By David Isenberg, Oct. 22, 2012
Every war is hell, particularly for civilians. And while every war produces deadly familiar impacts on the civilian population whether it is death and injuries due to combat or subsequent illness and death due to destruction of infrastructure sometimes the impact can be unique.
Sadly, such seems to be the case in Iraq which links the past war there with a “staggering” increase in birth defects in areas of the country where bombing and heavy fighting occurred.
A recent study, titled “Metal Contamination and the Epidemic of Congenital Birth Defects in Iraqi Cities” was underwritten by the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Michigan and which was published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, focused on the cities of Basra and Fallujah, where serious fighting occurred during the war. According to the study:
Fallujah is a city in central Iraq, and Al Basrah, a city in southern Iraq. Fallujah was heavily bombed in 2004. Subsequently, unusual numbers of birth defects have been surfacing in that city. Al Basrah was also a target of heavy bombing (December 1998, March and April 2003). Similar to Fallujah, after the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, the medical staff in Al Basrah Maternity Hospital has been witnessing a pattern of increase in congenital birth defects. Based on these observations, many suspect that pollution created by the bombardment of Iraqi cities has caused the current birth defect crisis in that country.
To fully understand its findings some background is necessary.
Fallujah was the scene of two large coalition assaults in 2004. Five years later, doctors at Fallujah General Hospital were so alarmed by the increase in birth defects they petitioned the United Nations to investigate.
About eight months later, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published the results of an epidemiological study, which found that Fallujah was experiencing higher rates of cancer, leukemia and infant mortality than Hiroshima and Nagasaki did in 1945
The University of Michigan study monitored 56 families in Fallujah. Between 2007 and 2010, more than half the babies born in those families had some kind of birth defect. That figure was under 2 percent prior to the year 2000. The most common abnormalities included congenital heart defects, brain defects, malformed or missing limbs and cleft palate.
In addition, between 2004 and 2006, 45 percent of the pregnancies among those families resulted in miscarriage.
As the study notes:
Between October 1994 and October 1995, the number of birth defects per 1,000 live births in Al Basrah Maternity Hospital was 1.37. In 2003, the number of birth defects in Al Basrah Maternity Hospital was 23 per 1,000 live births. Within less than a decade, the occurrence of congenital birth defects increased by an astonishing 17-fold in the same hospital.
What was the source of the heavy metal contamination?
Reports have indicated that large numbers of bullets have been expended into the Iraqi environment (Buncombe 2011). Thus the environmental contamination of Iraqi cities with materials contained in bullets and bombs may be expected. Toxic metals such as mercury (Hg) and [lead] Pb are an integral part of war ammunition and are extensively used in the making of bullets and bombs.
The study of Fallujah families and the metal analysis of hair samples from them indicated public contamination with both mercury and lead. Hair metal data from Fallujah showed Pb to be five times higher in the hair samples of children with birth defects than in the hair of normal children. Mercury was six times higher.
The study authors conclude that, “Present knowledge on the effects of prenatal exposure to metals, combined with our results, suggests that the bombardment of Al Basrah and Fallujah may have exacerbated public exposure to metals, possibly culminating in the current epidemic of birth defects. Large-scale epidemiological studies are necessary to identify at-risk populations in Iraq.”
The study’s conclusions are only the latest in a series of studies that have suggested a link between bombardment and a rise in birth defects. Previous studies prompted the World Health Organization in 2010 to undertake an inquiry into the prevalence of birth defects in the area. The WHO’s report, due out next month, is widely expected to show an increase in birth defects after the conflict. It has looked at nine “high-risk” areas in Iraq, including Fallujah and Basra. Where high prevalence is found, the WHO is expected to call for additional studies to pinpoint precise causes.
The study’s conclusions may understate the severity of the problem. According to Mozghan Sayabieasfahani, one of the lead authors of the report, the data gathered was likely to be an “underestimate” since many parents hide their children with defects and abnormalities from public view, leaving a number of cases unrecorded.