UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities Resolution 1996/16, August 29, 1996, E/CN.4/SUB.2/RES/1996/16 Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities concludes forty-eighth session - Press release HR/CN/755 , September 4, 1996 UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities Resolution 1997/36, August 28, 1997, E/CN.4/SUB.2/RES/1997/36
The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Guided by the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and the Additional Protocols thereto, Recalling General Assembly resolutions 42/99 of 7 December 1987 and 43/111 of 8 December 1988 reaffirming that all people have an inherent right to life, Concerned at the alleged use of weapons of mass or indiscriminate destruction both against members of the armed forces and against civilian populations, resulting in death, misery and disability, Concerned also at repeated reports on the long-term consequences of the use of such weapons upon human life and health and upon the environment, Concerned further that the physical effects on the environment, the debris from the use of such weapons, either alone or in combination, and abandoned contaminated equipment constitute a serious danger to life, Convinced that the production, sale and use of such weapons are incompatible with international human rights and humanitarian law, Believing that continued efforts must be undertaken to sensitize public opinion to the inhuman and indiscriminate effects of such weapons and to the need for their complete elimination, Convinced that the production, sale and use of such weapons are incompatible with the promotion and maintenance of international peace and security, 1. Urges all States to be guided in their national policies by the need to curb the production and the spread of weapons of mass destruction or with indiscriminate effect, in particular nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weaponry and weaponry containing depleted uranium; 2. Requests the Secretary-General:
(a) To collect information from Governments, the competent United Nations
bodies and agencies and non-governmental organizations on the use of nuclear
weapons, chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological
weaponry and weaponry containing depleted uranium, on their consequential and
cumulative effects, and on the danger they represent to life, physical security
and other human rights;
(b) To submit a report on the information gathered to the Sub-Commission at
its forty-ninth session, together with any recommendations and views which he
may have received on effective ways and means of eliminating such
3. Decides to give further consideration to this matter at its forty-ninth session, on the basis of any additional information which may be contained in reports of the Secretary-General to the Sub-Commission or to other United Nations bodies, or which may be submitted to the Sub-Commission by Governments or non-governmental organizations. 34th meeting
29 August 1996
[Adopted by 15 votes to 1, with 8 abstentions.] Available also at:
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9 - Press Release HR/CN/755 4 September 1996 -- Affirmed that weapons of mass destruction and, in particular, nuclear weapons should have no role to play in international relations and thus should be eliminated; -- Further reaffirmed its support for a total ban on the production, marketing and use of such weapons; urged States that had not yet done so to sign and ratify the Convention on Conventional Weapons and Protocols thereto; -- Urged all States to be guided in their national policies by the need to curb production and spread of weapons of mass destruction or with indiscriminate effect, in particular nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weaponry and weaponry containing depleted uranium; -- Requested the Secretary-General to collect information from governments and other relevant sources on the use of such weapons and on their consequential and cumulative effects, and to submit a report on the matter to the Subcommission at its forty-ninth session.
