by Rania Khalek on March 20, 2013
The United States may be finished dropping bombs on Iraq, but Iraqi bodies will be dealing with the consequences for generations to come in the form of birth defects, mysterious illnesses and skyrocketing cancer rates.
Al Jazeera’s Dahr Jamail reports that contamination from U.S. weapons, particularly Depleted Uranium (DU) munitions, has led to an Iraqi health crisis of epic proportions. “[C]hildren being born with two heads, children born with only one eye, multiple tumours, disfiguring facial and body deformities, and complex nervous system problems,” are just some of the congenital birth defects being linked to military-related pollution.
In certain Iraqi cities, the health consequences are significantly worse than those seen in the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Japan at the end of WWII.
The highest rates are in the city of Fallujah, which underwent two massive US bombing campaigns in 2004. Though the U.S. initially denied it, officials later admitted using white phosphorous. In addition, U.S. and British forces unleashed an estimated 2,000 tons of depleted uranium ammunitions in populated Iraqi cities in 2003.
DU, a chemically toxic heavy metal produced in nuclear waste, is used in weapons due to its ability to pierce through armor. That’s why the US and UK were among a handful of nations (France and Israel) who in December refused to sign an international agreement to limit its use, insisting DU is not harmful, science be damned. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s refusal to release details about where DU munitions were fired has made it difficult to clean up.
Today, 14.7 percent of Fallujah’s babies are born with a birth defect, 14 times the documented rate in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fallujah’s babies have also experienced heart defects 13 times the European rate and nervous system defects 33 times that of Europe. That comes on top of a 12-fold rise in childhood cancer rates since 2004. Furthermore, the male-to-female birth ratio is now 86 boys for every 100 girls, indicating genetic damage that affects males more than females.
(On a side note, these pictures are rather sanitized compared to other even more difficult to look at images. See here if you can bear it.)
If Fallujah is the Iraqi Hiroshima, then Basra is its Nagasaki.
According to a study published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, a professional journal based in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg, there was a sevenfold increase in the number of birth defects in Basra between 1994 and 2003.
According to the Heidelberg study, the concentration of lead in the milk teeth of sick children from Basra was almost three times as high as comparable values in areas where there was no fighting.
In addition, never before has such a high rate of neural tube defects (“open back”) been recorded in babies as in Basra, and the rate continues to rise. According to the study, the number of hydrocephalus (“water on the brain”) cases among new-borns is six times as high in Basra as it is in the United States.
This isn’t isolated to Fallujah and Basra. The overall Iraqi cancer rate has also skyrocketed:
Official Iraqi government statistics show that, prior to the outbreak of the First Gulf War in 1991, the rate of cancer cases in Iraq was 40 out of 100,000 people. By 1995, it had increased to 800 out of 100,000 people, and, by 2005, it had doubled to at least 1,600 out of 100,000 people. Current estimates show the increasing trend continuing.
As Grist’s Susie Cagle points out, “That’s potentially a more than 4,000 percent increase in the cancer rate, making it more than 500 percent higher than the cancer rate in the U.S.“
Dr. Mozghan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told Jamail that “These observations collectively suggest an extraordinary public health emergency in Iraq. Such a crisis requires urgent multifaceted international action to prevent further damage to public health.”
Instead, the international community, including the nation most responsible for the health crisis (hint: it starts with a “U” and ends with an “S”), is mostly ignoring the problem.
To make matters worse, Iraq’s healthcare system, which was once the envy of the region, is virtually nonexistent due to the mass exodus of Iraq’s medical doctors since 2003. According to recent estimates, there are currently fewer than 100 psychiatrists and 20,0000 physicians serving a population of 31 million Iraqis.
Dahr Jamail was on Democracy Now this morning discussing the horrific effects of military-related pollution in Iraq:
Yanar Mohammad, President of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq was also on Democracy Now and addressed the toxic legacy of birth defects in Iraq. (I interviewed Mohammed for a piece I wrote for Muftah about the deterioration of Iraqi women’s rights since the invasion, which you can read here.)