Dr Alim Abdul-Hamid’s office at Al Mustanseriya Medical College in Baghdad is decorated in bright, cheerful colours, but what he has to say is anything but cheerful. Formerly Dean of Basra Medical College, Abdul-Hamid has had plenty of first-hand experience with Iraq’s unprecedented plague of cancers and birth defects.
“We have seen cases of breast cancer among women in their 20s. In their 20s!,” says Abdul-Hamid. “This is really tragic, because, you know, in America, probably when you come across a case of breast cancer in a woman in her late 30s, you would consider that this is a young age for cancer, while we see cases of breast cancer in the 20s. There are increased incidences of colon cancer, thyroid cancer, in addition to, of course, leukaemias and lymphomas.”
What’s the source of this epidemic? According to Abdul-Hamid the problem is depleted uranium. Depleted uranium, or “DU”, is an extremely dense, heavy metal, and a waste product of atomic bomb production. It has a half-life of over 4 billion years. It contains trace amounts of plutonium and is 60 per cent as radioactive as naturally occurring uranium. The US military uses it as ballast in their missiles, and they use it to coat shells and pellets. Because of its density, it is armour piercing – so it is used as an anti-tank weapon. DU is also aerosolising. When a shell coated with DU hits, it burns, releasing uranium oxide dust. This dust then rises in the air, is carried by the winds, and contaminates the entire surrounding environment.
The Pentagon admits to dropping 320 tonnes of DU in Iraq. The environmental organisation Greenpeace puts the estimate at over 800 tonnes. Hospitals throughout Iraq have reported as much as a 10-fold increase in overall cancer rates and birth defects over the last 11 years.
Abdul-Hamid points to an epidemiological study he headed in Basra, demonstrating the connection between DU and cancer in Iraq. The study looked at five factors: biological plausibility, strength of association, incidence rate, increased incidences of cancer among younger children, and the dose-response relationship. According to Abdul-Hamid, all these factors point to a strong, causal link between DU exposure and cancer in Iraq.
To test the biological plausibility of their hypothesis, the team of scientists studied the types of cancer being reported, most notably leukaemias, and explored their relationship to DU. The results strongly indicate a radioactive, rather than chemical, contaminant. Explains Abdul-Hamid: “Leukaemia is known to be related to radiation. We don’t have evidence that leukaemia is related to chemicals.”
Additionally, if the source of the epidemic were chemical, there would have been a sharp spike in cancer rates following the Gulf war, followed by rapid decreases as the source of the contamination disappeared. In contrast, with radiation the strength of association increases as time passes. The fact that cancer rates are still increasing at an exponential rate in Iraq strongly implies a radioactive source.
This increase is enormous. According to the study, malignancies and leukaemias among children under the age of 15 have more than tripled since 1990. Whereas in 1990 young children accounted for only 13 per cent of cancer cases, today over 56 per cent of all cancer in Iraq occurs among children under the age of 5. Abdul-Hamid explains that it isn’t just direct exposure of the children to the radiation still present in the environment; it’s also the cumulative exposure of their parents over time. This cumulative exposure does permanent damage to parental genes, damage which is then passed on to their children.
Finally, pointing to a map of Basra, Abdul-Hamid highlights the dose-response relationship between DU and cancers. “If we look at the map of Basra, southern Iraq, and monitor the incidences in different districts over time, we can come out with a very important conclusion. And that is that areas which have got the higher level of background radiation have higher levels of cancers.” These factors overwhelmingly point to DU as the source of Iraq’s current cancer plague.
Iraqi doctors aren’t the only ones complaining about DU. US veterans are upset as well. DU may be a leading cause of the unprecedented levels of illnesses effecting Gulf war veterans. “The Pentagon claims that there are no significant health effects from exposure to depleted uranium, but their own research and documents show that this is not true,” says Charles Sheehan-Miles, a Gulf war veteran and former president of the National Gulf War Resource Centre. Almost 25 per cent of US soldiers who fought in the Gulf war are currently receiving disability benefits from the US Veteran’s Administration. This is twice the rate of disabilities as among Vietnam veterans.
Unfortunately, DU remains an integral part of the American military arsenal. According to Sheehan-Miles, “Depleted uranium, like landmines and cluster bombs, is a weapon with effects far beyond the battlefield, with innocents and children as the frequent victims. I resent this. As a former American soldier, I was trained to protect the innocent, not to kill them.”
As the United States gears up for a new “Desert Storm” against Iraq, using weapons like DU, that is a lesson that more American soldiers, and the politicians who command them, should be reminded of.
Ramzi Kysia is a Muslim-American peace activist, and serves on the board of directors for the Education for Peace in Iraq Centre. He is currently in Iraq as part of a Voices in the Wilderness peace delegation trying to end the war