Lethal legacy of tank-busting uranium dust

Lethal legacy of tank-busting uranium dust

Toxic, radioactive dust released from armour-piercing depleted uranium shells lingers for decades in the environment and contaminates land far from where it is used, according to British scientists.

The finding raises fears that communities living in or returning to war zones may be forced to live on contaminated ground, in danger of inhaling the substance or consuming it in food or water supplies.

Hundreds of tonnes of tank-busting depleted uranium rounds have been fired by British and American forces in the Balkans and Iraq. On impact the rounds fragment into a shower of fine particles, which have been linked to medical conditions including cancer and birth defects.

Scientists initially suspected that even fine particles of the heavy dust would only cause contamination over a confined area. But research conducted by a team at Leicester University found that it can spread nearly 6km and persists in soils for more than 25 years.

The team took soil samples from open ground and residential gardens in a suburban area near Colonie in New York State. During the 1960s and 1970s, the town was home to a depleted uranium manufacturing plant, which released an estimated five tonnes of the material into the air.

The team detected traces of uranium down to 35cm beneath the ground.

Nicholas Lloyd, a geologist on the team, said: “One of the issues was the realisation that we really didn’t understand what was going to happen to this material when it gets into the environment.

“What we’ve shown is that even though this is a very dense material that you’d expect to fall out of the air quickly, we can detect it far from the site and it’s surviving more than a quarter of a century later.”

Previous studies have suggested inhaling particles of depleted uranium, which is weakly radioactive, might increase the risk of lung cancer. The substance has also been linked to kidney damage.

In February the Ministry of Defence published medical tests carried out on more than 400 veterans of the Balkans conflict and the first Gulf war, which found none was contaminated with depleted uranium. Scientific advisers to the veterans claimed the tests were either conducted too late, or that the uranium particles were still lodged inside them.

“This work shows that depleted uranium may not leach out of soils with rain and get washed away. It means we can’t expect that depleted uranium in contaminated areas of Iraq will just disappear, it’s going to persist and that means it could be re-suspended and breathed in,” said Professor Brian Spratt of Imperial College, London, who chaired a working group on depleted uranium for the Royal Society.


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