In Iraq, High Rates of Cancer and Birth Defects Linked to Use of Chemical Weapons in War
by Eleanor J. Bader
RH Reality Check: Reproductive and Sexual Health and Justice News, Analysis and Commentary
October 23, 2012
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 â€œsignificantly 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
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
“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
"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
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.