Dangers of Uranium

Uranium is probably best recognized for its use in nuclear plants and in the making of nuclear weapons. But, while most people may think it is highly radioactive, in truth, it only carries a mild radioactivity. It was discovered by Martin Heinrich Klaproth in 1789 and he named the element after the planet Uranus. While Uranium minerals are naturally present in our environment, exposure to high levels of it can result in some health concerns.

What is Uranium?

Uranium (atomic number: 92, element symbol: U) is a naturally-occurring, metallic element with a silver-grey color. It is 70% more dense than lead and nearly as strong as steel, making it one of the heaviest (atomically) of the natural elements. While uranium is found in the air, water, soil and rocks of our environment, it is never found in its metal form, only in the form of minerals.

Uranium is used in a number of applications in both the military and the civilian sector. It can be found used in the following applications:

Common Military Uses of Uranium:
  • High Density Bullets
  • Missile Ballasts
  • Aircraft Control Counterweights
  • Gyroscopic Compasses
  • Armored Plates on Tanks & Combat Vehicles
  • Fashioned into containers for transport of radioactive materials
Common Civilan Uses of Uranium:
  • Pottery Glazes
  • Glassworks
  • Photographic Chemicals
  • High-Energy X-Rays
  • Fuel for Commercial Power Plants (nuclear)

How am I Exposed to Uranium?

Because of the natural occurrence of uranium in the environment, the general population is exposed. However, that level of exposure is quite small. The most common reasons for individuals who do not work with uranium to be exposed to higher than normal levels include:

  • Living near a uranium mine
  • Living near a coal-fired power plant
  • Drinking water that has a high degree of uranium
  • Breathing air that has a high degree of uranium
  • Eating foods grown in soil that has a high degree of uranium

Of course, individuals who work in uranium mines, coal-fired power plants or in a uranium processing plant are more at risk for higher exposure to uranium. Individuals who work with phosphate fertilizers can also be exposed to higher than normal levels of uranium.

What are the Symptoms of Uranium Exposure?

Human beings can come into contact with three different types of uranium - natural, depleted and enriched. It doesn't matter which type you come into contact with, if the levels are extreme enough, the uranium exposure could cause tissue damage in your body, specifically in the kidneys. Although the element is only mildly radioactive, it is toxic to the human body if ingested or inhaled (above normal levels).

During the military operation Desert Storm in 1991, many soldiers were diagnosed with extensive uranium exposure. Those soldiers experienced rashes, kidney problems, respiratory difficulties and cataracts.

Unfortunately, those with kidney problems typically do not exhibit any symptoms until the late stages of kidney disease. At that point, there may be blood evident in the urine or you may notice a decrease in urine production. There may also be a high level of proteins noticeable in the urine.

How do I Test Myself for Uranium Exposure?

Uranium is found naturally in our bodies because it is all throughout our environment. However, tests can be performed if you feel you have been exposed to a higher than normal level. The laboratory test consists of a urine analysis.

Since the human body normally rids itself of uranium within a few days of exposure, the urinalysis can indicate whether or not you recently experienced a high exposure to the element.

There are additional tests that use radiation equipment to detect high uranium levels on the surface of your skin.

Is Uranium a Cancer-Causing Agent?

It is extremely difficult to determine if uranium exposure causes an increased probability of cancer. In fact, The Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR IV) has reported that our normal intake of uranium most likely does not.

While uranium itself is not considered a carcinogen, as it decays, it transforms into other substances that are classified as cancer-causing agents, like radium. In studies performed on uranium miners with lung and other cancers, it was difficult to ascertain if the uranium exposure was a contributor to their cancer since they were all similarly exposed to other known carcinogens like silica dust and radon. In addition, the miners tested were primarily smokers as well.