The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Guided by the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and the Additional Protocols thereto, Recalling General Assembly resolutions 42/99 of 7 December 1987 and 43/111 of 8 December 1988 reaffirming that all people have an inherent right to life, Recalling also its resolution 1992/39 of 28 August 1992 on arms production and trade and human rights violations, Recalling further its resolution 1996/16 of 29 August 1996, in which it requested the Secretary-General to submit a report on information gathered on the use of nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weaponry and weaponry containing depleted uranium and their consequential and cumulative effects and the danger they represent to life, physical security and other human rights, Concerned at the use of weapons of mass or indiscriminate destruction or of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, both against members of the armed forces and against civilian populations, resulting in death, pain, misery and disability, Concerned also at repeated reports of the long-term consequences of the use of such weapons upon human life and health, Concerned further that the physical effects on the environment of testing, storage or disposal of or debris from such weapons, either alone or in combination, and abandoned contaminated equipment constitute a serious danger to life and health, Convinced that the use of or threat of use of weapons of mass or indiscriminate destruction and, in certain circumstances, the production and sale of such weapons are incompatible with international human rights and/or humanitarian law, Convinced also that the production, sale, use or threat of use of chemical and biological weapons are incompatible with international law, as well as the promotion and maintenance of international peace and security, Convinced further that the use on civilian populations of napalm and fuel-air bombs violates the Protocol on Prohibition or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons (Protocol III) to the 1980 Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons, Believing that the production, sale, use or threat of use of nuclear weapons has serious consequences for the promotion and maintenance of international peace and security, Believing further that continued efforts must be undertaken to sensitize public opinion to the inhuman and indiscriminate effects of all such weapons and to the need for their complete elimination, Having considered the report of the Secretary-General (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/27) and the many serious questions raised therein, 1. Urges all States to be guided in their national policies by the need to curb the testing, the production and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, or with indiscriminate effect, or of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering; 2. Decides to authorize Ms. Clemencia Forero Ucros to prepare, without financial implications, a working paper, in the context of human rights and humanitarian norms, assessing the utility, scope and structure of a study on weapons of mass destruction or with indiscriminate effect, or of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering. 37th meeting ; 28 August 1997 ; [Adopted without a vote. See chap. XIV.] The Resolution available also at: http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf/0811fcbd0b9f6bd58025667300306dea/21a4acb0f1b289e
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Features: Depleted UraniumBack to main story »
Questions and Answers
- What is Uranium?
- What are the existing levels of uranium in the environment?
- What is Depleted Uranium (DU)?
- Is DU more or less radioactive than natural uranium?
- Are people naturally exposed to uranium?
- What are the military uses of depleted uranium?
- There are reports of impurities in DU. What are they?
- What studies have been done on people exposed to Uranium or DU?
- What is the behaviour of uranium in the body?
- How could uranium and DU be harmful to people?
- Has DU or uranium been definitely linked to human cancer?
- How can uranium affect children?
- What are the potential routes of exposure from depleted uranium ammunitions?
- What are the possible radiation hazards from handling DU projectiles?
- What is the likely impact of DU on the environment?
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) defines uranium as a Low Specific Activity material. In its natural state, it consists of three isotopes (U-234, U-235 and U-238). Other isotopes that cannot be found in natural uranium are U-232, U-233, U-236 and U-237. The table below shows the fraction by weight of the three isotopes in any quantity of natural uranium, their half lives, and specific activity. The half life of a radioactive isotope is the time taken for it to decay to half of its original amount of radioactivity. The specific activity is the activity per unit mass of a particular radionuclide and is used as a measure of how radioactive a radionuclide is. It is expressed in the table in becquerels (Bq) per milligram (1 milligram, mg, = 0.001 grams). An activity of one becquerel (Bq) means that on average one disintegration takes place every second.
Isotopes of natural uranium decay by emitting mainly alpha particles. The emission of beta particles and gamma radiations are low. The table below shows the average energies per transformation emitted by U-238, U-235 and U-234.
Uranium can combine with other elements in the environment to form uranium compounds. The solubility of these uranium compounds varies greatly . Uranium in the environment is mainly found as a uranium oxide, typically as UO2, which is an anoxic insoluble compound found in minerals and sometimes as UO3, a moderately soluble compound found in surface waters. Soluble uranium compounds can combine with other chemical elements and compounds in the environment to form other uranium compounds. The chemical form of the uranium compounds determines how easily the compound can move through the environment, as well as how toxic it might be. Some forms of uranium oxides are very inert and may stay in the soil for thousands of years without moving downward into groundwater.
