Mystery in Iraq Are US Munitions to Blame for Basra Birth Defects?
The guns have been silent in Iraq for years, but in Basra and Fallujah the number of birth defects and cancer cases is on the rise. Locals believe that American uranium-tipped munitions are to blame and some researchers think they might be right.
It sounds at first as if the old man were drunk. Or perhaps as though he had been reading Greek myths. But Askar Bin Said doesn't read anything, especially not books, and there is no alcohol in Basra. In fact, he says, he saw the creatures he describes with his own eyes: "Some had only one eye in the forehead. Or two heads. One had a tail like a skinned lamb. Another one looked like a perfectly normal child, but with a monkey's face. Or the girl whose legs had grown together, half fish, half human."
The babies Askar Bin Said describes were brought to him. He washed them and wrapped them in shrouds, and then he buried them in the dry soil, littered with bits of plastic and can lids, of his own cemetery, which has been in his family for five generations. It's a cemetery only for children.
Though they are small, the graves are crowded so tightly together that they are almost on top of one another. They look as if someone had overturned toy wheelbarrows full of cement and then scratched the names and dates of death into it before it hardened. In many cases, there isn't even room for the birth date. But it doesn't really matter, because in most cases the two dates are the same.
There are several thousand graves in the cemetery, and another five to 10 are added every day. The large number of graves is certainly conspicuous, says Bin Said. But, he adds, there "really isn't an explanation" for why there are so many dead and deformed newborn babies in Basra.
Others, though, do have an idea why. According to a study published in September 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. Of 1,000 live births, 23 had birth defects.
Double and Triple Cancers
Similarly high values are reported from Fallujah, a city that was fiercely contested in the 2003 war. 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.
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. The number of hydrocephalus ("water on the brain") cases among newborns is six times as high in Basra as it is in the United States, the study concludes.
Jawad al-Ali has worked as a cancer specialist at the Sadr Teaching Hospital (formerly the Saddam Hospital), housed in a sinister-looking building in Basra, since 1991. He remembers the period after the first Gulf war over Kuwait. "It isn't just that the number of cancer cases suddenly increased. We also had double and triple cancers, that is, patients with tumors on both kidneys and in the stomach. And there were also familial clusters, that is, entire families that were affected." He is convinced that this relates to the use of uranium ammunition. "There is a connection between cancer and radiation. Sometimes it takes 10 or 20 years before the consequences manifest themselves."
The term uranium ammunition refers to projectiles whose alloys or cores are made with "depleted," or weakly radioactive uranium, also known as DU. When German soldiers are deployed overseas, they are given the following information: "Uranium munitions are armor-piercing projectiles with a core of depleted uranium. Because of its high density, this core provides the projectile with very high momentum and enables it to pierce the armor of combat tanks."
When DU explodes, it produces a very fine uranium dust. When children play near wrecked tanks, they can absorb this dust through their skin, their mouths and their airways. A 2002 study at the University of Bremen in northern Germany found that chromosomal changes had occurred in Gulf war veterans who had come into contact with uranium ammunition.
The German Defense Ministry counters that it isn't the radiation that constitutes a health threat, but the "chemical toxicity of uranium."
Living in a Garbage Dump
London's Royal Society presented one of the most comprehensive studies on the issue in 2002, but it only addressed the potential threat to soldiers. It concluded that the risk of radiation damage is "very low," as is the risk of chronic kidney toxicity from uranium dust.
This may reassure soldiers, but not Mohammed Haidar. He lives in Kibla, a district in Basra which, like others in the city, resembles nothing so much as a garbage dump. Kibla is a neighborhood of squalid, make-shift shops and shacks -- with shimmering, greenish liquid flowing through open sewers and plastic containers filled with rotting material.
Haidar, who teaches mathematics at a high school, could afford to live in a better neighborhood. But he spends every spare dinar on treatment for his daughter Rukya. The three-year-old is sitting on his lap, resembling a ventriloquist's doll. She is an adorable little girl with pigtails and ribbons in her hair. But she can't walk or speak properly.
When Haidar turns his daughter around, two openings in her back become visible. She has a cleft spine, the externally visible sign of hydrocephalus, as well as an implanted drainage tube to remove excess cerebrospinal fluid. In Germany, children with cases like hers are often treated with prenatal surgery, but not in Basra. In fact, Haidar and his wife are glad that Rukya is even alive. She is their first and only child. "We both grew up in Basra. I hold the United States responsible. They used DU. My child isn't an isolated case," Haidar says.
The term "DU" seems to be just as widespread in Basra as birth defects are.
DU ammunition was used twice in the Basra district: outside the city in the 1991 war, and in the city proper in 2003, when British troops were advancing toward the airport. West Basra is the urban district with the highest incidence of leukemia among infants.
"Those who were children in the first war are adults today," says Khairiya Abu Yassin of the city's environmental agency. She estimates that 200 tons of DU ammunition were used in Basra. The Defense Ministry in London claims that British troops used only about two tons of DU ammunition during the war. Either way, the remains of tanks destroyed in the war with the help of DU ammunition littered the streets until 2008.
It was impossible to keep children and salvagers away from the wrecks, says Abu Yassin. "We installed signs that read: Caution -- Radiation. But people don't take a threat seriously when it doesn't act like the bullet from a gun."
DU is a sensitive issue, and not every doctor in Basra is willing to go on record commenting on it. The reasons for the reticence have to do with the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein: The alleged radiation threat coming from remnants of armor-piercing ammunition provided popular propaganda fodder.
In the United States, no major newspaper has yet published a story on the genetic disorders in Fallujah. Britain's Guardian, on the other hand, criticized the silence of "the West," calling it a moral failure, and cited chemist Chris Busby, who said that the Fallujah health crisis represented "the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied." Busby is the co-author of two studies on the subject.
Still, it is difficult to precisely pinpoint the cause of the defects. Spinal chord abnormality can also be triggered by a folic acid deficiency at the beginning of pregnancy, for example. Furthermore, very few Iraqis can afford regular pregnancy exams. As a result, many defective embryos are carried to full term, in contrast to what normally happens in Europe or the US.
Wolfgang Hoffmann, an epidemiologist at the University of Greifswald in northeastern Germany, has been collaborating with fellow scientists in Basra for years. "Birth defects often look very disturbing in photos," he says. "But they are always isolated cases and are not necessarily useful for identifying trends."
Hoffmann cites the lack of comprehensive data and questions the epidemiological reliability of reports. He does believe, however, that indications of increasing rates of cancer in Basra should be taken very seriously, partly because the data for Basra is more reliable.
- Part 1: Are US Munitions to Blame for Basra Birth Defects?
- Part 2: Searching for the Truth