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Depleted uranium

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Depleted uranium storage yard.
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Depleted uranium storage yard.

Depleted uranium (DU) is uranium that has a reduced proportion of the isotope Uranium-235. It is mostly made up of Uranium-238. The names Q-metal, depletalloy, and D-38, which once applied to depleted uranium, have fallen into disuse.

Its high strength and density have made it a valued component in some technical applications, specifically in military projectiles. Such uses remain controversial, as U-238 is still radioactive.

Contents

Sources

Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the enriching of natural uranium for use in nuclear reactors. When most of the fissile radioactive isotopes of uranium are removed from natural uranium, the residue is called depleted uranium. A less common source of the material is reprocessed spent reactor fuel. The origin can be distinguished by the content of uranium-236,[1] produced by neutron capture from uranium-235 in nuclear reactors.

As a toxic and radioactive waste product that requires long term storage as low level nuclear waste, depleted uranium is costly to keep but relatively inexpensive to obtain. Generally the only real costs are those associated with conversion of UF6 to metal. It is extremely dense, 67% denser than lead, only slightly less than tungsten and gold, and just 16% less dense than osmium or iridium, the densest naturally occurring substances known. Its low cost makes it attractive for a variety of uses. However, the material is prone to corrosion and small particles are pyrophoric. [2]

History

Depleted uranium was first stored in stockpiles in the 1940s when the U.S. and USSR began their nuclear weapons and nuclear power programs. While it is possible to design civilian power reactors with unenriched fuel, only about 10% of reactors ever built utilize that technology, and both nuclear weapons production and naval reactors require the concentrated isotope. Originally, DU was conserved in the hope that more efficient enrichment techniques would allow further extraction of the fissile isotope; however, those hopes have not materialized.

In the 1970s, The Pentagon reported that the Soviet military had developed armor plating for Warsaw Pact tanks that NATO ammunition couldn't penetrate. The Pentagon began searching for material to make denser bullets. After testing various metals, ordnance researchers settled on depleted uranium. DU was useful in ammunition not only because of its unique physical properties and effectiveness, but also because it was cheap and readily available. Tungsten, the only other candidate, had to be sourced from China. With DU stockpiles estimated to be more than 500,000 tons, the financial burden of housing this amount of low-level radioactive waste was very apparent. It was therefore more economical to use depleted uranium rather than storing it. Thus, from the late 1970s, the U.S., the Soviet Union, Britain and France, began converting their stockpiles of depleted uranium into kinetic energy penetrators.

Photographic evidence of destroyed equipment suggests that DU was first used during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Various written reports cite information that was obtained as a consequence of that use.[1]

However, while clearing the decades-old Hawaii Stryker firing range, workers have found chemical weapons from World War I era and depleted uranium ammunition from the 1960s [3].

The U.S. military used DU shells in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War (Associated Press, August 12, 2006, free archived copy at: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines06/0812-06.htm most recently visited November 1, 2006).

Production and availability

Natural uranium metal contains about 0.71% U-235, 99.28% U-238, and about 0.0054% U-234. In order to produce enriched uranium, the process of isotope separation removes a substantial portion of the U-235 for use in nuclear power, weapons, or other uses. The remainder, depleted uranium, contains only 0.2% to 0.4% U-235. Because natural uranium begins with such a low percentage of U-235, the enrichment process produces large quantities of depleted uranium. For example, producing 1 kg of 5% enriched uranium requires 11.8 kg of natural uranium, and leaves about 10.8 kg of depleted uranium with only 0.3% U-235 remaining.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) defines depleted uranium as uranium with a percentage of the 235U isotope that is less than 0.711% by weight (See 10 CFR 40.4.) The military specifications designate that the DU used by DoD contain less than 0.3% 235U (AEPI, 1995). In actuality, DoD uses only DU that contains approximately 0.2% 235U (AEPI, 1995).

