Thursday, October 25, 2012

New Health Study On Birth Defects In Iraq’s Basra And Fallujah

For several years now there have been sporadic reports about the health affects of the U.S. and British military operations in Iraq. Most of these reports have focused upon the city of Fallujah in Anbar province, which witnessed two large battles in 2004. The articles usually involved interviews with doctors and patients who witnessed birth defects since the 2003 invasion, and blamed munitions used against insurgents as the cause. In September 2012, a paper was released, “Metal Contamination and the Epidemic of Congenital Birth Defects in Iraqi Cities” in the journal Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, which did a scientific study of that issue in both Fallujah and Basra. It found high levels of toxic metals in both infant patients and their parents in the two cities, and tried to relate that to the fighting that occurred there. While no direct correlation was made, it provided greater evidence that the health of Iraqis has been affected by the war then the previous news reports did, which were usually based upon anecdotal stories.

The article in the Bulletin of Environment Contamination and Toxicology included two separate studies of the levels of toxic metals found in hospitals in Fallujah and Basra. One involved 56 families who went to the Fallujah General Hospital in Anbar province in 2010. It focused upon hair samples and birth defects amongst those families. It found high levels of lead and mercury, which are neurotoxins, amongst families that suffered birth defects. Lead was five times higher in their hair samples, and mercury was six times higher. The Basra data came from two separate time periods, and relied upon the records of the Al Basra Maternity Hospital. First, an article, “Incidents of Congenital Fetal Anomaly in Al Basra Maternity Hospital” from 1997 was consulted. That covered patients at the hospital from October 1994 to October 1995. It found 1.37 birth defects per 1,000 live births amongst the families studied. That set a pre-2003 control group, which would be compared to patients who visited afterward. The number of birth defects reported at the hospital skyrocketed after the U.S. invasion. In 2003, there were 23 per 1,000 live births, followed by 34 in 2004, 34 in 2005, 44 in 2006, 45 in 2007, 35 in 2008, peaking at 48 in 2009, followed by 29 in 2010, and 37 in 2011. That was an average of 36.5 birth defects per 1,000 live births for that nine-year period. That was 3.5 times higher than the world average of birth defects, and obviously a dramatic jump from the 1994-1995 levels. Again, high levels of toxic metals were found in hair and nail samples amongst the families included in the study that had birth defects. Obviously, a connection was made between the high levels of lead and mercury found amongst those studied and the large number of birth defects that the families suffered. Exposure to those types of metals can lead to miscarriages, birth defects, and infertility. It was also shown that the number of problems with births took off in Basra after the 2003 invasion as compared to the 1990s. Where the study did not provide a direct correlation was the cause of these troubles. Lead and mercury are common ingredients in bullets, and other munitions. However, there are no public records about how many of those armaments or what kinds the U.S. and British used in the fighting in Fallujah and Basra. It can only be speculated then, that the increased toxic metal levels are due to the military operations that occurred, rather than providing direct proof.

“Metal Contamination and the Epidemic of Congenital Birth Defects in Iraqi Cities” provided good, scientific evidence that there have been dramatic increases in birth defects in some of Iraq’s cities. Those families that suffered those problems also had high levels of lead and mercury in their bodies, which were the likely causes. What the paper did not prove was whether the increased amounts of neurotoxins were because of the Iraq War. Speculation would obviously point to the fighting as the cause, but further study needs to be done to make a direct correlation. Unfortunately for Iraq, cities like Basra and Fallujah are finding more and more cases of birth problems, but lack the medical staff and health funding to adequately treat them, let alone try to clean up those areas to prevent them from happening in the future. That means toxicity and birth defects are likely to continue at these aggravated levels.


Al-Sabback, M., Ali, S. Sadid, Savabi, O., Savabi, G., Dastgiri, S., Savabieasfahani, M., “Metal Contamination and the Epidemic of Congenital Birth Defects in Iraqi Cities,” Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 9/16/12

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