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The U.S. war ended in December 2011, but families in numerous Iraqi cities are living with a dramatic rise in birth defects and cancer from chemical weapons that were detonated near homes, schools, and playgrounds.

Written by Eleanor J. Bader for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

It's said that wars never end for those whose lives they touch, and it's true. Take Iraq -- a place that surely proves the maxim that war is not healthy for children or other living things.

To wit: Despite the fact that the U.S. war with Iraq came to a close on December 18, 2011, families in numerous Iraqi cities are now living with a dramatic rise in birth defects and cancer from chemical weapons that were detonated near homes, schools, and playgrounds during the nearly seven-year conflict.

The cities of Babil, Basra, Falluja, Haweeja, and Najaf are cases in point. Let's start with Haweeja, which is 30 miles south of Kirkuk and was home to Forward Operating Base (FOB) McHenry throughout the war. Yifat Susskind is executive director of MADRE, a New York-based international women's human rights organization. Susskind says that Haweeja's skyrocketing health problems came to the group's attention when members of Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) -- MADRE's partner organization in that country -- began going house to house to talk about the need to establish a shelter for rape survivors.

"When they arrived, they noticed that almost every family they visited had a child under the age of 10 with stunted or paralyzed limbs, or who had been born without fingers or toes," Susskind says. "And they found teens who had been toddlers at the time of the U.S. invasion and were now sick with cancer. The OWFI activists were shocked and wanted to know what was going on, why this was happening."

What they uncovered points directly to U.S. culpability. Peace Alliance Winnipeg, for one, reports that beginning in 2004, the United States "tested all types of explosive devices on Iraqis -- thermobaric weapons, white phosphorus, depleted uranium."

The upshot, discussed in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, has been a monumental increase in cancer, leukemia, malignant brain tumors, and infant mortality. In Falluja alone, The Journal concludes that the rate of life-threatening illnesses and birth defects is "significantly greater than those reported for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945."

Yes, you read that correctly -- greater than the damage of an atomic bomb, a fact corroborated by a 2009 article in The Guardian newspaper. The article described a 38-fold increase in the number of cases of leukemia and a 15-fold increase in the number of newborns born with deformities during the first five years of the war, including limb malformations, neural tube defects, heart and vision anomalies, and a baby born with two heads. 

Not surprisingly, the miscarriage rate  throughout the country has mushroomed, and tumor clusters have been recognized in Basra and Najaf, intense battle zones where so-called modern munitions were heavily used.

In cities like Haweeja, where U.S. soldiers at FOB McHenry routinely detonated explosive devices, it was not uncommon for children to play, and for shepherds and sheep to walk, in grass-covered fields that were adjacent to the base. As they did so, they often tracked a fine dust containing the residue of depleted uranium (DU) from place to place. Microscopic particles from the blasts were spread by wind, and subsequently inhaled. These particles found their way into groundwater and soil, polluting the air and contaminating virtually everything they touched.

DU is, of course, lethal -- scientists estimate that it can remain radioactive for 4.5 billion years -- but it remains in use because it increases the penetration capacity of projectiles. DU is blamed for the cancer spike in the city of Babil, south of Baghdad, where the number of diagnosed cases went from 500 in 2004 to 9,082 in 2009. 

These facts point to a crisis of enormous proportions. At the same time, MADRE's Susskind makes clear that Iraq's problems are compounded by poverty and lack of access to affordable health care -- as well as by pervasive superstitions about the causes of illness. Widely held fallacies feed bias against the disabled, she says, making the task of organizing especially grueling.

"Iraq is a place where none of the work that has been done in other countries to promote disability rights has occurred, so there is still a lot of discrimination against the disabled," Susskind says.

"This gives us the tragic opportunity to organize to upset the stigma, to break down negative attitudes that exist, and to do community-based peer counseling to help parents overcome the fear, guilt, anger, and resentment they feel. The needs in the aftermath of this war are so huge." 

Susskind says that MADRE is is "working with OWFI on the three-pronged strategy that for now is exclusively focused on Haweeja: To raise $50,000 for direct services to begin meeting the immediate and long-term needs of the population that has been affected; to do a comprehensive public-health survey to give us hard data on the extent and range of the problems; and to explore a legal challenge to demand U.S. accountability for the crisis."