World Depleted Uranium Inventory
Country Organization DU Stocks (in tonnes) Reported
United States USA DOE 480,000 2002
Russia Russia FAEA 460,000 1996
France France COGEMA 190,000 2001
Israel Israel BNFL 50,000 2001
United Kingdom UK BNFL 30,000 2001
Germany Germany URENCO 16,000 1999
Japan Japan JNFL 10,000 2001
People's Republic of China China CNNC 2,000 2000
South Korea South Korea KAERI 200 2002
South Africa South Africa NECSA 73 2001
TOTAL 1,188,273 2002
Source: WISE Uranium Project

Military applications

Approximate area and major clashes in which DU bullets and rounds were used in the Gulf War
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Approximate area and major clashes in which DU bullets and rounds were used in the Gulf War

Depleted uranium is very dense; at 19050 kg/m³, it is almost 70% denser than lead. Thus a given weight of it has a smaller diameter than an equivalent lead projectile, with less aerodynamic drag and deeper penetration due to a higher pressure at point of impact. DU projectile ordnance is often incendiary because of its pyrophoric property.

Armor plate

Because of its high density, depleted uranium can also be used in tank armor, sandwiched between sheets of steel armor plate. For instance, some late-production M1A1HA and M1A2 Abrams tanks built after 1998 have DU reinforcement as part of its armor plating in the front of the hull and the front of the turret and there is a program to upgrade the rest.

Ammunition

Most military use of depleted uranium has been as 30 mm and smaller ordnance, primarily the 30 mm PGU-14/B armour-piercing incendiary round from the GAU-8 Avenger cannon of the A-10 Thunderbolt II [4] used by the U.S. Air Force. 25 mm DU rounds have been used in the M242 gun mounted on the U.S. Army's Bradley Fighting Vehicle and LAV-AT. The U.S. Marine Corps uses DU in the 25 mm PGU-20 round fired by the GAU-12 Equalizer cannon of the AV-8B Harrier, and also in the 20 mm M197 gun mounted on AH-1 helicopter gunships. The US Navy's Phalanx CIWS's M61 Vulcan gatling gun used 20 mm armor-piercing penetrator rounds with discarding plastic sabots which were made using depleted uranium, later changed to tungsten.

Another use of depleted uranium is in kinetic energy penetrators anti-armor role. Kinetic energy penetrator rounds consist of a long, relatively thin penetrator surrounded by discarding sabot. Two materials lend themselves to penetrator construction: tungsten and depleted uranium, the latter in designated alloys known as staballoys. Staballoys are metal alloys of depleted uranium with a very small proportion of other metals, usually titanium or molybdenum. One formulation has a composition of 99.25% by weight of depleted uranium and 0.75% by weight of titanium. Another variant can have 3.5% by weight of titanium. Staballoys are about twice as dense as lead and are designed for use in kinetic energy penetrator armor-piercing ammunition. The US Army uses DU in an alloy with around 3.5% titanium.

Staballoys, along with lower raw material costs, have the advantage of being easy to melt and cast into shape; a difficult and expensive process for tungsten. Depleted uranium is favored for the penetrator because it is self-sharpening and pyrophoric. On impact with a hard target, such as an armoured vehicle, the nose of the rod fractures in such a way that it remains sharp. The impact and subsequent release of heat energy causes it to disintegrate to dust and burn when it reaches air because of its pyrophoric properties (compare to ferrocerium). After a disintegrated DU penetrator reaches the interior of an armored vehicle, it explodes, often igniting ammunition and fuel, incinerating the crew, and causing the vehicle to explode. DU is used by the U.S. Army in 120 mm or 105 mm cannons employed on the M1 Abrams and M60A3 tanks. The Russian military has used DU ammunition in tank main gun ammunition since the late 1970s, mostly for the 115 mm guns in the T-62 tank and the 125 mm guns in the T-64, T-72, T-80, and T-90 tanks.

1987 photo of Mark 149 Mod 2 20mm depleted uranium ammunition for the Phalanx CIWS aboard USS Missouri (BB-63).
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1987 photo of Mark 149 Mod 2 20mm depleted uranium ammunition for the Phalanx CIWS aboard USS Missouri (BB-63).