The average concentration of natural uranium in soil is about 2 parts per million, which is equivalent to 2 grams of uranium in 1000 kg of soil. This means that the top metre of soil in a typical 10 m ´ 40 m garden contains about 2 kg of uranium (corresponding to about 50,000,000 Bq of activity just from the decay of the uranium isotopes and ignoring the considerable activity associated with the decay of the progeny. Concentrations of uranium in granite range from 2 parts per million to 20 parts per million. Uranium in higher concentrations (50 - 1000 mg per kg of soil) can be found in soil associated with phosphate deposits. In air, uranium exists as dust. Very small, dust-like particles of uranium in the air are deposited onto surface water, plant surfaces, and soil. These particles of uranium eventually end up back in the soil or in the bottom of lakes, rivers, and ponds, where they mix with the natural uranium that is already there. Typical activity concentrations of uranium in air are around 2 µBq per cubic metre. (UNSCEAR 2000).
Most of the uranium in water comes from dissolved uranium from rocks and soil; only a very small part is from the settling of uranium dust out of the air. Activity concentrations of U-238 and U-234 in drinking water are between a few tenths of a mBq per litre to a few hundred mBqs per litre, although activity concentrations as high as 150 Bq per litre have been measured in Finland (UNSCEAR 2000). Activity concentrations of U-235 are generally more than twenty times lower.
Uranium in plants is the result of its absorption from the soil into roots and other plant parts. Typical activity concentrations of uranium isotopes in vegetables are slightly higher than those found in drinking water. The range of activity concentrations of U-238 measured in grain and leafy vegetables is between 1 mBq per kg and 400 mBq per kg and between 6 mBq per kg and 2200 mBq per kg respectively, while activity concentrations of U-235 are 20 times lower. Activity concentrations in root vegetables are generally lower (UNSCEAR 2000).
The uranium transferred to livestock through ingestion of grass and soil is eliminated quickly through urine and feces. Activity concentrations of U-238 measured in milk and meat products around the world are in the range of 0.1 mBq per kg to 17 mBq per kg and 1 mBq per kg to 20 mBq per kg respectively, with activity concentrations of U-235 more than 20 times lower (UNSCEAR 2000).
The table below compares percentages of uranium isotopes by weight and activity in natural and depleted uranium.
Because of the differences in diet, there is a wide variation in consumption levels of uranium around the world, but, primarily, intake depends on the amount of uranium in the water people drink. In some parts of the world, the concentration of uranium in water is very high, and this results in much higher intakes of uranium from drinking water than from food. For example, consumption of uranium in parts of Finland can be tens of micrograms per day.
For information on levels of natural uranium in the human body, see:
- ICRP Publication 23: International Commission on Radiological Protection, Reference Man: Anatomical Physiological and Metabolic Characteristics. ICRP Publication 23, Pergamon Press, Oxford (1975)
- RAND Report: Author(s): Harley N. H, Foulkes E. C., Hilborne L. H, Hudson A., Anthony C., R., A Review of the Scientific Literature as It Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses. Vol. 7, Depleted Uranium. RAND Report MR-1018/7-OSD (1999)
- UNSCEAR Reports: UNITED NATIONS, Sources and effects of Ionizing Radiation, Report to the General Assembly with Scientific Annexes, United Nations Scientific Committee On The Effects Of Atomic Radiation, (UNSCEAR), UN, New York (1988, 1993, 1996, 2000).
- ICRP: http://www.icrp.org or or http://www.elsevier.nl/inca/publications/store/1/3/3/9/5/ for ICRP Publication 23.
- RAND: http://www.rand.org or http://www.rand.org/publications (no particular link to report on DU).
Armour piercing ammunitions are generally referred to as "kinetic energy penetrators". DU is preferred to other metals, because of its high density, its pyrophoric nature (DU self-ignites when exposed to temperatures of 600° to 700° and high pressures), and its property of becoming sharper, through adiabatic shearing, as it penetrates armour plating . On impact with targets, DU penetrators ignite, breaking up in fragments, and forming an aerosol of particles ("DU dust") whose size depends on the angle of the impact, the velocity of the penetrator, and the temperature. These fine dust particles, can catch fire spontaneously in air. Small pieces may ignite in a fire and burn, but tests have shown that large pieces, like the penetrators used in anti-tank weapons, or in aircraft balance weights, will not normally ignite in a fire.
