Depleted Uranium Health Effects

Depleted uranium (DU) is a radioactive and chemically toxic heavy metal. DU is a byproduct of the enrichment of natural uranium as part of the nuclear fuel cycle and production of nuclear weapons. DU is about 40% less radioactive than natural uranium.

DU is primarily hazardous to people when it gets inside the body through ingestion, inhalation or through breaks in the skin. Inside the body, DU creates risks both as a toxic heavy metal and as a radioactive material. If DU is ingested, most of it is excreted quickly, which can affect the kidneys. If DU is inhaled and lodges in the lungs, it can remain there for years and cause radiation damage to nearby cells. (Royal Society, 2001) As it dissolves, it can be carried to and damage the lymph tissues, kidneys and developing fetuses. It can affect the function of the brain and neurological system, the bones, and the reproductive organs.

Federal regulations limit uranium inhalation based on cancer risk and drinking water intake based mainly on kidney toxicity. After evaluating the environmental data on NL Industries, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry concluded that past DU emissions from the plant were a public health hazard and may possibly have increased the risk of kidney disease and lung cancer, particularly for smokers.

Some health effects research referenced in the Science of the Total Environment article by Parrish, et al., 2007 is summarized briefly below. 

Kidney: Since DU is a heavy metal, it can be toxic to the kidney, causing lesions and impairment in kidney function. (WHO) NL Industries DU emissions could have increased the risk of kidney disease. (ATSDR 2004) 

Lung: Relatively insoluble DU particles in the lung can be a long term source of internal alpha radiation, which could cause fibrosis, cell damage, and an increased risk of lung cancer. (Royal Society, 2001 and 2002) Inhaling NL Industries DU dust, combined with cigarette smoking, could have increased the risk of lung cancer. (ATSDR 2004)

Brain and Neurological: DU can cause unstable gait, weakness, tremors, equilibrium disturbances, rigidity in limbs, anorexia, irritability, decreased IQ, memory changes, hyperactivity, respiratory effects and hypothermia. (ATSDR 1999)

Cancer: DU is a radioactive material and ionizing radiation may cause cancer. DU may cause human cells to become cancerous. (Bernard, Wise)

Reproductive: DU's alpha radiation can affect reproductive processes and fertility. (Hindin) Increased rates of miscarriage and infant death have been observed. (ATSDR 1999) DU can enter the placenta and the fetus and damage cell nuclei, resulting in gene mutations and chromosome changes, which may lead to developmental defects in a fetus, such as stunted growth, skeletal defects, cleft palate, underdeveloped renal papilae and defects in the ossification of limbs and the skull. (ATSDR 1999)

Immune System: DU particles that become lodged deep in the alveoli of the lungs can be carried by macrophages to lymph tissue which can be impacted by DU's alpha radiation and chemical toxicity. (Hindin)

Cell Damage: DU can damage DNA and chromosomes, causing gene mutations. 
The following effects have been observed: cytotoxicity genomic instability, micronuclei formation, sister chromatid exchanges and DNA strand breaks. (Wise) DU can damage mitochondria, and has killed cells. (Wise)

Bone and Muscle: DU can be retained in the bones (WHO), with red bone marrow being exposed to continuous alpha radiation. DU has been found to cause soft tissue sarcomas in muscle tissue. (Wise)


Research was done with animals, cells, tissue cultures or observed in humans.

ATSDR. 1999. Toxicological Profile for Uranium. Toxicological Profile. Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 1999.

ATSDR 2004. Health Consultation Colonie Site (Aliases: Colonie Interim Storage Site and formerly National Lead Industries) Colonie, Albany County, NY. October 5, 2004.

Hindin R, Brugge D, Panikkar B. Teratogenicity of depleted uranium aerosols: A review from an epidemiological perspective. Environmental Health 2005; 4: 17; doi: 10.1186/1476-069X-4-17.

Royal Society. The health hazards of depleted uranium munitions Part I. London: The Royal Society 2001.

Royal Society. The health hazards of depleted uranium munitions Part II. London: The Royal Society 2002.

WHO. Depleted Uranium: Sources, Exposure and Health Effects. Geneva: World Health Organization 2001.

Wise S, Thompson D, Aboueissa A-M, Mason MD, and Wise JBSr. Particulate depleted uranium is cytotoxic and clastogenic to human lung cells. Chemical Research in Toxicology 2007; 20:815-820.

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