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MPT Report: Depleted Uranium Crisis (December 2007)

by Sami Rasouli
Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT)

Sami Rasouli, Dr. Najim Askouri, and Dr. Assad Al-Janabi, members of MPT in Najaf, visited with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Suleimaniya, Kurdish Iraq, on December 10 and 11, 2007. The visit was an opportunity to report the recent activities of the respective peacemaker groups and to meet new people. But the primary activity was a forum on depleted uranium (DU) presented by Drs. Assad and Najim.

Dr. Assad is the director of the Pathology Department at the 400-bed public hospital in Najaf. Dr. Najim is a nuclear physicist, trained in Britain, and one of the leading nuclear researchers in Iraq until his departure in 1998. They have worked as an MPT team documenting information about the health impact on Najaf of depleted uranium weapons used during the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars.

This was not an exhaustive study because of the limits of personnel, resources, and equipment. But it did rely on accumulated public data, thorough research, and a major contribution of time and energy. The focus was Najaf, a city of over one million people, and the rural areas in the governate. The area is about 180 miles from where DU was used in the First Gulf War.

Starting in 2004 when the political situation and devastation of the health care infrastructure were at their worst, there were 251 reported cases of cancer. By 2006, when the numbers accurately reflected the real situation, that figure had risen to 688. Already in 2007, 801 cancer cases have been reported. Those figures portray an incidence rate of 28.21 by 2006, even after screening out cases that came into the Najaf Hospital from outside the governate, a number which contrasts with the normal rate of 8-12 cases of cancer per 100,000 people.

Two observations are striking. One, there has been a dramatic increase in the cancers that are related to radiation exposure, especially the very rare soft tissue sarcoma and leukemia. Two, the age at which cancer begins in an individual has been dropping rapidly, with incidents of breast cancer at 16, colon cancer at 8, and liposarcoma at 1.5 years. Dr. Assad noted that 6% of the cancers reported occurred in the 11-20 age range and another 18% in ages 21-30.

There were three locations in Najaf that received special attention from the researchers. Al-Ansar Square is an L-shaped street less than 50 meters long. There were 13 cases in that small area. The individuals were not related, were of different ages and genders, and did not have a family history of cancer. Another, Al-Fathi, is a one kilometer rural stretch along both sides of a river. There were 37 cases reported, all varied types of cancer. The third was Hay Al-Mu'alameen, a very well-to-do sector of the city. Twenty cases were documented there, mostly among teachers.

Dr. Najim began his report by noting that Coalition Forces, mostly U.S., used 350 tons of DU weapons in about 45 days in 1991, primarily in the stretch of Iraq northwest of Kuwait where Iraqi troops were on their retreat. Then in 2003, during the Shock and Awe bombing of Baghdad, the U.S. used another 150 tons of DU.

When DU hits a target it aerosolizes and oxidizes forming a uranium oxide that is two parts UO3 and one part UO2. The first is water soluble and filters down into the water aquifers and also becomes part of the food chain as plants take up the UO3 dissolved in water. The UO2 is insoluble and settles as dust on the surface of the earth and is blown by the winds to other locations.

As aerosolized dust it can enter the lungs and begins to cause problems as it can cross cell walls and even impact the genetic system. Dr. Najim shared that one of his grandsons was born with congenital heart problems, Downs Syndrome, an underdeveloped liver, and leukemia. He assumes that the problems were related to exposure of the child's parents to DU. He said, "Cancer is spreading from the conflict area as a health epidemic and will only get worse." The cancer rate has more than tripled over the last 16 years in Najaf, similarly to Kuwait, Basra, and Saudi Arabia.

There are nine DU production sites in the United States, though, at this point, several (like National Lead in Colonie, NY, and Starmet in Concord, MA) have closed because of environmental contamination. Also, there are 14 testing sites for DU weapons in the U.S., though, again, some (like Jefferson Proving Grounds in Indiana) have closed because the military says they cannot be cleaned up.

Using a simple Geiger counter the research team discovered radiation levels of 30 counts per minute in Najaf and 40 counts per minute in the rural areas around Najaf. This compared to 10-15 counts per minute in Suleimaniya and at the Tawaitha nuclear research reactor outside Baghdad.

He concluded his talk by asking, "Would it be just to ask for equipment to continue the testing to locate contaminated sites, a hospital to care for children born with a DU-impacted genetic system, a center for study and decontamination of affected areas, and support for a special environmental department at the local university?" He assumed the U.S. would not respond to a total compensation request, but did assume it was appropriate to make these requests for compensation, to clean the environment and care for those exposed to the DU.

It was a rather diverse audience in Suleimaniya that participated in this DU forum. A local physician who had earlier in his career been the director at the Najaf Public Hospital, students, a local political leader, recently returned Kurds from other countries, and a local UN worker were among those who had questions and responses for the doctors. An important benefit of the forum was to provide a model that any small group of people can duplicate in their own communities as a way to spread awareness of the serious problems as DU blows into neighborhoods across Iraq.

 
 
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