For more information on the military uses of depleted uranium see: http://www.gulflink.osd.mil or http://www.nato.int.
Further information on this can be found at:
- http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/du_ii/du_ii_s03.htm#2 and
http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/du_ii/du_ii_s03.htm#TAB C - Properties and Characteristics of DU.
Regarding exposures to DU, there have been studies of the health of military personnel who saw action in the Gulf War (1990-1991) and during the Balkan conflicts (1994-99). A small number of Gulf war veterans have inoperable fragments of DU embedded in their bodies. They have been the subject of intense study and the results have been published. These veterans show elevated excretion levels of DU in urine but, so far, there have been no observable health effects due to DU in this group. There have also been epidemiological studies of the health of military personnel who saw action in conflicts where DU was used, comparing them with the health of personnel who were not in the war zones. The results of these studies have been published and the main conclusion is that the war veterans do show a small (i.e., not statistically significant) increase in mortality rates, but this excess is due to accidents rather than disease. This cannot be linked to any exposures to DU.
For information on doses and risks to miners, see:
- Lubin J., Boice J.D., Edling C. et al., Radon and lung cancer risk: A joint analyses of 11 underground miners studies, US Department of Health and Human Services, NIH Publication 94-3644, Washington D.C. (1994).
- McGeoghegan D. and Binks K., J Radiol Prot 20 11-137 (2000).
- M A McDiarmid et alia, Environ. Res. A 82 168-180 (2000), G J Macfarlane et alia, The Lancet 356 17-21 (2000).
When inhaled, uranium is attached to particles of different sizes. The size of the uranium aerosols and the solubility of the uranium compounds in the lungs and gut influence the transport of uranium inside the body. Coarse particles are caught in the upper part of the respiratory system (nose, sinuses, and upper part of the lungs) from where they are exhaled or transferred to the throat and then swallowed. Fine particles reach the lower part of the lungs (alveolar region). If the uranium compounds are not easily soluble, the uranium aerosols will tend to remain in the lungs for a longer period of time (up to 16 years), and deliver most of the radiation dose to the lungs. They will gradually dissolve and be transported into the blood stream. For more soluble compounds, uranium is absorbed more quickly from the lungs into the blood stream. About 10% of it will initially concentrate in the kidneys.
Most of the uranium ingested is excreted in feces within a few days and never reaches the blood stream. The remaining fraction will be transferred into the blood stream. Most of the uranium in the blood stream is excreted through urine in a few days, but a small fraction remains in the kidneys and bones and other soft tissue.
10. How could uranium and DU be harmful to people? Has DU or uranium been definitely linked to human cancer?In sufficient amounts, uranium that is ingested or inhaled can be harmful because of its chemical toxicity. Like mercury, cadmium, and other heavy-metal ions, excess uranyl ions depress renal function (i.e., affect the kidneys). High concentrations in the kidney can cause damage and, in extreme cases, renal failure. The general medical and scientific consensus is that in cases of high intake, uranium is likely to become a chemical toxicology problem before it is a radiological problem. Since uranium is mildly radioactive, once inside the body it also irradiates the organs, but the primary health effect is associated with its chemical action on body functions.
In many countries, current occupational exposure limits for soluble uranium compounds are related to a maximum concentration of 3 µg uranium per gram of kidney tissue. Any effects caused by exposure of the kidneys at these levels are considered to be minor and transient. Current practices, based on these limits, appear to protect workers in the uranium industry adequately. In order to ensure that this kidney concentration is not exceeded, legislation restricts long term (8 hour) workplace air concentrations of soluble uranium to 0.2 mg per cubic metre and short term (15 minute) to 0.6 mg per cubic metre.