The DU content in various ammunition is 180 g in 20 mm projectiles, 200 g in 25 mm ones, 280g in 30 mm, 3.5 kg in 105 mm, and 4.5 kg in 120 mm penetrators. It is used in the form of Staballoy. The US Navy used DU in its 20 mm Phalanx CIWS guns, but switched in the late 1990s to armor-piercing tungsten for this application, because of the fire risk associated with stray pyrophoric rounds. DU was used during the mid-1990s in the U.S. to make 9 mm and similar caliber armor piercing bullets, grenades, cluster bombs, and mines, but those applications have been discontinued, according to Alliant Techsystems. Whether or not other nations still make such use of DU is difficult to determine.

It is thought that between 17 and 20 states have weapons incorporating depleted uranium in their arsenals. They include the USA, the UK, France, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, Thailand, Iraq and Taiwan. DU ammunition is manufactured in 18 countries. While only the US and the UK have acknowledged using DU weapons, its use by other states cannot be excluded[2].

Legal status in weapons

In 1996 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave an advisory opinion on the "legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons".[3] This made it clear, in paragraphs 54, 55 and 56, that international law on poisonous weapons, – the Second Hague Declaration of 29 July 1899, Hague Convention IV of 18 October 1907 and the Geneva Protocol of 17 June 1925 – did not cover nuclear weapons, because their prime or exclusive use was not to poison or asphyxiate. This ICJ opinion was about nuclear weapons, but the sentence "The terms have been understood, in the practice of States, in their ordinary sense as covering weapons whose prime, or even exclusive, effect is to poison or asphyxiate." also removes depleted uranium weaponry from coverage by the same treaties as their primary use is not to poison or asphyxiate, but to destroy materiel and kill soldiers through kinetic energy.

The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities of the United Nations Human Rights Commission[4], passed two motions [5] the first in 1996[6] and the second in 1997[7]. They listed weapons of mass destruction, or weapons with indiscriminate effect, or of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering and urged all states to curb the production and the spread of such weapons. Included in the list was weaponry containing depleted uranium. The committee authorized a working paper, in the context of human rights and humanitarian norms, of the weapons. The requested UN working paper was delivered in 2002[8] by Y.K.J. Yeung Sik Yuen in accordance with Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights resolution 2001/36. He argues that the use of DU in weapons, along with the other weapons listed by the Sub‑Commission, may breach one or more of the following treaties: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Charter of the United Nations; the Genocide Convention; the United Nations Convention Against Torture; the Geneva Conventions including Protocol I; the Convention on Conventional Weapons of 1980; and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Yeung Sik Yuen writes in Paragraph 133 under the title "Legal compliance of weapons containing DU as a new weapon":

Annex II to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material 1980 (which became operative on 8 February 1997) classifies DU as a category II nuclear material. Storage and transport rules are set down for that category which indicates that DU is considered sufficiently “hot” and dangerous to warrant these protections. But since weapons containing DU are relatively new weapons no treaty exists yet to regulate, limit or prohibit its use. The legality or illegality of DU weapons must therefore be tested by recourse to the general rules governing the use of weapons under humanitarian and human rights law which have already been analysed in Part I of this paper, and more particularly at paragraph 35 which states that parties to Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 have an obligation to ascertain that new weapons do not violate the laws and customs of war or any other international law. As mentioned, the ICJ considers this rule binding customary humanitarian law.

In 2001, Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, said that NATO's use of depleted uranium in former Yugoslavia could be investigated as a possible war crime[9]. Louise Arbour, del Ponte's predecessor as chief prosecutor, had created a small, internal committee, made up of staff lawyers, to assess the allegation. Their findings, that were accepted and endorsed by del Ponte,[10] concluded that:

There is no specific treaty ban on the use of DU projectiles. There is a developing scientific debate and concern expressed regarding the impact of the use of such projectiles and it is possible that, in future, there will be a consensus view in international legal circles that use of such projectiles violate general principles of the law applicable to use of weapons in armed conflict. No such consensus exists at present. (Emphasis added)[11]

Civilian applications

Civilian applications for depleted uranium are fairly limited and are typically unrelated to its radioactive properties. It primarily finds application as ballast because of its high density. Such applications include sailboat keels, as counterweights and sinker bars in oil drills, gyroscope rotors, and in other places where there is a need to place a weight that occupies as little space as possible. Other relatively minor consumer product uses have included: incorporation into dental porcelain used for false teeth to simulate the fluorescence of natural teeth; and in uranium-bearing reagents used in chemistry laboratories.

