More than 40 sites across Iraq are contaminated with high levels or radiation and dioxins, with three decades of war and neglect having left environmental ruin in large parts of the country, an official Iraqi study has found.
Areas in and near Iraq’s largest towns and cities, including Najaf, Basra and Fallujah, account for around 25 percent of the contaminated sites, which appear to coincide with communities that have seen increased rates of cancer and birth defects over the past five years.
The joint study by the environment, health and science ministries found scrap metal yards in and around Baghdad and Basra contain high levels of ionizing radiation, which is thought to be a legacy of depleted uranium used in munitions during the first Gulf War and since the 2003 invasion.
Iraqi Environment Minister Narmin Othman said high levels of dioxins on agricultural lands in southern Iraq, in particular, were increasingly thought to be a key factor in a general decline in the health of people living in the poorest parts of the country.
“If we look at Basra, there are some heavily polluted areas there and there are many factors contributing to it,” he said. “First, it has been a battlefield for two wars, the Gulf War and the Iran-Iraq War, where many kinds of bombs were used. Also, oil pipelines were bombed and most of the contamination settled in and around Basra.”
“The soil has ended up in people’s lungs and has been on food that people have eaten. Dioxins have been very high in those areas. All of this has caused systemic problems on a very large scale for both ecology and overall health,” he said.
Government groups have recently focused on Fallujah, where the unstable security situation had kept scientists away ever since fierce fighting between militants and US forces in 2004.
“We have only found one area so far in Fallujah,” Othman said. “But there are other areas that we will try to explore soon with international help.”
The Guardian reported in November claims by local doctors of a massive rise in birth defects in the city, particularly neural tube defects, which afflict the spinal cords and brains of newborns.
“We are aware of the reports, but we must be cautious in reaching conclusions about causes,” Othman said. “The general health of the city is not good. There is no sewerage system there and there is a lot of stagnant household waste, creating sickness that is directly affecting genetics. We do know, however, that a lot of depleted uranium was used there.”
“We have been regulating and monitoring this and we have been urgently trying to assemble a database. We have had cooperation from the United Nations environment program and have given our reports in Geneva. We have studied 500 sites for chemicals and depleted uranium. Until now we have found 42 places that have been declared as [high risk] both from uranium and toxins,” he said.
Ten of those areas have been classified by Iraq’s nuclear decommissioning body as having high levels of radiation. They include the sites of three former nuclear reactors at the Tuwaitha facility — once the pride of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s regime on the southeastern outskirts of Baghdad — as well as former research centers around the capital that were either bombed or dismantled between the two Gulf wars.
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