The Health Effects of D.U. Weapons in Iraq Print E-mail


World Tribunal of Iraq Istanbul, Turkey 25 June 2005
Fourth Session / The Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (Moderator: Haifa Zangana)
The Health Effects of D.U. Weapons in Iraq by Thomas M. Fasy

It is a high honor form me to speak before the WORLD TRIBUNAL on IRAQ. I thank the organizing committee for their invitation. Uranium is radioactive and it is a toxic heavy metal. Inside the body, uranium exists as urany1 ions. Much of the toxicity of uranium is chemically mediated, in addition to the effects mediated by radiation. In 1986, while conducting experiments with crystal of potassium uranyl sulfate, Henri Becquerel discovered the phenomenon of radioactivity. Uranium, however, was known to be toxic since the 1820's. In june 1942, when a commission of scientists reported to President Franklin Roosevelt that a uranium fission bomb could be built "in time to influence the outcome of the war", they explicity warned about the toxicity of uranium and consequently, a large scale research program on uranium toxicology was begun in May 1943. It is now clear that uranium has multiple toxicities. This slide summarizes some of the major toxicities of uranium. By the early 1900s, uranium was well recognized to be a kidney toxin. By the mid-1940s, uranium was known to be a neurotoxin. By the early 1970s, uranium was recognized to be a carcinogen based on mortality studies of uranium workers and on experiments with dogs and monkeys. The first evidence that urany1 ions bind to DNA was reported in 1949 and by the early 1990s, uranium was shown to be a mutagen. Also, in the early 1990s, uranium was shown to be a teratogen, that is, an inducer of birth defects. The toxic effects of uranium on the kidney and on the nervous system typically occur within days of exposure and radiation probably plays little or no role in mediating these effects. In contrast, the carcinogenic effects of uranium have a delayed onset. The teratogenic effects of uranium might be due to exposure of one parent prior to conception as well as to exposure of the mother to uranium early in pregnancy. Not let us briefly consider the routes of exposure to uranium. In the context of the dust particles derived from depleted uranium weapons, this means exposure to uranium oxides. By far the most dangerous route of exposure to uranium oxides is the inhalational or respiratory route. Absorption of uranium oxides through the gastrointestinal tract, the skin and the conjunctivae is possible but quite limited. Following impact with hard targets, uranium metal undergoes combustion releasing large quantities of very small uranium oxide dust particles into the environment. These dust particles derived from depleted uranium weapons are drastically different from the natural uranium that is normally present in rocks and soil. Soil particles contain uranium at very low concentrations, typically less than 5 parts per million; the vast majority of these soil particles, however, are too large to be inhaled deep into the lungs. In contrast, the dust particles derived from depleted uranium weapons contain very high concentrations of uranium, typically more than 500.000 parts per million; moreover, most of the D.U. dust particles are sufficiently small to be inhaled deep into the lungs. Thus, compared to the uranium naturally present in the environment, D.U. dust contains uranium in a form that is vastly more bio-available and more readily internalized. Urany1 ions bind to DNA; they bind in the minor groove of DNA. While bound to DNA, urany1 ions are chemically reactive and can give rise to free radicals which may damage DNA. Chemically mediated DNA damage of this type may contribute to the ability of uranium to induce cancers. I would now like to present some epidemiologic data from the Basrag governate in the south of Iraq. In February 1991, more than 300 tons (possibly much more than 300 tons) of D.U. weapons were used in South of Iraq. After 5-6 year latent periods, increases in childhood cancers and birth defects were documented in the Basrah governate. The most recent data indicate a four fold increase in pediatric malignancies and a seven fold increase in congenital malformations compared to 1990, the year preceeding the war. On this map, we can see the areas contaminated with D.U. weapons in the 1991 war and in the 2003 war. The epidemiologic data, that I will present were reported by Drs. Alim Yacoub and Jenan Hassan. This graph presents the changing incidence rate was approximately three cases of congenital malformations per one thousand births. This rate fluctuated considerably until 1998 when it began to rise sharply. By 2001, the rate was more than 22 cases per thousand births, more than a seven fold increase compared to 1990. The next graph depicts the changing incidence rates of all childhood cancers and of leukemia (the most common childhood cancer) in the Basrah governate. The zero level represents the incidence rate for 1990. The incidence rates for total childhood cancers and for leukemias rose significantly between 1995 and 1998 and then began to increase sharply in 1999. In this graph, leukemia patients in the Basrah governate are seperated into three age groups: those diagnosed with leukemia before age 5, those diagnosed between age 5 and 9, and those diagnosed between ages 10 and 15. This graph shows a striking increase in the number of leukemia cases in children younger than five. In 1990, 2 children under five were diagnosed with leukemia; In 2002, 53 children under five were diagnosed with leukemia. When we look at charts and graphs of leukemia cases, we can easily loose sight of the anguish that leukemia represents for each child and his or her family. So I will close by presenting the story of Atarid, a five year old boy in Baghdad. This poignant photo was taken by Cathy Breen, a nurse from New York with Voices in the Wilderness. The photo was taken in mid-March 2003, a few days before the bombing of Baghdad began. Atarid was in hospital for treatment of his leukemia; his mother, Adra, has just been notified that all cancer patients in the hospital will be sent home to make room for the expected casualties from the iminent bombing. At the end of March 2003, Atarid died at home of septicemia, a blood infection. It is not possible to establish a direct cause and effect relationship between the contamination of many populated areas of Iraq with uranium oxide dust from depleted uranium weapons and the increased incidence of cancers, leukemia and birth defects in Iraq. Nonetheless, uranium is a known carcinogen and a known inducer of birth defects. Consequently, its dispersal into the environment in a form that is so readily internalized, is at the very least, profoundly reckless. Click<> here to download the slides.
A painter and a writer, she was born in Baghdad and graduated from University of Baghdad, School of Pharmacy. Joined the communist party - Central Command, in 1968. She was imprisoned by the Baath regime during 1971-72. She left Iraq to work with the PLO in 1975, moving between Syria and Lebanon, and moved to London on the onset of the civil war in Lebanon, in 1976. Co-founder of Act Together (a campaigning group for UK based Iraqi and non-Iraqi women) and a founding member of International Association for Contemporary Iraqi Studies (IACIS).