Depleted uranium (DU), a substance that very few people have heard about, is rarely brought into public or political contexts. Since its discovery in the 1940s, several warring countries have approved the usage of depleted uranium weaponries obviously for the reason that they cause massive destruction with no chances for survival of the enemy (Levy & Sidel, 2000). However, their use continues to stir controversial debates about the potential long-term effects on people and their surroundings. Undoubtedly, depleted uranium weapons have played over the years a significant role in altering modern warfare and the lives of vast numbers of people who have had direct contact with it. As such, the subject of the use of depleted munition in warfare remains debatable and the one deserving much attention (Luttrell, Jederberg, & Still, 2008). In this paper, we will create a deeper consideration on what the use of depleted uranium means. The paper will also explore the conventional and nuclear industrial hazards that people, especially the military personnel, are exposed to when handling munitions.
Persistent reports of illnesses suffered by soldiers in various wars such as the Gulf War of 1991, the Iraq invasion of 2003, the Serbia bombing of 1999, and the Bosnia and Kosovo wars among others have drawn vast public attention (Levy & Sidel, 2000). Consequently, persistent and devastating health consequences are the results of widespread use of depleted uranium munitions. The latter and the untold misery they wreak on mankind are taboo subjects in the mainstream media and have highlighted controversy and scientific uncertainty. Even though the subject is clearly concealed and reserved, there exists an enormous public interest in depleted uranium munitions. There are various motivated inquiries into the harms and burdens inflicted on the human race and the environment. Some consequences of past wars using depleted uranium munitions (e.g. the Gulf War Syndrome associated with the Gulf War of 1991) remain a pressing concern for the world (Fetter & Von Hippel, 2000).
Many other diseases suffered by the war veterans remain unexplained although it is believed that they are consequent effects of exposure to the toxic depleted uranium chemicals. Scientific evidence on the dangers of depleted uranium has not been able to offer facts to fill the wide knowledge and evidence gaps on the subject. As such, this paper seeks for inquiring more into the subject with the objective of imparting a deeper understanding by exploring the conventional and nuclear industrial hazards resulting from handling and use of depleted uranium (DU) ammunitions.
Uranium is a naturally occurring heavy metal. It can be found in three radioactive isotopes identified through their mass numbers. These are Uranium-238, Uranium-235, and
Uranium-234 (Disabled World, 2013). These forms of uranium can be found in different areas such as in the atmosphere, soils, rocks, oceans, and seas. Besides, slight traces of uranium can be found in water and food intended for human consumption. Scientific evidence has revealed that human bodies have traces of uranium with 66 percent in the bones, 16 percent in the liver, 8 percent in the kidneys, and 10 percent in other body tissues (Luttrell, Jederberg, & Still, 2008). The naturally occurring uranium has diverse uses in both civilian and military industries with the waste products being depleted uranium. By definition, depleted uranium is what remains after most of the highly radioactive types of uranium are removed for the use of nuclear weapons or as nuclear fuels (Bleise, Danesi, & Burkart, 2003).
Depleted uranium contains 99.8 percent of Uranium-238, 0.2 percent of Uranium-235, and 0.0006 percent of Uranium-234 by mass (Disabled World, 2013). Before depleted uranium can be utilized, it has to be enriched. The process results in depleted uranium that is fairly less reactive with vast impurities. The term depleted carries with it an implication that it is not particularly dangerous. Nevertheless, depleted uranium is a chemically toxic and radioactive heavy metal. When it finds its way into the human body, it becomes potentially hazardous and can cause severe and long-term health effects influenced by chemical toxicity properties that, when emitted in high doses, result in adverse effects on human health (Disabled World, 2013). The extent of the health implications of depleted uranium remains a dispute and a controversy till today.
The first depleted uranium armaments were produced in Britain and the US in the 1940s. A few years later, the Soviet Union and France initiated programs on nuclear weapons and started making weapons using depleted uranium. During these years, depleted uranium was perceived to be an unusable waste, but with some hopes that enrichment would make it more useful. The re-enrichment process was discovered, and it made the manufacture of depleted uranium munitions a thing of the past.
In the 1970s, the USSR challenged the NATO and US militaries by inventing armored tanks that the weapons of that time could not pierce through (Levy & Sidel, 2000). Later, the US and the NATO militaries used currently famous depleted uranium munitions in the historic 1991 Gulf War, the Bosnia War, the Serbia bombing, and the Iraq invasion of 2003 (Disabled World, 2013).
