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The Environmental Costs of DU Use

The release of DU into the environment can pollute land and water for decades to come. Its danger is not limited to battlefield releases but will expose present and future generations of civilians to contaminated food and water supplies. Environmental releases of this sort can also be expected to have negative effects on plant and animal life although little is known about this.
27 September 2006 - ICBUW

DU dust in the environment can become resuspended through weather conditions and human activity, such as farming. Of particular worry is that children are especially vulnerable to receiving significant exposures through playing on sites and ingestion of contaminated soil by way of typical hand-to-mouth activity. 1

DU can also contaminate soil through corrosion from the original penetrator. It is believed that 70-80% of all DU penetrators used in the Gulf and the Balkans remain buried in the soil. 2

A United Nations Environment Programme study in Spring 2002 found that recovered penetrators had decreased in mass by 10-15%. Corrosion can feed uranium into groundwater, where it can travel into local water supplies. DU in soil can also enter the food chain since it is taken up by plants grown in it and by animals used for food. A UNEP post-conflict report (3) on Bosnia and Herzegovina has indeed found that DU had also leached into local groundwater. The same study found that radioactive hotspots persisted at some of the sites studied. Klaus Toepfer, the Executive Director of UNEP, said at the time, “Seven years after the conflict, DU still remains an environmental concern and, therefore, it is vital that we have the scientific facts, based upon which we can give clear recommendations on how to minimise any risk”.

The British and US militaries have demonstrated extreme irresponsibility in releasing DU into the environment, using it without proper monitoring or information about the risks it poses even in their own countries. In January 2003, the US Navy admitted routinely firing DU from its Phalanx guns in prime fishing waters off the coast of Washington state since 1977. At the Dundrennan testsite in Scotland around 30 tonnes of DU rounds have been fired into the Solway Firth. Elsewhere in the world, other test sites such as the island of Vieques have been badly polluted by DU live firing.

Both governments have been equally callous in their disregard concerning the long term risk to civilians in countries where they have used DU. Reports by the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNEP and the British Royal Society have all recommended annual monitoring of food, milk and water supplies for decades into the future. The UK Government has always insisted that this is the concern of the attacked countries despite the cost monitoring would involve. It is essential that countries which fire DU munitions are made to take financial and organisational responsibility for cleaning the contaminated land and environment.

1. Depleted Uranium Fact Sheet, World Health Organization January 2003: http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/pub_meet/DU_Eng.pdf
2. The Royal Society: The health effects of depleted uranium munitions, March 2002.
3. UNEP, Depleted Uranium in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment Revised Edition: May 2003