Uranium was widely used as a coloring matter for porcelain and glass in the 19th century. The practice was believed to be a matter of history, however in 1999 concentrations of 10% depleted uranium were found in "jaune no.17" a yellow enamel powder that was being produced in France by Cristallerie de Saint-Paul, a manufacturer of enamel pigments. The depleted uranium used in the powder was sold by Cogéma's Pierrelatte facility. Cogema has since confirmed that it has made a decision to stop the sale of depleted uranium to producers of enamel and glass. [5]

DU is also used for shielding for radiation sources used in medical and industrial radiography.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations at 10 CFR 40.25 establish mandatory licensing for the use of depleted uranium contained in industrial products or devices for mass-volume applications. Other jurisdictions have similar regulations

Trim weights in aircraft

Aircraft may also contain depleted uranium trim weights (a Boeing 747-100 may contain 400 to 1,500 kg). This application of DU is controversial. If an aircraft crashes there is concern that the uranium would enter the environment: the metal can oxidize to a fine powder in a fire. While arguably other hazardous materials released from a burning commercial aircraft overshadow the contributions made by DU, its use has been phased out in many newer aircraft, Both Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas discontinued using DU counterweights in the 1980s.

Uranium hexafluoride

About 95% of the depleted uranium produced is stored as uranium hexafluoride, (D)UF6, in steel cylinders in open air yards close to enrichment plants. Each cylinder contains up to 12.7 tonnes (or 14 US tons) of UF6. In the U.S. alone, 560,000 tonnes of depleted UF6 had accumulated by 1993. In 2005, 686,500 tonnes in 57,122 storage cylinders were located near Portsmouth, Ohio, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Paducah, Kentucky. [6], [7] The long-term storage of DUF6 presents environmental, health, and safety risks because of its chemical instability. When UF6 is exposed to moist air, it reacts with the water in the air to produce UO2F2 (uranyl fluoride) and HF (hydrogen fluoride) both of which are highly soluble and toxic. Storage cylinders must be regularly inspected for signs of corrosion and leaks. The estimated life time of the steel cylinders is measured in decades. [8]

Hexafluoride tank leaking.
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Hexafluoride tank leaking.

There have been several accidents involving uranium hexafluoride in the United States. [9] The U.S. government has been converting DUF6 to solid uranium oxides for disposal. [10] Such disposal of the entire DUF6 inventory could cost anywhere from 15 to 450 million dollars. [11]

Health considerations

The radiological dangers of pure depleted uranium are relatively low, lower (60%) than those of naturally-occurring uranium due to the removal of the more radioactive isotopes, as well as due to its long half-life (4.46 billion years). Depleted uranium differs from natural uranium in its isotopic composition, but its biochemistry is for the most part the same.

For further details see Actinides in the environment.

Depleted uranium is not a significant health hazard unless it is taken into the body. External exposure to radiation from depleted uranium is generally not a major concern because the alpha particles emitted by its isotopes travel only a few centimeters in air or can be stopped by a sheet of paper. Also, the uranium-235 that remains in depleted uranium emits only a small amount of low-energy gamma radiation. According to the World Health Organization, a radiation dose from it would be about 60% of that from purified natural uranium with the same mass.

