Some Veterans who return from deployment have health questions about depleted uranium. Uranium is a heavy metal that occurs naturally in the earth's crust and is found in air, water, soil and food. Depleted Uranium (DU) is what is left over after the uranium is processed. As a result, DU is a weakly radioactive substance with 40% less radioactivity than natural uranium.
Because of its density, low cost, and ability to protect service men and women, DU is used by the U.S. military to make armor on tanks and other military supplies stronger. The first time DU was used by the US on a large scale was during the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990's.
DU that remains outside the body is not a health hazard. DU is not a health concern unless it enters the body. Just being in the area of tanks or supplies made with DU will not result in DU exposure. Veterans who are in close vicinity to fires or explosions that involve DU munitions or supplies may be at risk for DU exposure if they inhaled or ingested some of the DU fragments or if they sustained a shrapnel injury as a result of the explosion.
If DU enters the body, it may remain in the body. Since 1991, the VA has tracked the health of 1991 Gulf War Veterans who were involved in friendly fire incidents involving DU munitions. To date, no adverse health effects have been noted. The health of this group of Veterans will continue to be monitored. Studies on people with very high exposures to DU over a long period of time (uranium miners and processors) have shown that the main health effect of high doses of depleted uranium is on the kidneys.
Ways to protect yourself from possible DU exposure include wearing protective equipment (i.e., Kevlar, Flak vest).
If you are concerned about DU exposure, it is important that you talk to your primary care provider. He or she can look at the type and length of your potential exposure to DU and the chance that you may still have DU in your body. You can work as a team to see if any further follow-up testing is indicated.