Depleted uranium has diverse uses in the defense industry while creating of armor piercing munitions, tank armors, and anti-tank projectiles (Levy & Sidel, 2000). It is also recycled in civilian industries, especially in stabilizing airplanes and boats. Various nations have been using depleted uranium munitions in their battles. The examples of such countries are the USA, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey, Oman, Greece, and Taiwan. Some others include Kuwait, Bahrain, India, Israel, Russia, China, and France (Disabled World, 2013). Several of these nations acquired uranium depleted munition from the United States. Others, for example Russia, France, India, and Pakistan, are thought to have developed their own munitions (Disabled World, 2013).
People, especially the military men and women, are exposed to depleted uranium through various pathways.
Inhalation is perhaps the most common way through which depleted uranium enters the human body. Apparently, when depleted uranium munitions are used in combats, it remains active in the environment and the atmosphere. As a result, it is possible that people inhale it accidentally with the air (Levy & Sidel, 2000). People can also be endangered to through events such as fire outbreaks in DU storage facilities, aircraft crashes, or the disposal of uranium wastes near human habitats. Through inhalation, depleted uranium finds its way into human body parts such as the lungs, kidneys, liver, heart, and brain among other body systems.
Through ingestion, depleted uranium finds its way into the human body while an individual is drinking water and eating food. Similarly, children can also take in uranium when they eat soil when playing.
Dermal contact is the least famous way through which uranium can find its way into the human body. It refers to the passage of uranium through the skin and into the blood (Levy & Sidel, 2000).
Depleted uranium that stays outside the human body is less damaging. For years now, there has been a primary misconception that the primary hazard posed by depleted uranium is radiation. However, this is not the case in most battlefield scenarios. It has scientifically been noted that depleted uranium is 40 percent less radioactive than the naturally occurring uranium (Levy & Sidel, 2000). Depleted uranium is associated with the emission of alpha and beta particles as well as gamma rays. Alpha particles, which are primary radiation types produced by depleted uranium, are blocked by the skin while beta particles are blocked by the boots and battle dress utility uniforms typically worn by military service members.
Gamma rays occur in the form of highly penetrating energy. As such, it is true to sat that depleted uranium does not result in significant additions to the background radiations that we experience as we go about daily activities. When depleted uranium munitions are fired, the exposed depleted uranium rods pose a relatively low radiological threat as long as it remains outside the body. However, when the depleted uranium gets into the body through metal fragments or dust particles, then it induces lasting health menaces to military personnel.
Scientific evidence proves that depleted uranium in the human body causes more devastating harms than prolonged contract with natural background radiations. For instance, when depleted uranium fragments stay embedded in soldiers’ bodies, they are likely to suffer more than those exposed to naturally occurring uranium. In the military scenarios, soldiers in armored vehicles could be at much higher risks. Also, people entering armored tanks without suitable guard could be at risk of severe health consequences (Fetter & Von Hippel, 2000). It is thus necessary for soldiers and other military personnel to be trained on how to avoid the unnecessary exposure to depleted uranium. Alternatively, all vehicles struck by depleted uranium munitions should be isolated from curious civilians.
For years, numerous public discussions have been trending on the subject of hazards and human health effects resulting from the usage of depleted uranium weaponries in the conflicts. In the military, depleted uranium is included in kinetic energy weapons intended to pierce the armored tanks and other vehicles. On impact, the depleted uranium disperses substantial amounts of chemically toxic and radioactive particle fragments with potentially dangerous effects on human beings (Fetter & Von Hippel, 2000). The extent of the health consequences is influenced by the chemical and physical properties of the depleted uranium to which a person is subjected. Also, the levels and durations of exposure are influential. Scientific studies on the dangers of depleted uranium on human beings have shown various conventional and nuclear industrial hazards. These include cancers, mental disorders, endocrinal and metabolic diseases, and other mysterious illnesses. Others include systemic damage and uranium poisoning.
Various analytical studies have concluded that the use and handling of munitions made of depleted uranium can cause cancer. A person exposed to depleted uranium for a long time can have cancer as a result of damage to the DNA. The studies have relied on the fact that a very low number of civilians were known to have suffered from the effects of depleted uranium before the historic Gulf War of 1991. However, a substantial number of cancer cases were reported among the war veterans after the wars in which tons of depleted uranium were used (Bleise, Danesi, & Burkart, 2003). Presently, the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies alpha-emitting substances such as depleted uranium as the leading cancer-causing agents if they get into the human body. Depleted uranium affects the structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) as well as different cellular processes that are affected in various ways. These include triggering oxidative damage and breaking DNA strands. Moreover, it has been documented that depleted uranium causes mutations on DNA, thus influencing changes in the structure of chromosomes (Bleise, Danesi, & Burkart, 2003).
