Properties, use and health effects of depleted uranium (DU): a general overview

J Environ Radioact. 2003;64(2-3):93-112. doi: 10.1016/s0265-931x(02)00041-3.


Depleted uranium (DU), a waste product of uranium enrichment, has several civilian and military applications. It was used as armor-piercing ammunition in international military conflicts and was claimed to contribute to health problems, known as the Gulf War Syndrome and recently as the Balkan Syndrome. This led to renewed efforts to assess the environmental consequences and the health impact of the use of DU. The radiological and chemical properties of DU can be compared to those of natural uranium, which is ubiquitously present in soil at a typical concentration of 3 mg/kg. Natural uranium has the same chemotoxicity, but its radiotoxicity is 60% higher. Due to the low specific radioactivity and the dominance of alpha-radiation no acute risk is attributed to external exposure to DU. The major risk is DU dust, generated when DU ammunition hits hard targets. Depending on aerosol speciation, inhalation may lead to a protracted exposure of the lung and other organs. After deposition on the ground, resuspension can take place if the DU containing particle size is sufficiently small. However, transfer to drinking water or locally produced food has little potential to lead to significant exposures to DU. Since poor solubility of uranium compounds and lack of information on speciation precludes the use of radioecological models for exposure assessment, biomonitoring has to be used for assessing exposed persons. Urine, feces, hair and nails record recent exposures to DU. With the exception of crews of military vehicles having been hit by DU penetrators, no body burdens above the range of values for natural uranium have been found. Therefore, observable health effects are not expected and residual cancer risk estimates have to be based on theoretical considerations. They appear to be very minor for all post-conflict situations, i.e. a fraction of those expected from natural radiation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aerosols
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Humans
  • Inhalation Exposure*
  • Military Personnel*
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Persian Gulf Syndrome / etiology
  • Risk Assessment
  • Solubility
  • Uranium / adverse effects*
  • Uranium / chemistry


  • Aerosols
  • Uranium