While the topic of nuclear radiation may seem like a heavy, and somehow distant issue from our daily routine, Dr. Moondust’s research as a cancer biologist and all that she has published on its impact on our health shows us how relevant it is. Nuclear radiation definitely affects every one of us from the food we eat to the very air we breathe in the course our day. Even wars waged – no matter their location or duration in relation to where we live, impact us.
In our conversation today we learn more about our shared concerns for climate action and especially about radioactivity and radioactive metals circulating in our atmosphere due to weaponry currently in use.
Today’s post follows on the blog that started our new year off at Moondust Cosmetics®. That blog was the top 11 actions we can take in our households to contribute to the global effort in mitigating climate change.
Why Nuclear Weapons and Modern Warfare are Contrary to Climate Action
Q. Dr. Moondust, can you help us understand more?
A. Recently, many parts of the world have been contaminated with radioactive waste from depleted uranium bombs and projectiles including the Arabian Gulf, Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, Afghanistan, and Syria. Depleted uranium (DU) is a by-product of the uranium enrichment process employed in nuclear reactors. It has been used to make depleted-uranium bombs and to coat bullets, which are effective armour-piercing projectiles, since the 1990’s. Other areas of the globe have also been contaminated by nuclear weapons testing sites.
Q. So, what does that mean for us?
A. Well, in this atomic age, exposure to toxins in the environment includes radioactive heavy metals and their detoxification has become an issue of considerable importance for everyone. There are three naturally occurring uranium isotopes that are of major significance with regard to mining of this element and the nuclear industry – U-238, U-235, U-234. The half-lives of these radioisotopes is approximately 4500 million years, 703 million years, and 246,000 years, respectively – in other words, that’s how long it takes for their radioactivity to disintegrate.
Q. Does that mean we are exposed to radiation all that time?
A. Basically, yes. It is something of note particularly for official governmental agencies dealing with the cleanup of environmental pollution and setting regulatory health standards for such hazards in the surrounding environment.
Heavy metal exposure can occur in humans potentially through the air, water, and soil via the food chain. However, depleted uranium exposure is most likely to occur via inhalation.
The biological effects of environmental radionuclides in humans (particularly depleted uranium) have been documented as part of the Gulf War Syndrome and Balkan Syndrome. They include incapacitating fatigue, musculoskeletal and joint pains, headaches, neuropsychiatric disorders, confusion, visual problems, and changes of gait, loss of memory, lymphadenopathies, respiratory impairment, impotence, and urinary tract morphological and functional alterations.
Q. Wow, that sounds pretty unpleasant and far ranging.
A. It certainly is – my first personal experience with DU exposure was in Bosnia-Herzegovina where I attended a science conference. Much of the cancer and birth defect data come from Iraq. The overall incidence of breast and lung cancer, leukemia and lymphoma has doubled or tripled in certain areas of Iraq contaminated with depleted uranium during the Gulf Wars. There have also been reports of an increased incidence of birth defects and, possibly, infant mortality in Iraq since the advent of the Gulf Wars. In addition, an increased incidence of congenital anomalies and perinatal mortality has been reported in Kuwaiti newborns and birth defects have been reported in the newborns of Gulf War veterans.
Some studies with US Gulf War Veterans have reported cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract, lymphoma, and leukemia as health consequences of DU exposure. WHO statistics for the years 1998-2000 suggest an elevation in lymphoma and leukemia incidence for the Eastern Mediterranean region affected by the Gulf Wars. Interestingly, according to WHO, there also appears to be an elevated incidence in cancers of the trachea, bronchi, and lungs in Europe during the years 1998-2000 possibly due to other regional wars, for example, DU weapons were deployed in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia (by NATO).
Q. OH my goodness! These are very significant health hazards. What can we do about this?
A. Soil remediation, phytoremediation, and human detoxification are the main issues to be considered in relation to environmental contamination with uranium and its decay products.
The remediation of uranium and other radionuclide-contaminated soils is a complex, labour-intensive, and expensive undertaking (a typical project can cost more than $200-300 billion). Bioremediation of soil with microorganisms appears to be one of the most cost-effective and ecologically appealing strategies available. Bacteria can utilize various mechanisms to sequester uranium including biosorption at the cell surface, intracellular accumulation, bioprecipitation or biomineralization, and redox transformations (oxidation/reduction). At the same time, microorganisms are difficult to control and can mutate relatively easily.
Phytoremediation is the use of green plants to remove pollutants from the environment or to deactivate them and is based on exploiting the metabolic diversity of plants. On the downside, the latter has low extraction efficiency, generates large quantities of contaminated biomass, and requires long periods to complete the decontamination process.
Metal chelation therapy, citrate and zinc supplementation may represent possible methods of uranium detoxification in humans. There is no published data relating to the effectiveness or viability of these treatments in patients with 100 or 200 times the normal body burden of uranium such as the levels found in victims living in war-zones like Afghanistan. Since metal chelation depletes the body of micronutrients, which need to be replenished, and only removes a limited quantity of toxic elements such a course of treatment might extend over a period of many years. Therefore, a more practical solution like the development of uranium-specific chelating agents is necessary. However, simultaneously, metal chelation therapy is a costly and highly unpleasant treatment for patients to undergo. (I know this from personal experience)
Q. This is not sounding good. What are some of the environmental effects of Depleted Uranium and Uranium?
A. Uranium is known to be highly toxic to plants. Plants experience oxidative stress in response to heavy metals resulting in cellular damage and disruption of cellular homeostasis similar to that observed in animals and humans. As a result, they have evolved detoxification mechanisms mainly involving chelation and subcellular compartmentalization to minimize the toxic effects of heavy metal exposure, which means they accumulate the metals and can pass them on in food.
A distinct biological effect on wildlife has been observed for various isotopes of uranium. An irregular distribution of U-234 and U-238 has been found in the tissues of marine birds from the Polish area of the southern Baltic Sea. The highest accumulation occurs in the liver and other organs along with the feathers, while the smallest accumulation occurs in the skin and muscles with apparent interspecies differences. DU can cause adverse reproductive effects in terrestrial animals and the likelihood of this can range from 0.1% to 44% between various species.
Animal studies indicate reproductive toxicity and teratogenicity occur as a result of uranium exposure. Depleted Uranium displays estrogenic activity leading to an increased risk of fertility problems in mice and it can cause cell apoptosis in mouse kidney. Cell studies show that depleted uranium-uranyl chloride causes apoptosis in mouse macrophages and uranium promotes oxidative stress in rat lung epithelial cells which can also induce apoptosis. Events associated with apoptosis have been observed following uranyl acetate treatment of isolated rat kidney mitochondria.
Q. So, what is your final analysis, Dr. Moondust?
A. In conclusion, uranium contamination due to the continued use of depleted uranium weapons and nuclear accidents has potentially far-reaching consequences for humans and wildlife populations. In fact, Depleted Uranium could prove to be an unprecedented ecological hazard. Moreover, the remediation of uranium and other related radionuclide-contamination is an extremely complex and expensive biological and environmental problem. Currently, there is limited data available on effective remediation methods for the removal of uranium in contaminated areas. Furthermore, remediation measures are of indeterminate efficiency as the ratio of uranium contamination to soil, uptake by plant species, and the total body burden in humans increases. As a primary health and ecological measure, it is suggested that an immediate global ban should be placed on the use and manufacture of nuclear and DU weapons. Violators of the ban should be made to bear all remediation and public health costs. And, of course, there is always the option for us to conclude that war is not a desirable activity.
To listen to this interview with Dr. Moondust click here.
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