Friday, 27 April 2012

congenital birth defect, health threats from Depleted Uranium

The World Health Organisation and the Iraqi Ministry of Health are set to begin work on a pilot assessment of congenital birth defects in six Iraqi governorates.
29 March 2012 - ICBUW
A project to examine the rates of congenital birth defects such as heart and neurological problems is due to start next month, following a series of planning meetings held during 2011. The survey will cover six of Iraq’s governorates including Baghdad, Anbar, Basrah, Thi Qar, Sulaymaniyah and Dialah.

Significant international concern has been generated over reports from medical staff in cities such as Fallujah and Baghdad of spiralling rates of congenital birth defects. Fallujah, which lies in Anbar province, has become particularly notorious and medical staff and civil society organisations have argued that the increases are linked to environmental contamination from the US led attacks on the city in 2004.

During a workshop on the project in February,  Dr Hawrami Minister of Health of the Kurdistan Regional Government said: “There is a need for a comprehensive programme to learn more about birth defects in Iraq that could shed light on the incidence of various conditions, such as congenital heart defects and neurological defects, in different geographic areas over time in Iraq.”  

The WHO in Iraq has reported that priority will be given in the survey to measuring the magnitude and trend of congenital birth defects at selected district level, identifying possible risk factors of congenital birth defects and assessing the burden of these conditions and impact on the health status of care providers.

ICBUW welcomes this long overdue attention on these disturbing problems but emphasised that the process must be as transparent and wide ranging as possible to ensure that all environmental risk factors, including contamination from depleted uranium munitions and other toxic remnants of war are taken into account. Plans to analyse the health and social burden of these problems on communities are also welcome.  

The project Pilot Assessment of Congenital Birth Defects (CBD) in Iraq has been split into two component parts, the first of which has been funded by the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) Iraq Trust Fund, which is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on behalf of itself and other United Nations Organisations. The first part of the project is expected to cost US$336,350 and will focus on:

Drawing initial baseline data from selected districts in 6 governorates and understanding the trends of birth defects in the selected  governorates in Iraq;
Analyzing spatial and temporal trends and detect changes in the incidence of birth defects in Iraq
Capacity building of Ministry of Health national public health TORCH (Toxoplasmosis, Rubella, Cytomegalo and Herpes virus) laboratory  and technicians

The second phase will aim at:
conducting observational and analytical epidemiological and laboratory investigations to understand underlying risk factors; strengthening the disease registry/surveillance for birth defects in Iraq and finally the proposed study will assist in assessing the burden of the problem on Iraqi health system, medical services and communities and  formulating evidence-based recommendations to address the problem.

The initial research part of the project is expected to be complete by late summer but it is unclear when the first results will be made public.

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Training workshop for central and local supervisors on congenital birth defects survey, Iraq:
Pilot Assessment of Congenital Birth Defects in Iraq in Six Governorates, project description (UNDP):

11 April 2012 - ICBUW
TRW project logoThe Toxic Remnants of War Project will seek to catalogue and classify a range of substances that are used during conflict and which may have a long-term health impact on civilians, or result in damage to the environment.

The project will also examine the indirect release of hazardous materials during warfare, through attacks on industrial sites, uncontrolled releases from military facilities or the destruction of infrastructure.

“Recent conflicts have seen civilian populations increasingly bearing the brunt of armed violence but, while the impact of explosive or indiscriminate weapons such as land mines and cluster bombs have been well documented, less is known about the toxic effects of conflict,” said ICBUW Coordinator Doug Weir. 
“History has shown that civilian health suffers as a result of warfare, the question is, to what extent are the materials used by the military, or released during conflict, adding to this burden?”

Substances used in offensive operations include heavy metals such as lead and depleted uranium; speciality alloys that may contain thorium or beryllium; propellants or explosives such as RDX; and obscurants such as white phosphorous.

The toxic footprint from military bases may include fuels, oils, heavy metals and other hazardous wastes. Many of these are known to be toxic, but detailed information on how they interact within the environment and whether civilians are being exposed to them may be lacking. The problem is exacerbated by the limited capacity of states recovering from conflict to manage hazardous materials effectively and monitor civilian health.

Some states have begun to reduce their use of the most toxic materials in weapons, many out of concern for contamination on domestic firing ranges or to protect personnel. But there has been much less focus on the potential for civilian exposures, with the military utility of the weapons taking precedence.

Yet toxics are increasingly tightly regulated in peacetime, for example in consumer goods or in efforts to control emissions during manufacturing and transport. The TRW Project will eventually examine whether peacetime health and environmental protection norms should play a stronger role in assessing the acceptability of certain materials or activities in times of war.

What is Depleted Uranium ? 

Depleted uranium is a waste obtained from producing fuel for nuclear reactors and atomic bombs. The material used in civil and nuclear military industry is uranium U-235, the isotope which can be fissioned. 

Since this isotope is found in very low proportions in nature, the uranium ore has to be enriched, i.e., its proportion of the U-235 isotope has to be industrially increased. This pocess produces a large amount of radioactive depleted uranium waste, thus named because it is mainly formed by the other non-fissionable uranium isotope, U-238 and a minimum proportion of U-235.7 American military industry has been using depleted uranium to coat conventional weaponry (artillery, tanks and aircraft) since 1977, to
protect its own tanks, as a counterweight in aircraft and Tomahawk missiles and as a component for navigation instruments.

