6 March 2001
Depleted Uranium: Commission Receives Scientific Experts'
The European Commission today received the opinion of the group of independent
scientific experts, established according to Article 31 of the Euratom
Treaty, on the possible radiological health effects of depleted uranium.
On the basis of information available to date, the experts have concluded
that radiological exposure to depleted uranium could not result in a detectable
effect on human health. Although the possibility of a combined effect
of exposure to toxic and carcinogenic chemicals and to radiation could
not be excluded the experts concluded that there was no evidence to support
this hypothesis. Receiving the opinion, Environment Commissioner Margot
Wallström said: "I am grateful for the speedy work of the experts
in producing this opinion. My Commission colleagues and I will take it
into account when discussing the need for further action with regard to
the health and environmental situation in the Balkans. I also look forward
to seeing the results of work carried out by other bodies competent in
this field, such as the United Nations Environment Programme whose report
will soon be issued."
The group of scientific experts has considered available information
on depleted uranium (DU). It has studied characteristics, properties and
uses of uranium and DU, direct pathways of exposure to man as well as
exposure due to contamination of the environment, behaviour of uranium
in the body and scientifically agreed predicted health effects per unit
of exposure. The experts were asked to take note of the chemical toxicity
of uranium, but the opinion relates only to the radiological health consequences.
Opinion of the experts
- Having assessed possible exposure to DU, taking into account pathways
and realistic scenarios of exposure to man, the experts concluded that
radiological exposure to depleted uranium could not result in a detectable
effect on human health (e.g. cancer).
- As regards leukaemia the latency period is shorter than for solid
cancers, but uranium accumulates very little in blood forming organs
such as bone marrow. Therefore, the experts concluded that the calculated
risk of leukaemia is far below the risk of solid cancers.
- Exposure to depleted uranium through contamination of the environment
or the food chain has also been considered. Scenarios included deposition
of depleted uranium on vegetation, ingestion of contaminated water or
soil or consumption of contaminated foodstuffs. The experts concluded
that resulting doses through such means would be extremely low.
- On the basis of available knowledge of chemical toxicity one would
expect to observe uranium renal toxicity before any other damage (including
cancer). The possibility of a combined effect of exposure to toxic or
carcinogenic chemicals and to radiation can not a priori be excluded
but there is no evidence to support this hypothesis. Under the scenarios
the experts looked at, exposures to DU give low doses, comparable to
natural background levels. Therefore there is no reason to believe that
chemicals may change the magnitude of the potential radiation effects.
- The experts feel that they could not provide guidance with regard
to the need for monitoring individuals that have been in contact with
DU without knowing the specific exposure situation. The conclusion is
that in general it would be more appropriate to monitor the environment
(e.g. drinking water supplies) rather than individuals.
- The experts also felt that they were not in a position to provide
guidance on the need for clean-up measures. Any intervention should
take into account the specific situation in question. General protective
measures should be considered on the basis of a common-sense approach
to prevent easily avoidable exposures. Where appropriate, specific protection
against exposure to depleted uranium should be proposed (e.g. warning
signs to prevent the public from picking up DU metal pieces).
- The experts see no need to derogate DU from any provision of the Basic
safety standards (BSS) for the protection of workers and the public
from the dangers of ionising radiation: neither do they see a need to
introduce stricter requirements in the BSS for specific uses of DU.
Background: Involvement of the European
Commission in the DU issue
The European Commission is fully conscious of the concerns which have
been expressed relating to the health effects of exposure to depleted
uranium. This followed reports of cases of cancer in soldiers who had
served in the Kosovo region. A link with DU, which has been used in ammunition
to improve its armour penetrating capacity, has been claimed. The use
of DU in the Balkans has been confirmed by NATO.
It is against this background, and the facts that EU civilians have visited
the region for prolonged periods, that the Commission felt it would be
helpful to obtain a scientific opinion on the potential radiological health
effects of DU.
The Community has certain responsibilities under the Euratom Treaty in
relation to dangers arising from ionising radiation. For this purpose
the Commission relies on independent scientific opinions. The experts
who provide these opinions are also well placed to advise on the possible
health effects of DU on humans as well as effects on the environment.
The Commission therefore convened a working party of the group of independent
scientific experts established according to Article 31 of the Euratom
Treaty with a view to providing such an opinion. The group met on 30 to
31 of January and on 19 February. The group's competence, according to
the Treaty, is to advise on the protection of the health of workers and
the general public against the dangers arising from ionising radiation.
The opinion is of general application both for civil and military applications
of DU. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that the advice was
sought in the context of the discussions on the Balkans.
As well as requesting the Article 31 experts to study the available information
and to produce this opinion, the Commission has exchanged information
and collaborated with other international organisations which are also
working in this area, namely the IAEA, UNEP, WHO and NATO.
More information is being collected and analysed by the responsible authorities
on location of deployment of personnel, proximity of the local population
to attacks involving DU, and precise composition of the DU. In addition,
more information is expected relating to the incidence of diseases in
different categories of affected populations. It is noted that UNEP will
report in March on the results of samples taken in Kosovo. Member Nations
of NATO, including Member States of the EU, are also conducting monitoring
campaigns on the environment and on personnel sent to the region.