JANUARY 25, 2012
As governments dither on about where to store radioactive depleted uranium, they quietly allow it to permeate products that people come into contact with daily. Even popular brightly colored crockery dinnerware has been contaminated, and some of the most prized golf clubs currently use it.
The FDA doesn’t monitor depleted uranium. The EPA is concerned only if it’s in the environment, but apparently doesn’t consider consumer products to be part of the environment. In fact, they consider it to be only a low level waste, not worthy of much concern.
You might think that the depleted uranium in consumer products is shielded, so that we’re protected from its radiation. It isn’t. There is absolutely no shielding. In fact, it’s used to shield us from more severe radiation. That doesn’t make it safe; it just means that we’re subjected to less.
Products That Use Depleted Uranium
Depleted uranium, the waste material from nuclear reactors, is valued for its heaviness. It’s the densest naturally-occurring element. That’s why it’s used in high-end golf clubs. In 2006, Scientific American reported that simply using it to coat the head results in drives that are 20-40% longer than with any clubs made before.
The density of depleted uranium is why it’s routinely used in commercial aircraft to provide ballast. It has been used in Boeing 747s, and as much as 1,500 kilograms (about 3,300 pounds) is used in a single application. Particularly frightening is that it oxidizes readily in a fire, which releases it into the atmosphere. So, airline crashes hold the potential of being radiation hazards to those who respond to crash emergencies. Could that be the cause of radiation and the subsequent high death rate among responders on 9-11?
Fortunately, depleted uranium is no longer used in dishware. It was once quite popular, because it produced beautiful bright glazes on pottery. However, what caused the end of its use on crockery wasn’t its radioactivity. Uranium is a heavy metal, and therefore is quite dangerous for that reason alone. You wouldn’t want to eat food from a dish with a lead-based glaze, of course. Uranium is even more toxic, both chemically and radioactively.
In fact, the danger from depleted uranium lies as much in its toxicity than its radioactivity. Studies demonstrating its devastating effects in both animal and human studies have been done. Effects found in studies include:
Excess protein excretion and necrotic cells in kidneys. Diminished mental performance, as demonstrated in neurocognitive tests in humans. In animals it’s shown to accumulate in the brain, cause electrophysiological brain changes, and damages nerve transmission. Induced tumors in animal studies, and of course, has been noted as increasing cancer rates in humans. Inhibits periodontal bone formation and healing of some wounds. Lung lesions, fibrosis, edema, and cancer in animal studies Gastrointestinal effects in humans, including vomiting, diarrhea, and albuminuria. Fatty livers and necrosis in animal studies. Distortions in biochemical and neuropsychological testing in animal studies. Association with chronic fatigue, rashes, ear, and eye problems in humans. Decrease in red blood cell count in animal studies. Depleted uranium is also very hard. The combination of hardness and weight results in the best-known products that use depleted uranium: military weapons. It’s used in ammunition, because its weight makes it able to create smaller bullets that can pierce armored equipment, like tanks, and also because it burns readily, making it particularly devastating against tanks and as bunker busters. It’s used in alloys in armored vehicles. Between the radioactivity and the chemical toxicity, it can’t be any surprise that a previously unknown condition, Gulf War Syndrome, has afflicted huge numbers of soldiers. Nor should it surprise anyone that reproductive problems in Iraqis are happening at enormous rates, especially stillbirths, miscarriages, and terrible birth defects.
Fortunately, some of depleted uranium’s uses are no longer in application. Porcelain and glass are no longer colored with it. False teeth often included depleted uranium because of its ability to reproduce teeth’s natural fluorescence. That practice ended in 1986, but was routine during the 60s and 70s.
A French company called Cogéma sold a yellow enamel powder to makers of enamels and glass until the year 2000.
Industrial radiography cameras often have a source of high gamma radiation in them, so depleted uranium is often used as shielding. Apparently, it’s okay to shield you from radiation with a source that’s less radioactive, in spite of the existence of lead, which is entirely unradioactive.
