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Depleted Uranium
1.Why did the US military develop shells armed with depleted uranium (DU) and did they fully investigate potential health hazards from these weapons?
The Army began arming tank, artillery and machine gun shells with depleted uranium in the 1980s. DU is a chemically toxic “heavy metal” that emits low levels of alpha radiation. Its extreme density and pyrophoric nature enables it to punch and burn its way through conventional armor. Researchers also discovered that armored plating constructed with depleted uranium provided increased protection from conventional (non DU) shells. The term “depleted” is a misnomer since DU contains about 60% of the radioactivity found in natural uranium.

When a DU shell strikes its target, up to 70% of the depleted uranium vaporizes into fine dust, which then settles out in the surrounding soil and water. Over half of the aerosolized particles are smaller than 5 microns and anything smaller than 10 microns can be inhaled. Once lodged in the lungs, these particles can emit a steady dose of alpha radiation.
An additional hazard is DU’s chemical toxicity. An Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute study of rats after the Gulf War found that DU exposure damaged their immune and central nervous systems and may have contributed to some of the cancers they developed.
While the Army intensively studied DU’s value as a weapon, less effort was made to learn about its possible hazard to health. In fact, the Army’s Environmental Policy Institute criticized the command in a 1995 report for its failure to “closely coordinate the planning and performance of experiments for DU health and environmental assessments.”

2. When did the US military first use depleted uranium weapons in combat? … (read full text).

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