Toxic legacy

By Mozhgan Savabieasfahani (Environmental Health News)

Many regions in Iraq were subjected to intense bombardment during the US-led invasion, occupation and counter-insurgency between 2003 and 2011. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, a Michigan based toxicologist and co-author of two peer-reviewed studies on Iraqi birth defects, argues Western munitions have left a toxic legacy of birth deformities and cancers in Iraq.

How do we know that birth defects in Iraq have increased?

Different physicians from different cities across Iraq have been reporting enormous jumps in birth defect rates for years.

We have published two papers – one in 2010 and one in 2012. We found increases in both Fallujah and Basra.

How have birth defect rates changed since the invasion?

There were one or two birth defects per 1,000 live births in Iraqi cities in 1995. Right now in Fallujah the rate of birth defects is 144 per 1,000 live births. That is an enormous jump. And it is not the only city in Iraq – it is multiple cities. They are all reporting similar increases. In my mind there is no doubt that there is a huge public health catastrophe.

What kinds of birth defects are occurring?

Doctors are not able to classify some of these birth defects because they have not been described in medical books. I have over 100 pictures of Iraqi children with major birth defects we collected in Fallujah. There are nose and heart defects but some of them involve such multiple defects that they cannot be categorised.

Is there evidence that links these increases to the use of western munitions?

We need long-term and large-scale studies to prove this but we do know that birth defects have increased since 2003. In 1995 it was pretty low and now in 2013 it keeps going up. The only major environmental event that separates 1995 from 2013 and onwards is the repeated bombardment of the Iraqi cities.

How did you do your research?

I organised two research groups in Fallujah and Basra as it is very difficult to get inside Iraq.
They went into hospitals and collected data. They also looked at medical records and population exposure to contaminants.

What is causes these defects?

Mercury and lead are an integral part of military munitions and can cause birth defects. It is very likely that depleted uranium, which was used in Iraq, is also having an affect.

How are the people coming into contact with these pollutants?

Heavy metals enter all the different phases of the environment during bombardments. They get into the air, water and soil. They are then repeatedly ingested and inhaled by the population. They are poisoning Iraqi people from the inside.

Have cancers increased as well?

There have been major increases in cancer in Iraq. Doctors are seeing whole neighbourhoods with cancers, familial cancers, where all members of a family have cancer, and individuals with multiple cancers. Childhood leukaemia is extremely high in Basra. Something is terribly wrong.

Why did the recent study by the Iraqi ministry of health find that birth defect rates in Iraq are no worse than Europe?

Officials from ministry of health said six months ago there was damming evidence rates were going up, now they say there is nothing wrong. It leaves me wondering what is going on?

What inspired you to carry out this work?

I’m Iranian. I grew up in areas near Iraq but I moved to America to study. There are millions of people who need help in Iraq right now and somebody has to help.

Further information on these issues can be found in the Lancet.

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