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Are US Munitions to Blame for Basra Birth Defects?

December 18, 2012
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By Alexander Smoltczyk, Der Spiegel 

The guns have been silent in Iraq for years, but in Basra and Fallujah the number of birth defects and cancer cases is on the rise. Locals believe that American uranium-tipped munitions are to blame and some researchers think they might be right.

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According to a study published in September in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, a professional journal based in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg, there was a sevenfold increase in the number of birth defects in Basra between 1994 and 2003. Of 1,000 live births, 23 had birth defects.

Double and Triple Cancers

Similarly high values are reported from Fallujah, a city that was fiercely contested in the 2003 war. According to the Heidelberg study, the concentration of lead in the milk teeth of sick children from Basra was almost three times as high as comparable values in areas where there was no fighting.

Never before has such a high rate of neural tube defects ("open back") been recorded in babies as in Basra, and the rate continues to rise. The number of hydrocephalus ("water on the brain") cases among newborns is six times as high in Basra as it is in the United States, the study concludes.

Jawad al-Ali has worked as a cancer specialist at the Sadr Teaching Hospital (formerly the Saddam Hospital), housed in a sinister-looking building in Basra, since 1991. He remembers the period after the first Gulf war over Kuwait. "It isn't just that the number of cancer cases suddenly increased. We also had double and triple cancers, that is, patients with tumors on both kidneys and in the stomach. And there were also familial clusters, that is, entire families that were affected." He is convinced that this relates to the use of uranium ammunition. "There is a connection between cancer and radiation. Sometimes it takes 10 or 20 years before the consequences manifest themselves."

The term uranium ammunition refers to projectiles whose alloys or cores are made with "depleted," or weakly radioactive uranium, also known as DU. When German soldiers are deployed overseas, they are given the following information: "Uranium munitions are armor-piercing projectiles with a core of depleted uranium. Because of its high density, this core provides the projectile with very high momentum and enables it to pierce the armor of combat tanks."

When DU explodes, it produces a very fine uranium dust. When children play near wrecked tanks, they can absorb this dust through their skin, their mouths and their airways. A 2002 study at the University of Bremen in northern Germany found that chromosomal changes had occurred in Gulf war veterans who had come into contact with uranium ammunition.

The German Defense Ministry counters that it isn't the radiation that constitutes a health threat, but the "chemical toxicity of uranium."

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