Home / Opinion / Guest Article: The Truth Behind Birth Defects in Iraq
Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine

Guest Article: The Truth Behind Birth Defects in Iraq

Guest Contributor: Michael Shale

30th November 2013

The anti-depleted uranium movement sprung during the Balkan wars and has been central in anti-war outfits ever since. The anti-DU crowd capitalizes on public ignorance and fear about nuclear power to preach tales about depleted uranium causing cancer and birth defects. The most famous example is the now discredited claim about the Gulf War Syndrome: the idea that soldiers were plagued by exposure to DU. As the Telegraph reported, an “official scientific report” established that the “Gulf War Syndrome does not exist”.

Recently, the DU-myth has regrown its legs like a lizard monster from some Sy Fy Roger Corman movie. Al-Jazeera published an article claiming that DU and white phosphorus caused “sharp rises in congenital birth defects, cancer cases, and other illnesses throughout much of Iraq”. Similar claims were made in an article on ‘The Intel Hub’ which went viral.

Libels that the US was to blame for Iraqi afflictions predate 2003. The Baathist state, however, refused to allow full medical surveys that could pin down the cancer’s cause. If Iraq had been telling the truth, they could have jumped at the chance for international confirmation. Now Rania Kalek and Dahr Jamail are continuing a propaganda campaign begun by the former dictatorship.

All articles that advance the argument have no forensic evidence, conflate correlation and causation. Basra and Fallujah are two cities with extremely poor health and living standards without sewage systems. That means that homes in areas are swamped with stagnant waste which creates sickness directly afflicting genetics. Local rivers are filled with sewage which has similar affects. Other explanations are ignored.

Firstly, they ignore the possibility of chemical weapons causing health horrors. Basra was the site of heavy fighting between Iranian and Iraqi soldiers, the latter of whom engulfed the town in chemical weapons attacks. Halajaba is still experiencing extremely high birth defects from chemical weapons used during the same time period.

Secondly, Basra and Fallujah are situated on the Euphrates river. A 2011 study found that the river and soil have heavy concentrations of mercury. Mercury is more toxic than DU in any form and a leading cause of birth defects and cancer. The anti-DU activist would probably try to blame it on the war, but the w-word is not mentioned once in the study which attributes the mercury to “industry factories, urban runoff, sewage, agricultural activities”.

Thirdly, the oil well burnings were common in the Gulf and Iraq wars. When oil burns, it produces furans, dioxins, PCBs, gases and carcinogens. When the Baathist army burned oil well in Kuwait, they caused a Kuwaiti cancer epidemic. In 2003, the Rumaila oil field near Basra was set on fire and a could of carcinogenic particles descended on the city.

Wolfgang Hoffmann has been studying Iraqi health issues for years and stated that “birth defects often look very disturbing in photos, but they are always isolated cases and are not necessarily useful for identifying trends” or identifying causes. In one study, he compared data on Basrah in the 1990s to Basrah in the 21st century. He concluded that “no increase of childhood leukaemia could be detected for the governorate of Basrah”.

DU is legal under international law as is not banned by any treaty. Dr. Frank von Hippel concluded that if “a ton of depleted uranium dust for every square kilometer” was dropped on a country, the radiation would be just one one-hundredth, or 1 percent, of the naturally occurring level of radiation in the environment, while Dr. John Boice explained that it is “biologically impossible for depleted uranium to cause leukaemia”.

So where did the enriched uranium come from? The looting of nuclear facilities after Hussein’s overthrow released radiation and poisons. People either kept radiation or dumped barrels of radiation into rivers. Al-Jazeera itself had previously reported that “Iraqi citizens stole uranium and other dangerous materials.

Two Iraqi scientists discussed the looting of the Nuclear Authority after the war. One man explained that after the regime fell “there was anarchy” and “radioactive components were stolen, the employees of the Nuclear Authority started informing people that the materials that were stolen were indeed radioactive and should be returned”.

He explained that “tons of uranium, known as yellow cakes, were stored in barrels”. Other barrels stored “tens of tons of radioactive waste”. After the dictatorship fell, people “did not have containers to store drinking water, so they stole those barrels, each one containing 400 kilos of radioactive uranium. Some of them dumped the powder on the ground in very large quantities, and others took the contaminated barrels to their homes, and the barrels appeared in various areas. They stored water in them, and had every intention of drinking from them or using the barrels to sell milk.”

He visited a home where people were using these barrels to “to store tomatoes for eating, cooking utensils and other household utensils for everyday use, not knowing that some of them were contaminated”. People who realized the components were radioactive “dumped some of them in the river” further spreading radiation.

Evidence shows that the claims of DU or otherwise American materials causing cancer and birth defects are not valid. The anti-war movement tries to blame the coalition for the contamination, regardless of facts and hard truths. In this case, they exploit cancer and birth defect victims by using them to advance a lie devised by the former Hussein regime.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Human Security Centre.