For the first time, independent researchers have found that the bodies of Iraqi children born with congenital disabilities, such as heart disease and malformed limbs, near a former United States air base in southern Iraq are contaminated with high levels of radioactive heavy metals associated with toxic depleted uranium pollution leftover from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The findings appear to bolster claims made by Iraqi doctors who observed high rates of congenital disabilities in babies born in areas that experienced heavy fighting during the bloody first year of the most recent Iraq war.
In 2016, researchers tested the hair and teeth of children from villages in proximity to the Talil Air Base, a former U.S. air base, located south of Baghdad and near the city Nasiriyah. They found elevated levels of uranium and of thorium, two slightly radioactive heavy metals linked to cancer and used to make nuclear fuel.
Thorium is a direct decay product of depleted uranium, a chemically toxic byproduct of the nuclear power industry that was added to weapons used during the first year of the war in Iraq. Thanks to its high density, depleted uranium can reinforce tank armor and allow bullets and other munitions to penetrate armored vehicles and other heavy defenses. Depleted uranium was also released into the environment from trash dumps and burn pits outside U.S. military bases.
Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an independent researcher based in Michigan and a co-author of the study, said that levels of thorium in children born with congenital disabilities near the Talil Air Base were up to 28 times higher than in a control group of children who were born without congenital disabilities and live much further away.
“We are basically seeing a depleted uranium footprint on these children,” Savabieasfahani said in an interview.
Using statistical analysis, the researchers also determined that living near the air base was associated with an increased risk of giving birth to a child with congenital disabilities, including congenital heart disease, spinal deformations, cleft lip and missing or malformed and paralyzed limbs. The results of the study will soon be published in the journal Environmental Pollution, where the authors argue more research is needed to determine the extent that toxins left behind after the U.S.-led war and occupation are continuing to contaminate and sicken the Iraqi population.
For years following the 2003 U.S-led invasion, Iraqi doctors raised alarms about increasing numbers of babies being born with congenital disabilities in areas of heavy fighting. Other peer-reviewed studies found dramatic increases in child cancer, leukemia, miscarriages and infant mortality in cities such as Fallujah, which saw the largest battles of the war. Scientists, Iraqi physicians and international observers have long suspected depleted uranium to be the culprit. In 2014, one Iraqi doctor told Truthout reporter Dahr Jamail that depleted uranium pollution amounted to “genocide.”
The U.S. government provided Iraq’s health ministry with data to track depleted uranium contamination but has said it would be impossible to identify all the material used during wartime. War leaves behind a variety of potentially toxic pollutants, and some researchers have cast doubt on the connection between depleted uranium and congenital disabilities, noting that Iraq has faced a number environmental problems in recent decades. However, political manipulation was suspected to have skewed results of at least one study, a survey of congenital disabilities released by the World Health Organization and the Iraqi government in 2013 that contradicted claims made by Iraqi doctors.
While the authors caution that more research is needed, by identifying the presence of thorium in the teeth and hair of Iraqi children born with congenital disabilities near the Talil Air Base, the latest studies draw direct links to depleted uranium and the U.S. military.
“Baby teeth are highly sensitive to environmental exposures,” said Savabieasfahani. “Such high levels of thorium simply suggest high exposure at an early age and potentially in utero.”
Up to 2,000 metric tons of depleted uranium entered the Iraqi environment in 2003, mostly from thousands of rounds fired by the U.S., according to United Nations estimates. Depleted uranium munitions were also fired by U.S. forces in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War in 1993. Researchers and veterans have long suspected that depleted uranium could be a potential cause of Gulf War syndrome, a wide range of harmful symptoms experienced by thousands of service members for years after the war.
The U.S. has also imported thousands of tons of military equipment into Iraq, including tanks, trucks, bombers, armored vehicles, infantry weapons, antiaircraft systems, artillery and mortars – some of which were coated with depleted uranium. Much of this equipment eventually found its way into military junkyards, dozens of which remain scattered near former U.S. military bases and other installations across country.
Depleted uranium was also stored at U.S. military bases and was known to leak into the environment. The Talil Air Base, which served as a focal point for the new study, is only one of dozens of sites across Iraq where the U.S. military is believed to have left a highly toxic legacy.
“What we see here, and what we imply with this study, is that we could see this very same scenario around every single U.S. military base in Iraq,” Savabieasfahani said. “The exposure of pregnant mothers to the pollutions of war, including uranium and thorium, irreversibly damages their unborn children.”
In 2013, international observers reported that between 300 and 365 sites with depleted uranium contamination were identified by Iraqi authorities in the years following the 2003 U.S. invasion, with an estimated cleanup cost of $30 million to $45 million. In some cases, military junk contaminated with depleted uranium was being sold as scrap metal, spreading the contamination further. At one scrap site, children were seen climbing and playing on contaminated scrap metal.
Savabieasfahani, who has researched military pollution across Iraq, said the violence of war continues through pollution long after the carnage ends and the troops come home. Dropping tons of bombs and releasing millions of bullets leaves toxic residues in the air, water and soil of the “targeted population,” poisoning the landscape – and the people — for generations. Of course, U.S. war making in Iraq has not ended. The U.S. military continues to train Iraqi security forces and lead a coalition that carried out airstrikes against ISIS (also known as Daesh) insurgents in Iraq as recently as last week.
“The U.S. must be held responsible and forced to clean up all the sites which it has polluted. Technology exists for the cleanup of radiation contamination,” Savabieasfahani said. “The removal and disposal of U.S.-created military junkyards would go a long way toward cleaning toxic releases out of the Iraqi environment.”
The U.N. Internal Law Commission is currently circulating 24 draft principles urging governments to protect the environment from the ravages of war. In July, an international group of scientists renewed calls for a Fifth Geneva Convention that would establish an international treaty declaring environmental destruction a war crime under international law. While a Fifth Geneva convention on environmental war crimes would be significant, it would not ensure accountability for the U.S., which routinely shields itself from international prosecution for its war crimes.