The proposition that depleted uranium can lead to birth defects can be attested in various battlefield scenarios such as first Gulf War of 1991, the Iraq War, the Kosovo War, and the Bosnian War. Years after the end of these wars, the consequences of the invasions are coming into focus. For example, a vast proportion of the Iraqi population has suffered from various congenital birth defects, premature births, and miscarriages among others. According to statistics released by the government of Iraq, the rate of cancer in the country has skyrocketed from 40 per 100,000 people before the First Gulf War of 1991 to 800 per 100,000 in 1995 and around 1,600 per 100,000 in 2005 (Lawrence, Stemberger, Zolderdo, Struthers, & Cooke, 2015).
Scientific evidence and laboratory studies have proven a possible link and relationship between exposure to depleted uranium and the increased cases of mental illnesses and disorders. A vast proportion of war veterans has been reported to suffer from mental retardation mainly characterized by memory loss (Bleise, Danesi, & Burkart, 2003).
There is no doubt about the fact that depleted uranium causes metabolic diseases. According to Makhijani, Hu, and Yih (2000), the war veterans being exposed to depleted uranium during the war and the people living in the present and prior conflict areas are associated with more hospitalization rates due to the related metabolic disorders. In assessing the health risks of depleted uranium, the authors compared hospitalization rates among the Gulf War veterans deployed to the battlefield and among not deployed active-duty personnel. They noted that war veterans were more associated with metabolic diseases and other nutritional and endocrine diseases.
When military personnel are involved in handling depleted uranium munitions or are deployed to battlefields where depleted munitions are in use, they are vulnerable to uranium poisoning characterized by general health impairment. Uranium affects various body organs such as the liver, kidneys, and lungs. It also causes changes in the nervous, cardiovascular, and hemopoietic systems. Such changes cause various disorders related to carbohydrate and protein metabolism. Prolonged exposure to insoluble compounds may lead to severe poisoning (Levy & Sidel, 2000). Among the notable signs and symptoms of uranium poisoning are blood changes with an acute decline in the red blood cells numbers, pneumoconiosis, and pulmonary fibrosis. Significant declines in reticulocyte and erythrocyte levels in the blood also signal severe poisoning. Moreover, uranium poisoning can damage the nervous system coupled with alterations in the intestines, the liver, lungs, and spleen as well as other organs and tissues (Bleise, Danesi, & Burkart, 2003). Scientific evidence has shown that uranium poisoning inhibits the reproductive activity. The proposition has been proven in the effects observed through experiments conducted on animals’ uterine systems.
Prolonged exposures to depleted uranium lead to damaging body organs even at as low amounts as 0.05 mg per cubic meter of air. It can be signaled by substantial body weight loss (Bleise, Danesi, & Burkart, 2003). Body openings such as the gastrointestinal system, the respiratory system and the exit systems (e.g. the intestinal and renal systems) are also significantly affected. Other notable effects of the exposure to depleted uranium include fibrosis and other degenerative changes in the lungs.
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The paper has explored various conventional and nuclear industrial hazards associated with the using and handling of depleted uranium munitions in the military field. The paper has reviewed the history, properties, and uses of depleted uranium with an aim of developing a better understanding of the subject of industrial hazards associated with these kinds of weapons. The paper has established that depleted uranium weapons have been in use from as early as the 1940s. Through the years, the modern warfare has revolutionized and so are the weapons. However, they have come with adverse and astonishing life-long effects and consequences on human health. For instance, the paper referred to the historic wars such as the Gulf War of 1991, the Iraq War, the Bosnian War, and the Serbian bombing for the sake of creating a deeper consideration of how significant the effects of the use of depleted uranium munitions can be.
The hazardous concerns that the paper has noted include mental illnesses, endocrine and metabolic diseases, cancer, and birth defects. Others are systemic damages and uranium poisoning. The paper has tried to impart the understanding that depleted uranium is more dangerous when being present in the human body rather when outside of it in the naturally occurring form. Depleted uranium, which is the product of uranium enrichment, can enter the human body through inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact. Due to the complicated nature of the consequences, there is a need for profound knowledge to educate the masses on how to deal with pressing and challenging health hazards in the best way.