Two US-led wars in Iraq have left behind hundreds of tonnes of depleted uranium munitions and other toxic wastes.
Bombsites like this one in Fallujah remain toxic and likely continue to cause illnesses [Dahr Jamail/Al Jazeera]
This report contains photos of a graphic nature.
Fallujah, Iraq – Contamination from Depleted Uranium (DU) munitions and other military-related pollution is suspected of causing a sharp rises in congenital birth defects, cancer cases, and other illnesses throughout much of Iraq.
Many prominent doctors and scientists contend that DU contamination is also connected to the recent emergence of diseases that were not previously seen in Iraq, such as new illnesses in the kidney, lungs, and liver, as well as total immune system collapse. DU contamination may also be connected to the steep rise in leukaemia, renal, and anaemia cases, especially among children, being reported throughout many Iraqi governorates.
There has also been a dramatic jump in miscarriages and premature births among Iraqi women, particularly in areas where heavy US military operations occurred, such as Fallujah.
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 shocking as these statistics are, due to a lack of adequate documentation, research, and reporting of cases, the actual rate of cancer and other diseases is likely to be much higher than even these figures suggest.
“Cancer statistics are hard to come by, since only 50 per cent of the healthcare in Iraq is public,” Dr Salah Haddad of the Iraqi Society for Health Administration and Promotion told Al Jazeera. “The other half of our healthcare is provided by the private sector, and that sector is deficient in their reporting of statistics. Hence, all of our statistics in Iraq must be multiplied by two. Any official numbers are likely only half of the real number.”
Dr Haddad believes there is a direct correlation between increasing cancer rates and the amount of bombings carried out by US forces in particular areas.
“My colleagues and I have all noticed an increase in Fallujah of congenital malformations, sterility, and infertility,” he said. “In Fallujah, we have the problem of toxics introduced by American bombardments and the weapons they used, like DU.”
During 2004, the US military carried out two massive military sieges of the city of Fallujah, using large quantities of DU ammunition, as well as white phosphorous.
“We are concerned about the future of our children being exposed to radiation and other toxic materials the US military have introduced into our environment,” Dr Haddad added.
A frequently cited epidemiological study titled Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005-2009involved a door-to-door survey of more than 700 Fallujah households.
The research team interviewed Fallujans about abnormally high rates of cancer and birth defects.
One of the authors of the study, Chemist Chris Busby, said that the Fallujah health crisis represented “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied”.
Dr Mozghan Savabieasfahani is an environmental toxicologist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is the author of more than two dozen peer reviewed articles, most of which deal with the health impact of toxicants and war pollutants. Her research now focuses on war pollution and the rising epidemic of birth defects in Iraqi cities.
“After bombardment, the targeted population will often remain in the ruins of their contaminated homes, or in buildings where metal exposure will continue,” Dr Savabieasfahani told Al Jazeera.
“Our research in Fallujah indicated that the majority of families returned to their bombarded homes and lived there, or otherwise rebuilt on top of the contaminated rubble of their old homes. When possible, they also used building materials that were salvaged from the bombarded sites. Such common practices will contribute to the public’s continuous exposure to toxic metals years after the bombardment of their area has ended.”
She pointed out how large quantities of DU bullets, as well as other munitions, were released into the Iraqi environment.
“Between 2002 and 2005, the US armed forces expended six billion bullets – according to the figures of the US General Accounting Office,” she added.
According to Dr Savabieasfahani, metal contaminants in war zones originate from bombs and bullets, as well as from other explosive devices. Metals, most importantly lead, uranium, and mercury, are used in the manufacture of munitions, and all of these contribute to birth defects, immunological disorders, and other illnesses.
“Our study in two Iraqi cities, Fallujah and Basra, focused on congenital birth defects,” she said.
Her research showed that both studies found increasing numbers of birth defects, especially neural tube defects and congenital heart defects. It also revealed public contamination with two major neurotoxic metals, lead and mercury.
“The Iraq birth defects epidemic is, however, surfacing in the context of many more public health problems in bombarded cities,” she said. “Childhood leukemia, and other types of cancers, are increasing in Iraq.”
Doctors in Fallujah are continuing to witness the aforementioned steep rise in severe congenital birth defects, including children being born with two heads, children born with only one eye, multiple tumours, disfiguring facial and body deformities, and complex nervous system problems.
Today in Fallujah, residents are reporting to Al Jazeera that many families are too scared to have children, as an alarming number of women are experiencing consecutive miscarriages and deaths with critically deformed and ill newborns.
She told Al Jazeera of cases of “thanatophoric displacia”, an abnormality in bones and the rib cage that “render the newborn incompatible with life”.
The hospital where Alani does her work was constructed in the Dhubadh district of Fallujah in 2008. According to Alani, the district was bombed heavily during the November 2004 siege.