Like any radioactive material, there is a risk of developing cancer from exposure to radiation emitted by natural and depleted uranium. This risk is assumed to be proportional to the dose received. Limits for radiation exposure are recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and have been adopted in the IAEA's Basic Safety Standards. The annual dose limit for a member of the public is 1 mSv, while the corresponding limit for a radiation worker is 20 mSv. The additional risk of fatal cancer associated with a dose of 1 mSv is assumed to be about 1 in 20,000. This small increase in lifetime risk should be considered in light of the risk of 1 in 5 that everyone has of developing a fatal cancer . It must also be noted that cancer may not become apparent until many years after exposure to a radioactive material.
It is possible to estimate how much DU an individual could be exposed to before the above chemical and radiological limits are exceeded. The table below shows how much depleted uranium would have to be inhaled or ingested to lead to a kidney concentration of 3µg per gram of kidney (chemical toxicity limit) or to a dose of 1 mSv (radiation dose limit). These values have been calculated with the biokinetic models currently recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). The values have been calculated for two types of uranium compounds: 'moderately soluble' compounds, such as UO3 and U3O8 and 'insoluble' compounds, such as UO2.
In addition to the radiological hazard from uranium isotopes, there is also a potential risk associated with other radionuclides that are formed from the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes and that can be found in the food ingested or in the air inhaled. The values in the table above were calculated taking into account the build up of these radionuclides inside the body, but do not include the contribution of these radionuclides in the food ingested or in the air inhaled.
Another potential harmful effect is due to external exposure to the radiation emitted by uranium isotopes. The main radiation emitted by isotopes of uranium is alpha particles (helium nuclei). The range of these alpha particles in air is of the order of one centimetre, while in the case of tissue, they can barely penetrate the external dead layer of the skin. For comparison, beta-particles (electrons) are capable of penetrating about a centimetre of tissue, while gamma-radiation (high energy photons) can pass through the body. Therefore, the potential risk from external exposure to uranium isotopes is exceedingly low, unless the uranium is introduced directly into the body (e.g. through a wound). Moreover, as alpha particles cannot travel very far from the source, an individual can only be exposed by coming in direct contact with uranium isotopes. This is not the case however with natural uranium, where people are also exposed to the more penetrating beta and gamma radiation emitted by the decay products of uranium that are normally found in equilibrium with the uranium isotopes. In the case of DU, the only beta emitting decay products present are Th-234, Pa-234m andTh-231, all of which emit low intensity gamma-radiation, and, thus the risk from external exposure to DU is considerably lower than for exposure to natural uranium.
There have been a number of studies of workers exposed to uranium (see question 8) and, despite some workers being exposed to large amounts of uranium, there is no evidence that either natural uranium or DU is carcinogenic. This lack of evidence is seen even for lung cancer following inhalation of uranium. As a precaution for risk assessment and to set dose limits, DU is assumed to be potentially carcinogenic, but the lack of evidence for a definite cancer risk in studies over many decades is significant and should put the results of assessments in perspective.
lt is not known if exposure to uranium has effects on the development of the human fetus. There have been reports of birth defects and an increase in fetal deaths in animals fed with very high doses of uranium in drinking water. In an experiment with pregnant animals, only a very small amount (0.03%) of the injected uranium reached the fetus. Even less uranium is likely to reach the fetus in mothers exposed to uranium through inhalation and ingestion. There are no available data of measurements of uranium in breast milk. Because of its chemical properties, it is unlikely that uranium would concentrate in breast milk.
The effect of exposure to uranium on the reproductive system is not known. Very high doses of uranium have caused a reduction in sperm counts in some experiments with laboratory animals, but the majority of studies have shown no effects.
A potential exposure pathway for those visiting or living in DU affected areas after the aerosols have settled is the inhalation of DU particles in the soil that have been re-suspended through the action of wind or human activities. The risk will be lower because the re-suspended uranium particles combine with other material and increase in size and, therefore, a smaller fraction of the uranium inhaled will reach the deep part of the lungs. Another possible route of exposure is the inadvertent or deliberate ingestion of soil. For example, farmers working in a field where DU ammunitions were fired could inadvertently ingest small quantities of soil, while children sometimes deliberately eat soil.
