Depleted uranium (DU) is the main by-product of uranium enrichment and is a chemically and radiologically toxic heavy metal; it is mildly radioactive, with about 60% of the activity of natural uranium. This dense metal is used in munitions for its penetrating ability and as a protective material in armoured vehicles. The health effects resulting from DU exposure depend on the route and magnitude of exposure and the characteristics of the DU, such as particle size, chemical form and solubility. Where DU munitions have been used, DU penetrators, penetrator fragments and jackets/casings can be found lying on the surface or buried at varying depth. When DU penetrators hit a target’s surface target or the ground, only a small percentage of the penetrator’s mass will transform to DU dust. Air, soil, water and vegetation can potentially be contaminated and affected by DU residues. From 1999 to 2003, UNEP conducted environmental assessments and measurements on targeted DU sites in Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. More recently, based on the findings of the UNEP Desk Study on the Environment in Iraq, UNEP initiated a DU project in Iraq. The project is focused on building the capacity of the Radiation Protection Center (RPC) of the Iraqi Ministry of Environment (MoEn). Iraqi professionals are trained on project related environmental assessment techniques to identify, assess and address potential, immediate and long-term DU related risks to the environment and health. To address these concerns, UNEP has undertaken the following work:
UNEP has identified, trained, equipped and guided MoEn staff members to conduct DU field assessments and to develop programmes and policies on risk reduction and clean-up. Two workshops and one seminar on DU field measurement techniques were presented in 2005.
Provision of equipment
The trained MoEn staff members were provided with suitable radiation field measurement and health and safety equipment. Training on the use of the equipment was provided.
DU field assessment
UNEP has provided technical assistance and guidance to the Iraqi RPC to conduct DU field assessments in priority areas. The capacity-building activities provided Iraqi experts with adequate knowledge and equipment to perform DU site assessments in Iraq.
DU information management and coordination
UNEP organized all available DU information into a structured database. Priority was given to the 2003 conflict, but essential data from the 1991 Gulf War was also included. The database was provided to the Iraqi planning authorities as a tool for land use planning and prioritizing DU clean-up activities.