ToxFAQs™ for Uranium
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This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions (FAQs) about natural and depleted uranium. For more information, call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-800-232-4636. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. It is important you understand this information because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
Natural uranium is a naturally occurring chemical substance that is mildly radioactive. Depleted uranium is an adjusted mixture of natural uranium isotopes that is less radioactive. Everyone is exposed to low amounts of uranium through food, water, and air. Exposure to high levels of natural or depleted uranium can cause kidney disease. Uranium has been found in at least 67 of 1,699 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is uranium?
Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive element. It is naturally present in nearly all rocks, soils, and air; can be redistributed in the environment through wind and water erosion; and more can be released into the environment through volcanic eruptions. Natural uranium is a mixture of three isotopes: 234U, 235U, and 238U. The most common isotope is 238U; it makes up over 99% of natural uranium. All three isotopes behave the same chemically, but they have different radioactive properties. The half-lives of uranium isotopes (the amount of time needed for half of the isotope to give off its radiation and change into a different element) is very long. The least radioactive isotope is 238U with a half life of 4.5 billion years. Depleted uranium is a mixture of the same three uranium isotopes except that it has very little 234U and 235U. It is less radioactive than natural uranium. Enriched uranium is another mixture of isotopes that has more 234U and 235U than natural uranium. Enriched uranium is more radioactive than natural uranium.
Uranium is almost as hard as steel and much denser than lead. Natural uranium is used to make enriched uranium; depleted uranium is the leftover product. Enriched uranium is used to make fuel for nuclear power plants. Depleted uranium is used as a counterbalance on helicopters rotors and airplane control surfaces, as a shield to protect against ionizing radiation, as a component of munitions to help them penetrate enemy armored vehicles, and as armor in some parts of military vehicles.
What happens to uranium when it enters the environment?
- Natural and depleted uranium that exist in the dust in the air settle onto water, land, and plants. Uranium deposited on land can be reincorporated into soil, washed into surface water, or stick to plant roots. Uranium in air, surface water, or groundwater can be transported large distances.
How might I be exposed to uranium?
- Food and drinking water are the primary sources of intake for the general public. Very low levels of uranium are found in the air.
- Root crops such as potatoes, parsnips, turnips, and sweet potatoes contribute the highest amounts of uranium to the diet. Because uranium in soil can stick to these vegetables, the concentrations in these foods are directly related to the concentrations of uranium in the soil where the foods are grown.
- In most areas of the United States, low levels of uranium are found in the drinking water. Higher levels may be found in areas with elevated levels of naturally occurring uranium in rocks and soil.
- People may be exposed to higher levels of uranium if they live near uranium mining, processing, and manufacturing facilities. People may also be exposed if they live near areas where depleted uranium weapons are used.
How can uranium enter and leave my body?
Most of the uranium you breathe or ingest is not absorbed and leaves the body in the feces. Absorbed uranium is deposited throughout the body. The highest levels are found in the bones, liver, and kidneys; 66% of the uranium in the body is found in your bones. It can remain in the bones for a long time; the half-life of uranium in bones is 70-200 days. Most of the uranium that is not in bones leaves the body in the urine in 1-2 weeks.
How can uranium affect my health?
Natural uranium and depleted uranium have the identical chemical effect on your body. Kidney damage has been seen in humans and animals after inhaling or ingesting uranium compounds. However, kidney damage has not been consistently found in soldiers who have had uranium metal fragments in their bodies for several years. Ingesting water-soluble uranium compounds will result in kidney effects at lower doses than following exposure to insoluble uranium compounds.
Studies in animals have shown that inhalation exposure to insoluble uranium compounds can result in lung damage. In male rats and mice, exposure to uranium has been shown to decrease fertility. Uranium compounds on the skin caused skin irritation and mild skin damage in animals.
Health effects of natural and depleted uranium are due to chemical effects and not to radiation.
How likely is uranium to cause cancer?
Neither the National Toxicology Program (NTP), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) nor the EPA have classified natural uranium or depleted uranium with respect to carcinogenicity.
How can uranium affect children?
The health effects seen in children from exposure to toxic levels of uranium are expected to be similar to the effects seen in adults.
Exposure of animals to high levels of uranium during pregnancy, which caused toxicity in the mothers, has induced early deaths and birth defects in the young. It is not clear if this can happen in the absence of effects on the mother. We do not know whether uranium can cause birth defects in people. There are some studies that suggest that exposure to depleted uranium increased the frequency of birth defects, but the studies are deficient to allow valid conclusions.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to uranium?
- Avoid eating root vegetables grown in soils with high levels of uranium. Consider washing fruits and vegetables grown in that soil and discard the outside portion of root vegetables.
- Consider having your water tested if you suspect that your drinking water might have elevated levels of uranium; if elevated levels are found, consider using bottled water.
Is there a medical test to show whether I have been exposed to uranium?
Natural uranium is in your normal diet, so there will always be some level of uranium in all parts of your body. If depleted uranium is present, it adds to the total uranium level. Uranium can be measured in blood, urine, hair, and body tissues. Most tests are for total uranium; however, expensive tests are available to estimate the amounts of both natural and depleted uranium that are present.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The government has made recommendations for uranium which apply to natural and depleted uranium combined.
The EPA established a maximum drinking water contaminant level of 0.03 mg/L.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has limited workers' exposure in air to an average of 0.05 mg U/m3 for soluble uranium and 0.25 mg U/m3 for insoluble uranium over an 8-hour workday.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends workers exposure be limited to 0.05 mg U/m3 of air for soluble uranium and 0.2 mg U/m3 for insoluble uranium averaged over a 10-hour workday and recommends that exposure to soluble uranium not exceed 0.6 mg U/m3 for more than 15 minutes.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has established air concentration limits for uranium and its individual isotopes that apply to occupational exposure and releases from facilities.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2013. Toxicological Profile for Uranium. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
If you have questions or concerns, please contact your community or state health or environmental quality department or:
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Office of Innovation and Analytics, Toxicology Section
4770 Buford Highway
Chamblee, GA 30341-3717
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO 888-232-6348 (TTY)
Email: Contact CDC-INFO
ATSDR can also tell you the location of occupational and environmental health clinics. These clinics specialize in recognizing, evaluating, and treating illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.