In the long term, the exposure pathways that become more important are ingestion of DU incorporated in drinking water and the food chain through migration from the soil or direct deposition on vegetation. The risk from ingestion of food and water is generally low, because uranium is not effectively transported in the food chain.
It has also been estimated that a large fraction of DU ammunitions fired from an aircraft probably miss their intended target. The majority of these projectiles will be buried at various depths under the surface of the ground and even in buildings. Some of them could be lying around on the ground surface in the vicinity of the target. The physical state of these ammunitions will be very variable, depending on the characteristics of the ground, ranging from small fragments to whole intact penetrators.
Individuals, who might find and handle these ammunitions could be exposed to external radiation emitted by DU. For example, a farmer ploughing a field may dig up an intact projectile some time afterwards. Because of the type of radiation emitted by DU, the dose received would be significant only if the person exposed was in contact with DU projectiles. In addition, people could, through handling the penetrators, inadvertently ingest some of the loose friable uranium oxides formed through weathering of the surface of the penetrators.
With time, chemical weathering will cause the metallic DU of penetrators in the ground to corrode and disperse in the soil. The DU in the soil will be in an oxidized, soluble chemical form and migrate to surface and groundwater from where it will eventually be incorporated into the food chain, which then can be consumed. It is difficult to predict how long it would take for individuals to be exposed to DU through this pathway, but it is reasonable to assume that it would take several years before enhanced levels of DU could be measured in water and food.
For information on properties of airborne uranium, see:
- Scripsick, R.C., Crist, K.C, Tillery, M.I., Soderholm, S.C., Differences in in vitro dissolution properties of settled and airborne uranium material, Report presented at Conference on occupational radiation safety in mining, Toronto, Ontario (Canada) 15-18 Oct 1984, Los Alamos National Lab, NM (USA) (1984).
However, some general conclusions can still be made. Studies carried out at test ranges show that most of the DU aerosols created by the impact of penetrators against an armoured target settle within a short time (minutes) of the impact and in close proximity to the target site, although smaller particles may be carried to a distance of several hundred metres by the wind.
Once the DU aerosols settle on the ground, the depleted uranium particles combine with other material and increase in size, becoming less of an inhalation hazard. The potential risk from inhalation will be associated with material that is re-suspended from the ground by the action of the wind or by human activities, such as ploughing. With time, the concentrations of depleted uranium on the ground surface will decrease due to wind and precipitation that will transport the depleted uranium away or wash it into the soil. Any risk associated with inhalation of re-suspended material will thus decrease with time.
Depleted uranium present in the soil can migrate to surface and groundwater and flow into water streams. Plants will also uptake DU present in soil and in water. A very small fraction of DU in vegetation and water is the result of direct deposition onto water surfaces. The chemical and physical composition of the soil will determine the solubility and transportability of the DU particles. The DU in water and vegetation will be transferred to livestock through ingestion of grass, soil, and water. Studies have shown that bio-accumulation of uranium in plants and animals is not very high and, therefore, uranium is not effectively transported in the food chain.
Depleted uranium in the soil will be in an oxidized, soluble chemical form and migrate to surface and groundwater and be incorporated into the food chain. It is difficult to predict how long it would take for this to occur. As a result of chemical weathering, DU projectiles lying on the ground or buried under the surface will corrode with time, slowly converting the metallic uranium of the DU penetrators into uranium oxides. The specific soil characteristics will determine the rate and chemical form of the oxidation and the rate of migration and solubility of the depleted uranium. This environmental pathway may result in the long term (in the order of several years) in enhanced levels of depleted uranium being dissolved in ground water and drinking water.
Consumption of water and food is a potential long term route of intake of DU. Given this, monitoring of water sources may be a useful means to assess the potential for intake via ingestion. If the levels were considered unacceptable, some form of filtration/ion exchange system could be implemented to reduce levels of DU.