Health effects of DU are determined by factors such as the extent of exposure and whether it was internal or external. Three main pathways exist by which internalization of uranium may occur: inhalation, ingestion, and embedded fragments or shrapnel contamination. Properties such as phase (e.g. particulate or gaseous), oxidation state (e.g. metallic or ceramic), and the solubility of uranium and its compounds influence their absorption, distribution, translocation, elimination and the resulting toxicity. For example, metallic uranium is relatively non-toxic compared to hexavalent uranium(VI) compounds such as uranyl nitrate. (See «Gmelin Handbuch der anorganischen Chemiek» 8th edition, English translation, Gmelin Handbook of Inorganic Chemistry, vol. U-A7 (1982) pp. 300-322.)

Uranium is pyrophoric when finely divided. It will corrode under the influence of air and water producing insoluble uranium(IV) and soluble uranium(VI) salts. Soluble uranium salts are toxic. Uranium accumulates in several organs, such as the liver, spleen, and kidneys. The World Health Organization has established a daily "tolerated intake" of soluble uranium salts for the general public of 0.5 µg/kg body weight (or 35 µg for a 70 kg adult.)

The chemical toxicity of uranium salts is greater than their radiological toxicity. Its radiological hazards are dependent on the purity of the uranium, and there has been some concern that depleted uranium produced as a by-product of nuclear reprocessing may be contaminated with more dangerous isotopes: this should not be a concern for depleted uranium produced as tailings from initial uranium enrichment.

Early scientific studies usually found no link between depleted uranium and cancer, and sometimes found no link with increases in the rate of birth defects, but newer studies have and offered explanation of birth defect links. There is no direct proof that uranium causes birth defects in humans, but it induces them in several other species of mammals, and human epidemiological evidence is consistent with increased risk of birth defects in the offspring of persons exposed to DU.[12]. Environmental groups and others have expressed concern about the health effects of depleted uranium[13], and there is significant debate over the matter. Some people have raised concerns about the use of this material, particularly in munitions, because of its proven mutagenicity [14], teratogenicity [15],[16] in mice, and neurotoxicity [17], and its suspected carcinogenic potential, because it remains radioactive for an exceedingly long time with a half-life of approximately 4.5 billion years; and because it is also toxic in a manner similar to lead and other heavy metals.

Early studies of depleted uranium aerosol exposure assumed that uranium combustion product particles would quickly settle out of the air[18] and thus could not affect populations more than a few kilometers from target areas[19], and that such particles, if inhaled, would remain undissolved in the lung for a great length of time and thus could be detected in urine[20]

By contrast, other studies have shown that DU ammunition has no measurable detrimental health effects, either in the short or long term. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in 2003 that, "based on credible scientific evidence, there is no proven link between DU exposure and increases in human cancers or other significant health or environmental impacts," although "Like other heavy metals, DU is potentially poisonous. In sufficient amounts, if DU is ingested or inhaled it can be harmful because of its chemical toxicity. High concentration could cause kidney damage." [21]

In October, 1992, an El Al Boeing 747-F cargo aircraft crashed in a suburb of Amsterdam. After reports of local residents and rescue workers complaining of health issues related to the release of depleted uranium used as counterbalance in the plane, authorities began an epidemiological study in 2000 of those believed to be affected by the accident. The study concluded that because exposure levels were so low, it was highly improbable that exposure to depleted uranium was the cause of the reported health complaints.

Gulf War syndrome

Main article: Gulf War syndrome

Increased rates of immune system disorders and other wide-ranging symptoms have been reported in combat veterans of the 1991 Gulf War. It has not always been clear whether these were related to Gulf War service, but combustion products from depleted uranium munitions is still being considered as a potential cause by the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, as DU was used in tank kinetic energy penetrator and machine-gun bullets on a large scale for the first time in the Gulf War.

Most experts in health physics consider it unlikely that depleted uranium has any connection with the Gulf War Syndrome if such an illness exists at all. A two year study headed by Sandia National Laboratories’ Al Marshall analyzed potential health effects associated with accidental exposure to depleted uranium during the 1991 Gulf War. Marshall’s study concluded that the reports of serious health risks from DU exposure are not supported by veteran medical statistics and were consistent with earlier studies from Los Alamos and the New England Journal of Medicine [12].