This is due to depleted uranium having characteristics making it highly attractive for military technology: firstly, it is extremely dense and heavy (1 cm3 weighs almost 19 grammes), such that projectiles with a depleted uranium head can penetrate the armoured steel of military vehicles and buildings; secondly,
it is a spontaneous pyrophoric material, i.e., it inflames when reaching its target generating such heat that it explodes.

After more than 50 years producing atomic weapons and nuclear energy, the USA has 500,000 tonnes of depleted uranium stored, according to official data. Depleted uranium is radioactive also and has an average lifetime of 4.5 thousand million years. This is why such waste has to be stored safely
for an indefinite period of time, an extremely costly procedure. In order to save money and empty their tanks, the Department of Defence and Energy assigns depleted uranium free of charge to national and foreign armament companies. Apart from the USA, countries like the United Kingdom, France,
Canada, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, the Gulf monarchies, Taiwan, South Korea, Pakistan or Japan purchase or manufacture weapons with depleted uranium.

During the war, US and British forces shot ammo made from Depleted Uranium (DU), a radioactive and toxic waste that is suspected as a cause of some illnesses affecting veterans of the 1991 Gulf War. 

Scientists believe respiratory irritation caused by sand storms, oil fires, and concentrated vehicle fumes during Operation Desert Storm weakened the blood/brain barrier and allowed DU to enter the central nervous system of soldiers in the field resulting in slowly developing neurotoxic responses. Their brains, in effect, were slowly poisoned.

The brain is a 'target organ' for dissolved uranium. Tests on some Desert Storm vets show lowered ability to think and solve problems, as well as lowered motor skills in subjects with above average uranium levels.

During the latest operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, American and British tanks fired thousands of depleted uranium armor penetrators. American A-10 and AV-8B aircraft shot hundreds of thousands of small caliber depleted uranium rounds.

Many troops in Iraq are being exposed to some level of DU, and the exposure this time may be far more long-term. The longer troops stay in theater if they are in a contaminated area, the more exposure they will have. DU is also toxic to the kidneys, and is known to cause cancer from inhalation. It is reasonable to assume that neither skin exposure nor swallowing particles of DU is wise.

The exposure to DU combined with the exposure to extensive combustion products from oil fires and blowing sand from the desert environment, however, is unique and the extent of exposure to respiratory irritants during this war was probably greater than in previous wars. These exposures for some soldiers may be more intense and more sustained now than they were in 1991. 

The Pentegon Poison offers an insightful read regarding this matter

Soaring birth deformities and child cancer rates in Iraq

By James Cogan
10 May 2005

Iraqi doctors are making renewed efforts to bring to the world's attention the growth in birth deformities and cancer rates among the country's children. The medical crisis is being directly blamed on the widespread use of depleted uranium (DU) munitions by the US and British forces in southern Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, and the even greater use of DU during the 2003 invasion.

The rate of birth defects, after increasing ten-fold from 11 per 100,000 births in 1989 to 116 per 100,000 in 2001, is soaring further. Dr Nawar Ali, a medical researcher into birth deformities at Baghdad University, told the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) last month: "There have been 650 cases [birth deformities] in total since August 2003 reported in government hospitals. That is a 20 percent increase from the previous regime. Private hospitals were not included in the study, so the number could be higher."

His colleague, Dr Ibrahim al-Jabouri, reported: "In my experiments we have found some cases where the mother and father were suffering from pollution from weapons used in the south and we believe that it is affecting newborn babies in the country."

The director of the Central Teaching Hospital in Baghdad, Wathiq Ibrahim, said: "We have asked for help from the government to make a more profound study on such cases as it is affecting thousands of families."

The rise in birth defects is matched by a continuing increase in the incidence of childhood cancers.

The College of Medicine at Basra University carried out a study into the rate of cancer among children under the age of 15 in southern Iraq from 1976 to 1999. It revealed a horrific change between 1990 and 1999. In the province of Basra, the incidence of cancer of all types rose by 242 percent, while the rate of leukaemia among children rose 100 percent. Children living in the area were falling ill with cancer at the rate of 10.1 per 100,000. In districts where the use of DU had been the most concentrated, the rate rose to 13.2 per 100,000. 

The results were cited at the time in campaigns to end the UN-imposed and US-enforced sanctions against Iraq, which were held responsible for the death of as many as 500,000 Iraqi children from malnutrition and inadequate medical treatment.

The results were cited at the time in campaigns to end the UN-imposed and US-enforced sanctions against Iraq, which were held responsible for the death of as many as 500,000 Iraqi children from malnutrition and inadequate medical treatment.

The study noted: "Most doctors and scientists agree that even mild radiation is dangerous and increases the risk of cancer. The health risk becomes much greater once the [DU] projectile has been fired. After they have been fired, the broken shells release uranium particles. The airborne particles enter the body easily. The uranium then deposits itself in bones, organs and cells. Children are especially vulnerable because their cells divide rapidly as they grow. In pregnant women, absorbed uranium can cross the placenta into the bloodstream of the foetus.

"In addition to its radioactive dangers, uranium is chemically toxic, like lead, and can damage the kidneys and lungs. Perhaps, the fatal epidemic of swollen abdomens among Iraqi children is caused by kidney failure resulting from uranium poisoning. Whatever the effect of the DU shells, it is made worse by malnutrition and poor health conditions....

"Iraq holds the United States and Britain legally and morally responsible for the grave health and environmental impact of the use of DU ..." (A version of the report is available at:

Further Evidence on Relation between Depleted Uranium, Incidence of Malignancies among Children in Basra, Southern Iraq.