It is not difficult for a manufacturer to obtain a license to use depleted uranium in products. The primary requirement is that they agree not to abandon it. There is no law to prevent, or even limit, the use of depleted uranium in consumer goods.
What Is Depleted Uranium and Why Is It So Dangerous?
Uranium comes in several isotopes. That is, they have the same number of protons and electrons, but the number of neutrons varies. So, uranium is often specified according to its atomic weight. Thus uranium with 234 neutrons is notated as uranium-234. Depleted uranium is known as uranium-238. It is also the most commonly found type in nature.
The fact that depleted uranium is identical to uranium-238 found in nature is used to advantage to give the impression that it’s perfectly safe. The argument runs that uranium is found everywhere, so it can’t be harmful. That, of course, isn’t true. The obvious distinction is that depleted uranium is concentrated. It isn’t simply a part of background radiation. It’s a significant source that must be treated as unsafe.
A radioactive substance spews radioactive particles and-or gamma radiation, all of which are dangerous. As it spews, it gradually transforms into a different element. As depleted uranium radiates, it becomes thorium-234, which in turn becomes protactinium-243. Each of these has a different half-life and spews different types of radiation. Thus, the claim that depleted uranium’s radiation rate is low doesn’t consider the rate or type of radiation of the element it leaves behind, nor does it consider what that element turns into when it spews radiation. Here’s a chart of that information. Each element turns into the one below it:
Element Half-life Type of radiation Uranium-238 4.5 billion years Alpha Thorium-234 24.1 days Beta Gamma Protactinium-234 1 minute Beta Gamma Uranium-234 245,000 years Alpha Gamma Thorium-230 76,000 years Alpha Gamma Radium-226 1,600 years Alpha Gamma Radon-222 3.8 days Alpha Polonium-218 3.0 minutes Alpha Lead-214 27 minutes Beta Gamma Bismuth-214 20 minutes Beta Gamma Polonium-214 160 microseconds Alpha Lead-210 22 years Beta Gamma Bismuth-210 5 days Beta Gamma Polonium-210 138 days Alpha Lead-206 Stable None
Note, in particular, that the claims of low radiation from depleted uranium never include the entire picture. While it’s true that depleted uranium’s rate of radiation is low, as noted by its half life, the substances it spawns are anything but slow radiators. Therefore, exposure to depleted uranium also implies the potential of exposure to every radioactive substance on this list.
More than that, it must be acknowledged that depleted uranium is not the only source of radiation exposure for most people. Other sources include airport scanners, public area scanners now being implemented, medical diagnostic tools, such as CT scanners, x-ray machines, and mammograms, mobile phones, mobile phone masts, and even electricity. The effects from all of these are additive.
That is, you cannot simply calculate risk based on the highest single exposure. Every exposure adds to an individual’s lifelong risk. Therefore, even if the relative risk of exposure from depleted uranium is small for each incidence, it must be recognized that it is in addition to every other exposure to it and to all other radioactive sources. In light of this, how can it possibly make sense to put depleted uranium into golf clubs?
Obviously, the world has a tiger by the tail with depleted uranium. It’s being taking out of the earth, where it’s largely sequestered away and adds little to the ambient radiation risk. It’s now being concentrated in stockpiles and spread into the biosphere. The powers that be are scrambling to find ways to store the poison and, at the same time, allowing it to be used in consumer products.
Study suggests cancer risk from depleted uranium Here are the Radioactive Byproducts of Depleted Uranium (Uranium-238) New golf club uses Depleted Uranium Uranium Containing Dentures (ca. 1960s, 1970s) Uranium Pollution from the Amsterdam 1992 Plane Crash Features: Depleted Uranium Factsheet on Depleted Uranium Depleted Uranium Projectiles Guidance for Industry Bottled Water: Uranium Small Entity Compliance Guide Unsafe at Any Dose Depleted uranium Depleted uranium may post health hazard Scientists urge shell clear-up to protect civilians Guardian’s Special Report on Depleted Uranium (several articles) The Depleted Uranium Threat