The findings of an independent study released in September 1998 indicate that some U.S. Gulf War veterans tested were exposed to between 1 and 10 grams of depleted uranium in the Gulf. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission notes that an intake of .01 gram in one week can cause health problems, and that a known or suspected inhalation of this amount of depleted uranium requires automatic medical testing. The study was undertaken by the Military Toxics Project, National Gulf War Research Center and Dr. Hari Sharma of the University of Waterloo. The protocol used for the study was designed by Dr. Rosalie Bertell of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health in Toronto. (source: Press Release: “Independent pilot medical study on Persian Gulf veterans confirms exposure to depleted uranium”, September 25, 1998, Military Toxics Project, National Gulf War Resource Center).

Commenting on the possible health impacts of DU weapons exposure, Dr. Bertell stated earlier this month:

“When used in war, the DU bursts into flame from the impact when it hits a target. It can pierce tanks and armoured cars, releasing inside of them a deadly radioactive aerosol of uranium, unlike anything seen before.

“Concentrated like this, it can kill everyone in a tank. This ceramic aerosol is much lighter than uranium dust. It can disperse in air tens of kilometres from the point of release, or be stirred up in dust and resuspended in air with wind or human movement. It is very small and can be breathed in by anyone: a baby, pregnant woman, the elderly, the sick. This radioactive ceramic can stay deep in the lungs for years, irradiating the tissue with powerful alpha particles within about a 30 micron sphere, causing emphysema and/or fibrosis.

“The ceramic can also be swallowed and do damage to the gastro-intestinal tract. In time, it penetrates the lung tissue and enters into the blood stream. It can be stored in liver, kidney, bone or other tissues, again for years, irradiating all of the delicate tissues located near its storage place. It can effect the blood, which is the basis of our immune system, and do damage to the renal system as it is eventually excreted in the urine. It can also initiate cancer or promote cancers which have been initiated by other carcinogens.” (source: WISE (Netherlands) web site, April 1, 1999,

DU Weapons and the Gulf War

The governments of the United States and Britain (which also deployed DU weapons during the Gulf War) have consistently downplayed the impacts of DU on civilian populations and military personnel. It was not until January 1998 that the Pentagon acknowledged that thousands of American soldiers might have been exposed in the Gulf War. The U.S. Veterans Administration also admitted in November 1997 and again in September 1998 that depleted uranium is being found in the semen of Gulf War veterans.

Documents released in 1997 show that as early as 1990, the U.S. military was aware of concerns about the health and environmental effects of DU. A report issued by the U.S. Army “AMCCOM” (radiological) task group stated that “long term effects of low doses [of DU] have been implicated in cancer...there is no dose so low that the probability of effect is zero.” The report recommend that “public relations efforts” be undertaken to prevent a possible “adverse international reaction.” (source: The Nation (U.S.), May 26, 1997)

Another U.S. military memo, written during the Gulf War, stated: “If no one makes a case for the effectiveness of dU on the battlefield, dU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus, be deleted from the arsenal...we should assure their future existence (until something better is developed) through Service/DOD proponency.” (source: The Nation (U.S.), May 26, 1997)

A previously confidential report which was tabled in Britain’s House of Lords on March 2, 1998 (and downplayed by the British government) indicated that if 50 tonnes of DU dust were released in Iraq, 500,000 people could theoretically die of cancer (source: “Kuwait -- Depleted Uranium Contamination, prepared for UK Atomic Energy Authority” by AEA Technology, 1991).

According to information tabled in the British House of Commons on March 19, 1998, the U.S. government published a paper in August 1997, indicating that US forces in the Gulf had fired ammunition rounds containing 290 tonnes of DU. Greenpeace has estimated that “over 300 tonnes of DU mostly in fragmented form (dust) were left on the battlefields in Iraq and Kuwait” (source: The Lancet, volume 351, issue 9103, 28 February 1998). The U.K.-based ‘Campaign Against Depleted Uranium’ estimates that an even larger amount -- between 700 and 900 tonnes of DU -- were deployed in the Gulf War (source: Manchester Guardian (U.K.), April 22, 1999).

Canada and DU

Approximately 80 per cent of all uranium exported by Canada is discarded as “depleted uranium” mostly uranium-238. (More than five pounds of natural uranium are required as “feed stock” to produce one pound of fuel for a light-water reactor.) While Canada has had a policy since 1965 of selling uranium for peaceful purposes only (that is, as fuel for nuclear reactors) and is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, tracking the ultimate end-use of Canadian uranium has proved to be problematical.

In 1993, a joint federal-provincial task force on uranium mining stated,“The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Canada is a signatory, prohibits the use of uranium for military applications. However, there is no process whereby exported Canadian uranium can be separated from uranium derived from other sources. Therefore, no proven method exists for preventing incorporation of Canadian uranium into military applications. Current Canadian limitations on end uses of uranium provide no reassurance to the public that Canadian uranium is used solely for non-military applications by purchasers. The panel wishes to bring concerns related to the possible use of Saskatchewan uranium for weapons to the attention of the government.” (source: “Joint Federal-Provincial Panel on Uranium Mining Developments in Northern Saskatchewan”, October 1993. Emphasis in the original).

Note: Limited funds are available through the International Institute of Concern for Public Health to test Canadian veterans for exposure to Depleted Uranium.