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UN agency releases new guidelines on depleted uranium's effects on health

UN agency releases new guidelines on depleted uranium's effects on health

The World Health Organization (WHO) today published a desk reference on depleted uranium (DU) containing guidelines on how to deal appropriately with the substance's impact on human health.

The monograph, Depleted Uranium: Sources, Exposure and Health Effects, provides a number of recommendations regarding DU -- a byproduct of nuclear power which has been used for heavy tank armour, anti-tank munitions, missiles and projectiles. The substance has 60 per cent of the radioactivity of natural uranium and "significant chemical toxicity," according to the agency.

"DU has the potential to have chemical and radiological effects on health, but we found in the review that exposure to DU would have to be significant before any health effects are observed," said Dr. Mike Repacholi, WHO's Coordinator for Occupational and Environmental Health.

Among other recommendations, WHO suggests that measures be taken to prevent against DU exposure of young children, who may face particular risk. Heavily affected DU munitions zones should be cordoned off and then cleaned up and treated as if any other heavy metal waste had contaminated the soil.

The disposal of DU fragments should follow appropriate national or international recommendations for discarding radioactive materials. Concerned individuals who believe they have been exposed to the substance should see their medical practitioner, the agency says, noting, however, that it is not necessary to conduct general population screenings in areas where DU munitions have been used.

The greatest potential for DU exposure occurs after conflicts when people living or working in affected areas could inhale dust or consume contaminated food and drinking water, WHO observes. The agency warns that after DU munitions are used, "in some instances the levels of contamination in food and ground water could rise after some years and should be monitored and appropriate measures taken where there is a reasonable possibility of significant quantities of depleted uranium entering the food chain."

The monograph states that the substance potentially has "chemical and radiological toxicity with the two important target organs being the kidneys and the lungs." Noting that DU munitions have been used only relatively recently and the science has not yet thoroughly addressed the effects, the monograph recommends further research, including studies to clarify the extent of kidney damage and its possible reversibility.