Soldier complaints

American soldiers are complaining of injuries that they attribute to depleted uranium. In early 2004, the UK Pensions Appeal Tribunal Service attributed birth defect claims from a February 1991 Gulf War combat veteran to depleted uranium poisoning.[13][14]

The US and UK governments have been attempting to monitor Gulf War veteran uranium exposure using urine tests.[15] Urine assay for uranium inhalation exposure can be useful, provided that measurements are made soon after a known acute intake. The urinary excretion rate falls substantially after exposure, particularly during the first few days. If urine analysis is carried out on a routine basis not related to the pattern of intake, then the errors in the assessment of intake can be considerable.[16] Exposure to teratogens may be measured by karyotype tests such as those most often provided for biopsy and amniocentesis. Soluble and most partially-soluble uranyl compounds affect gonadal chromosomes in proportion to the extent that they affect white blood cell chromosomes.[17] Uranyl poisoning causes immune system disorders and may cause cancer.[18]

Further reading

Scientific bodies

United Nations

Scientific reports

Other publications

Video

Footnotes

  1. ^ Doug Rokke Depleted Uranium: Uses and Hazards (PDF) an updated version of the paper presented in the British House of Commons on December 16, 1999
  2. ^ The International Legality of the Use of Depleted Uranium Weapons: A Precautionary Approach, Avril McDonald, Jann K. Kleffner and Brigit Toebes, eds. (TMC Asser Press Fall-2003)
  3. ^ legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons
  4. ^ Citizen Inspectors Foiled in Search for DU Weapons
  5. ^ Depleted Uranium UN Resolutions
  6. ^ Sub-Commission resolution 1996/16
  7. ^ Sub-Commission resolution 1997/36
  8. ^ E/CN.4/Sub.2/2002/38 Human rights and weapons of mass destruction, or with indiscriminate effect, or of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering (backup) "In its decision 2001/36 of 16 August 2001, the Sub‑Commission, recalling its resolutions 1997/36 and 1997/37 of 28 August 1997, authorized Mr. Y.K.J. Yeung Sik Yuen to prepare, without financial implications, in the context of human rights and humanitarian norms, the working paper originally assigned to Ms. Forero Ucros."
  9. ^ The Associated Press & Reuters contributed to this report: Use of DU weapons could be war crime CNN January 14, 2001
  10. ^ Joe Sills et al Environmental Crimes in Military Actions and the International Criminal. Court(ICC)-United Nations Perspectives (PDF) (HTML) of American Council for the UN University, April 2002. Page 28
  11. ^ The Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign Against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: Use of Depleted Uranium Projectiles
  12. ^ An Analysis of Uranium Dispersal and Health Effects Using a Gulf War Case Study, Albert C. Marshall, Sandia National Laboratories
  13. ^ Williams, M. (February 9, 2004) "First Award for Depleted Uranium Poisoning Claim," The Herald Online, (Edinburgh: Herald Newspapers, Ltd.)
  14. ^ Campaign Against Depleted Uranium (Spring, 2004) "MoD Forced to Pay Pension for DU Contamination," CADU News 17 (quarterly newsletter at http://www.cadu.org.uk/ .)
  15. ^ Depleted Uranium Oversight Board (2006) "Summary of DUOB Activities," on www.duob.org.uk, accessed November 16, 2006.
  16. ^ Ansoborlo E (1998). "Exposure implications for uranium aerosols formed at a new laser enrichment facility: application of the ICRP respiratory tract and systemic model". Radiation Protection Dosimetry 79: 23-27.
  17. ^ Schröder H, Heimers A, Frentzel-Beyme R, Schott A, Hoffman W (2003). "Chromosome Aberration Analysis in Peripheral Lymphocytes of Gulf War and Balkans War Veterans". Radiation Protection Dosimetry 103: 211-219.
  18. ^ Wan, B., et al. (2006) "In vitro immune toxicity of depleted uranium: effects on murine macrophages, CD4+ T cells, and gene expression profiles," Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(1), pp. 85-91; PMID 16393663.
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