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Embedded fragments from U.S. military personnel--chemical analysis and potential health implications.

Publication Status: Published

Sponsoring Organization: Defense Health Agency (formerly TRICARE Management Activity)

Sponsoring Office: Joint Pathology Center

Congressionally Mandated: No

Funding Source: Agency, office or organization under authority of the Sec Def (not affiliated to Army, Navy, or Air Force)

Release Date/Publication:

Principle Investigator Status: Government

Primary DoD Data Source: Other

Secondary DoD Data Source:


BACKGROUND: The majority of modern war wounds are characterized by high-energy blast injuries containing a wide range of retained foreign materials of a metallic or composite nature. Health effects of retained fragments range from local or systemic toxicities to foreign body reactions or malignancies, and dependent on the chemical composition and corrosiveness of the fragments in vivo. Information obtained by chemical analysis of excised fragments can be used to guide clinical decisions regarding the need for fragment removal, to develop therapeutic interventions, and to better anticipate future medical problems from retained fragment related injuries. In response to this need, a new U.S Department of Defense (DOD) directive has been issued requiring characterization of all removed fragments to provide a database of fragment types occurring in combat injuries.

OBJECTIVES: The objective of this study is to determine the chemical composition of retained embedded fragments removed from injured military personnel, and to relate results to histological findings in tissue adjacent to fragment material.

METHODS: We describe an approach for the chemical analysis and characterization of retained fragments and adjacent tissues, and include case examples describing fragments containing depleted uranium (DU), tungsten (W), lead (Pb), and non-metal foreign bodies composed of natural and composite materials. Fragments obtained from four patients with penetrating blast wounds to the limbs were studied employing a wide range of chemical and microscopy techniques. Available adjacent tissues from three of the cases were histologically, microscopically, and chemically examined. The physical and compositional properties of the removed foreign material surfaces were examined with energy dispersive x-ray fluorescence spectrometry (EDXRF), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), laser ablation inductively-coupled plasma mass-spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS), and confocal laser Raman microspectroscopy (CLRM). Quantitative chemical analysis of both fragments and available tissues was conducted employing ICP-MS.

RESULTS: Over 800 fragments have been characterized and included as part of the Joint Pathology Center Embedded Fragment Registry. Most fragments were obtained from penetrating wounds sustained to the extremities, particularly soft tissue injuries. The majority of the fragments were primarily composed of a single metal such as iron, copper, or aluminum with traces of antimony, titanium, uranium, and lead. One case demonstrated tungsten in both the fragment and the connected tissue, together with lead. Capsular tissue and fragments from a case from the 1991 Kuwait conflict showed evidence of uranium that was further characterized by uranium isotopic ratios analysis to contain depleted uranium.

CONCLUSIONS: The present study provides a systematic approach for obtaining a full chemical characterization of retained embedded fragments. Given the vast number of combat casualties with retained fragments, it is expected that fragment analysis will have significant implications for the optimal short and long-term care of wounded service members.


Centeno JA, Rogers DA, van der Voet GB, Fornero E, Zhang L et. al. Embedded fragments from U.S. military personnel--chemical analysis and potential health implications. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2014 Jan 23;11(2):1261-78.

Last Updated: July 11, 2023
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