Thursday, October 25, 2012

In Iraq, High Rates of Cancer and Birth Defects Linked to Use of Chemical Weapons in War

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 ├ó€┼ôsignificantly 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.

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