The challenge, Susskind continues, is made even more daunting by the fact that there is only one health clinic in Haweeja, a city of approximately 100,000 people. "We are studying models that have been used in other places with limited access to mental and physical health services," she says. "With OWFI we're trying to find community-based models that can train moms to help their kids, get medical aid to people, and enhance the population's awareness of the correlation between illness and the fact that their city was used as a munitions dumping ground. We want the people of the United States to understand that this crisis is a direct result of the U.S. military's disregard for the health of the people in Iraq."

Click here for more information about Madre's Haweeja project.

Click here to donate to help Haweeja. 

Click here to join MADRE's Haweeja Action Team. 

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Comment Preferences

  •  I read an article about this in the Independent. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    peace voter, Bob Love, phonegery

    The birth defect rate shot up dramatically in Fallujah and Basra, to the point where half of the children born in a survey were being born with defects.

    Half. And we're crowing on in foreign policy speeches about the Iraqis needing to "step up" and "take responsibility." This is utter barbarism, and it's funded with our taxes.

    "Growing up is for those who don't have the guts not to. Grow wise, grow loving, grow compassionate, but why grow up?" - Fiddlegirl

    by progressivist on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 01:14:36 PM PDT

  •  sickening, literally (4+ / 0-)

    U.S. soldiers were exposed as well, and will be suffering the effects for years.

    I believe that it will never be too late for the criminals who caused those crimes against humanity to occur, to be brought to justice, just as WW2 prosecutions continue to this day.

    This Rover crossed over.. Willie Nelson, written by Dorothy Fields

    by Karl Rover on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 01:16:40 PM PDT

  •  Depleted Uranium rounds used extensively (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bob Love, peace voter, phonegery

    Thousands and thousands of rounds of depleted uranium were fired in Iraq, even in cities with high population densities. People (including me) were saying Iraq would see just awful cancer rates. Sad to see the predictions come true.

    Depleted uranium is used because it is very dense and it combusts on impact. That's right, it burns, releasing a fine aerosol of radioactive material. But because its "primary purpose" is not to cause poisoning or asphyxiation, the international bans on chemical weapons somehow do not apply to DU.

    Many countries want to ban the use of depleted uranium rounds, but the US, France and the UK have vetoed those proposals.

  •  Chemicals from munitions very likely (0+ / 0-)

    do contribute to ill health effects from modern warfare.

    Blaming the radioactivity of DU in particular, however, greatly undermines your credibility.

    •  say what? (0+ / 0-)

      Are you claiming that the radioactivity in Uranium 238 does not weaken the immune sytem?

      Please clarify.


      "There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people." — Howard Zinn

      by peace voter on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 01:51:57 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm not saying that, that's what is in the peer (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        reviewed scientific literature.

        DU is for all intents and purposes non-radioactive (as should be obvious as soon as you see that it's half life is 4.5 billion years  . .).

        It is a toxic heavy metal, however, and there are believable reports that it can damage cells via chemical mechanisms.

        •  Uranium 235 is a radioactive alpha emitter (0+ / 0-)

          "DU is for all intents and purposes non-radioactive"

          ~ Roadbed Guy

          Look - something is radioactive or it's not radioactive

          Once ingested or inhaled the alpha radiation emitted by Uranium 238 is powerful enough to cause the DNA in nearby cells to unravel & mutate.


          "There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people." — Howard Zinn

          by peace voter on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 02:11:43 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  The carbon in your body is WAY more (0+ / 0-)

            radioactive than any DU that a person is exposed to.

            So, the question to you is - do you consider yourself to be radioactive?  I mean, you are.  Everyone is.  

            But, for all intents and purposes the level is low enough to not have any biological effect - that's what I"m saying for DU.

            Now, from a chemical perspective - ionizing radiation generates reactive oxygen species (ROS) that damage DNA.  In theory DU can do this - but in reality a given amount of DU will generate one million ROS by chemical mechanisms for every ONE (yes, a single one) generated through radioactive decay.  

            Thus, if DU is harming a biological system, it is one million times more likely to be doing so through a chemical and not a radiological mechanism.

        •  So spent fuel rods are completely harmless? (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          peace voter

          Why all the hoo-ha over them then?

