War legacy: Iraqi kids battle cancer

Iraq is still paying the price for a war that started a decade ago, not just in daily bombings but also in terms of the health of its citizens. 

Scientists based in Mosul, northern Iraq, have reported that even 10 years after the Iraq war of 2003, high levels of uranium contamination in soil samples have been found leading to dramatically increasing rates of childhood cancers and birth defects in local hospitals. 

Childhood cancers are now about five times higher than before the two Gulf Wars (currently about 22 children per 100,000, compared with approximately four children per 100,000 in 1990). 

Childhood leukemia cases are now 10 times higher in Iraq than in other industrialised countries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) sets a maximum uranium exposure of 1 millisievert (mSv) per year for the general public. 

But environmental scientists at the University of Mosul and the Institute of Forest Ecology of Austria have measured significant levels of uranium in soil samples from three sites in the province of Nineveh in the north of Iraq. 

The radioactive element uranium is widely dispersed throughout Earth's crust and is much sought after as a fuel for nuclear power plants and for use in weapons. 

Depleted uranium (DU), commonly used in modern munitions such as defensive armour plating and armour-piercing projectiles, is 40% less radioactive than natural uranium, but remains a significant and controversial danger to human health. 

Writing in the journal 'Medicine, Conflict and Survival', a team of scientists led by Riyad Abdullah Fathi said they have detected huge uranium contamination at three sites in Nineveh that highlights the ongoing legacy of modern warfare to civilians in conflict zones. 

Fathi and colleagues have linked their findings with dramatic increases in cancers reported to the Mosul Cancer Registry and the Iraqi national cancer registry. 

"The Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003 left a legacy of pollution with DU in many regions of Iraq," they say. "The effects of these munitions may be affecting the general health of Iraqi citizens, manifesting in an increase in cancers and birth defects." 

They also warn that even though some of the contamination measured in this study is specifically linked to known sites, it can be easily spread widely in the air, soil and water, particularly as dust in windstorms. 

Although there is already significant evidence of cancers and related illnesses in adults (particularly war veterans), the authors emphasise it is the dramatic rise in the incidence of cancer and birth defects in children under 15 years of age since the second Gulf War that points to the terrible legacy of DU weaponry. 

The focal point of their scientific study were three sites near Mosul: Adayah, a landfill for radioactive waste; Rihanyah, a former research centre for nuclear munitions (disused since 1991); and Damerchy, a village on the Tigris that was a scene of fighting in the 2003 conflict. 

by Kounteya Sinha
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