How the U.S. poisoned Iraq

MSNBC reports: Between 2002 and 2005, U.S. forces shot off 6 billion bullets in Iraq (something like 300,000 for every person killed). They also dropped 2,000 to 4,000 tons of bombs on Iraqi cities, leaving behind a witch’s brew of contaminants and toxic metals, including the neurotoxins lead and mercury. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an Iranian-born toxicologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, is studying the health impact, and her early findings are worrying. Last year, in a study published with Iraqi colleagues, she reported staggering increases in birth defects in the heavily bombarded cities of Basrah and Fallujah. The increases started in the early 90s, after the bombings of the first Gulf War, and continued right through 2011.

In Basrah, the group’s analysis of hospital records revealed 16-fold increase in birth defects among babies delivered between 1994 and 2003 (from 1.4 to 23 per 1,000 live births), and another 48% rise between 2003 to 2009 (from 23 to 48). Likewise, a survey of 56 families in Fallujah showed a 50% increase in birth defects between 1991 and 2010, along with an eightfold increase in miscarriages. Neurological defects are now pervasive in both cities. And though the causes are still uncertain, Savabieasfahani has cited lead and mercury as likely culprits. In Basrah, she found that teeth from malformed children contained three times more lead than teeth from normal ones. In Fallujah, children with birth defects harbored five times more lead than normal kids from the same city, and six times more mercury.

“The explosion of bombs creates fine metal-containing dust particles that linger in the air and can be inhaled by the public,” Savabieasfahani wrote in an essay for Al Jazeera last week. “Metals are persistent in the environment and metal-containing fine dust may be re-injected into the air periodically as a result of wind and air turbulence. Iraq is well known for its strong and frequent sandstorms, which can easily render contaminated dust airborne. Since war debris and the wreckage from ammunition and bombs remain unabated in the environment, the weathering process facilitates continuous metal release into the environment.”

Are Basrah and Fallujah just sentinels of a wider crisis? In an initial effort to find out, the World Health Organization has helped Iraq’s health ministry sample birth-defect incidence across eight regions of the country. The survey is reportedly finished, but the findings are still under review in Baghdad. (Our calls to the health ministry weren’t returned.) Whatever the survey turns up, Savabiesfahani is deeply worried about the trends already documented in Basrah and Fallujah. “We can’t wish this away,” she says. “We need immediate efforts to identify and clean up the sources of hazardous waste. We can’t let this fester the way Agent Orange did in Vietnam.” [Continue reading…]

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  1. What else can be expected from the country that puts pollution above the health of its own citizens. After all, the crap has to go somewhere.