          You may think that. I couldn't possibly comment.-- Francis Urqhart

          by Johnny Q on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 04:25:26 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Uranium 238 is radioactive (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Calling it "depleted" uranium may lead the uninformed to assume that the radioactivity has been depleted - not so

    After uranium has been processed in centrifuges to isolate fissile Uranium 235 to fuel commercial nuclear power plants,  so-called "depleted uranium is left over.

    The scheme to use the still radioactive Uranium 238 in weaponry turned out to be a massive de facto radioactive waste disposal program. How convenient.

    The half-life of this lethal substance is so great that we may as well say that DU is forever.

    What a terrible crime has been perpetrated on the people of Iraq in the name of the American people.


    "There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people." — Howard Zinn

    by peace voter on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 01:39:53 PM PDT

  •  I and a friend went down to the big (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    peace voter, phonegery

    Gulf War Fireworks and open house on the Mall, with both our small daughters in tow.

    There were helicopters and tanks and patriot missile launchers and they invited you to climb in, on, around all of it. And then I noticed the exterior of the tanks......and I asked a serviceman what the material was. Depleted Uranium.

    I said no thanks, and walked far away.

    Then we find out that virtually all of our bombs over there are coated in the stuff and when they detonate all the DU gets atomized into fine dust. Just effing great.

    I didn't need a study. DU is radioactive. I don't have that many half lives. Sorry. I wouldn't even stand next to tank coated with it, but the Iraqis [and who know who else] are breathing it in. Our soldiers. Our soldiers are sitting in tanks and loading munitions. It's awful.

    •  Depleted uranium is essentially nuclear waste. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      peace voter, WheninRome, phonegery

      Nothing can change that.

      You may think that. I couldn't possibly comment.-- Francis Urqhart

      by Johnny Q on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 01:55:50 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  If you were entirely surrounded by depleted (0+ / 0-)

      uranium, you'd actually be subjected to lower than background levels because DU blocks radiation (and has in fact been used as a radiation shield).  

      It boggles the mind that people don't seem to get/understand the implications of a 4.5 billion decay half life.

      •  DU is harmful INSIDE the body (0+ / 0-)

        Will you stipulate to that?


        "There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people." — Howard Zinn

        by peace voter on Thu Oct 25, 2012 at 08:41:45 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Not like uranium is a deadly poison (0+ / 0-)

        I mean, it's only the radioactivity that makes it so... what? It IS a highly toxic heavy metal, even without the radioactivity?

        HAH! But you'd have to ingest the stuff... what? The munitions burn and turn into an aerosol when used?!

        It boggles the mind that anyone would write an apologia for this stuff without understanding that the danger doesn't come from the radioactivity. Lead isn't radioactive either, but you won't see me breathing in a lead aerosol!

        Uranium is FAR more toxic than lead. It's also teratogenic, even without the radioactivity. It causes nasty, inheritable mutations. So, not only is everyone who served or lives over there at terrible risk, personally, any kids they have are likely to suffer as well.

  •  Are records of date/location of service (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Roadbed Guy

    in Iraq being checked against cancer rate in soldiers?

    Time is a long river.

    by phonegery on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 02:09:47 PM PDT

    •  Yes, that's being studied (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      with some reports out already, such as Radiological risk assessment of Capstone depleted uranium aerosols.

      Risks for crewmembers and first responders were determined for selected scenarios based on the time interval of exposure and for vehicle and armor type. The lung was the organ with the highest cancer mortality risk, accounting for about 97% of the risks summed from all organs. The highest mean lifetime risk for lung cancer for the scenario with the longest exposure time interval (2 h) was 0.42%. This risk is low compared with the natural or background risk of 7.35%.
      so, yes, for the personnel exposed for the longest time there is modest but likely real increase in the likelihood of getting lung cancer (and virtually ONLY lung cancer of all the possible types).

      It is worth emphasizing that this is from high levels of exposure obtained directly on the battlefield - the chances that large number of civilians were exposed level any roughly comparable are rather low.  But it's worth a shot claiming so, I suppose.

      •  I should point out that I reserve to right to (0+ / 0-)

        take issue with the title of this paper - which was written by  epidemiologists, not biochemists.

        Thus, while the effect they teased out of the data is most likely real, the inclusion of the word "radiological" in the title is way off base (because, like I stated in a different post, the DNA -damaging propensity of uranium is one million times greater via chemical as compared to radiological mechanisms).

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