Updated: 07-Mar-2001 NATO Information

6 March 2001

Depleted Uranium: Commission Receives Scientific Experts' Opinion

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.