This week, one of the world’s most renowned and respected medical journals, The Lancet, joined the chorus of epidemiologists challenging the credibility of a recently-released report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Iraqi Health Ministry. The report contradicts consistent reporting of high rates of birth defects in Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003. The WHO’s defense of the study despite the critiques from many corners raises questions as to the independence of the international body tasked with monitoring and addressing public health crises around the globe.
Doctors across Iraq report that cancer rates, birth defects, and other environmental health problems have skyrocketed since 2003. In the words of Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist based in Michigan who has been studying the rise in congenital birth defects in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion, “Iraq is poisoned.”
Among the toxic munitions used by the U.S. military, depleted uranium, also known as “DU,” is known to lead to cancer and genetic defects from exposure to its radiation and carcinogenic chemical properties. Scientific studies also strongly suggest that DU can interfere with the pre-natal development of a fetus.
The U.S. military first used DU in Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Official statistics from the Iraqi government indicate that by 1995, 800 out of 100,000 Iraqis were suffering from cancer as compared to before the war when the rate was 40 out of 100,000. A 2001 study by the U.S. government of 21,000 veterans who had served in the Gulf War found an increased rate of miscarriages, and of those who gave birth, two to three times greater likelihood of birth defects.
Despite strong evidence of the lasting damage DU can cause, the U.S. once again used it as a weapon following its 2003 invasion and, according to a Pentagon spokesperson, took no responsibility to clean up DU-impacted areas in Iraq.
Birth Defects Reported throughout Iraq
Iraqi doctors have borne witness to the horrifying consequences. Dr. Samira Alani, a pediatrician at Fallujah General Hospital, reported that as of the end of 2011, she had personally logged 699 cases of birth defects since October 2009, amounting to an alarming rate of 14.7 per cent of all babies born there. An investigation conducted by the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq found that many of the children born with defects die soon after birth but others survive with deformities so rare they have not been given a medical name.
In the district of Haweeja, where it is believed that DU munitions may have been stored or tested by the U.S. military, surveys undertaken by the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq indicate that one-quarter of newborns are suffering from disabilities. Villages suffering from the highest rates of birth defects and cancer are those immediately down-wind of a U.S. training base.
Beginning in May 2012, the Iraqi Ministry of Health joined with the WHO to study the prevalence of birth defects in Iraq. While the study was completed by early October 2012, it was nearly a year before a report was released. Scientists, health professionals, and human rights advocates from across the globe questioned the delay, particularly as disturbing information about the study and its conclusions began leaking out. Hans von Sponeck, former assistant secretary general of the United Nations and senior UN humanitarian official in Iraq, stated that “The US government sought to prevent WHO from surveying areas in southern Iraq where depleted uranium had been used and caused serious health and environmental dangers.” Previously, a high-ranking official at the Iraqi Ministry of Health spoke publicly of the “damning evidence that there has been a rise in birth defects and cancers [in Iraq],” particularly in areas where toxic munitions, such as DU, were used by U.S. and U.K. forces.
So when the published report instead concluded that Iraq is facing no unusually high rate of birth defects, epidemiologists took a closer look at the study’s methodology and found significant flaws – enough to undermine the credibility of the report’s conclusions.
As a part of the Right to Heal initiative, Iraqis and U.S. veterans exposed to some of the same toxic munitions have joined together to demand further study to be funded by the U.S. government of the environmental and health impact the U.S. war has had on Iraqi and U.S. veteran communities. This study is needed in order to remediate toxic sites and provide proper treatment to those still suffering, which should be an obligation of the United States as reparations for the lasting toll of its war on Iraq. The WHO’s failure to support a rigorous and honest assessment of the suffering of Iraqi families is a travesty and yet another injustice to the Iraqi people. The international community, networked together and with the mounting concerns of voices like The Lancet, will make sure the truth comes to light.
Jeena Shah is cooperating attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which helped to launch the Right to Heal initiative.