Humvees from the 407th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron at nearby Tallil Air Base patrol in the desert in 2005. (Credit: U.S. Air Forces/Master Sgt. Maurice Hessel)

Is the toxic legacy of the Iraq War deforming children near US bases?

Researchers find radioactive compounds and elevated risk of health disorders in Iraqi children living near a U.S. Army base

Iraqi children living near a U.S. army base have elevated levels of dangerous metals in their bodies and are more likely to suffer from birth defects, according to a new study.

These disorders at birth can be severe and debilitating — including deformed limbs, congenital heart defects, and brain defects such as spina bifida.

The study, though small, adds to growing evidence that toxics from war — dispensed bombs, bullets, detonation of chemical and conventional weapons, and burn-pit emissions—pollute the environment and local people long after the battles are over, leaving a toxic legacy from U.S. occupation.

"The past decade of war in the Middle East evinces that overwhelming amounts of toxic metals have been injected into the Iraqi environment through thousands of bombings and millions of expended bullets," the authors wrote in the study published today in Environmental Pollution.

The researchers went to Bint Al-Huda Maternal and Child Teaching Hospital in the Nasiriyah region of Iraq and examined 19 children lived near a U.S. Army Base— Tallil Air Base—and 10 children who lived away from the base, comparing the kids' contaminant levels and health problems. The U.S. targeted Nasiriyah both in the early 1990s and 2003, and, according to the Department of Defense, open air burn pits have been used at Tallil Air Base starting in 2003.

"The U.S. maintains stockpiles of radioactive material at bases, and also stockpiles ammunition that has these things in it," lead author, Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an independent environmental toxicologist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told EHN.

They found that the most severe birth defects and the highest levels of thorium—a radioactive byproduct of depleted uranium—were found in children living closest to the United States' Tallil Air Base.

Uranium is a heavy metal that can remain in people's bodies for years after exposure. There are limited studies on the link between the metal and birth defects, however, lab studies have found depleted uranium can both increase DNA mutations and damage genetic information.

Savabieasfahani and colleagues also found that children who lived near a U.S. base had roughly 28 times more thorium in their baby teeth compared to children living farther away.

"All of those things appear to be related – there's an association between place of residence and distance to a military base and the measures of uranium and thorium in the children," Savabieasfahani said. "The farther you live from a base the less chance of birth defects."

Dr. Falah Basher, co-author of the study and a pediatrician in Nasiriyah, told EHN these birth defects set up children for "a lot of difficulties."

This can range from the inability to walk or to do usual daily activities. "Some complained and suffered difficulties in school activity in writing because have no hand or deformed hands," he said.

Toxic legacy

Multiple previous studies have concluded the U.S.-Iraq war left behind serious environmental pollution:

  • A 2011 report found for every person killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers fired roughly 250,000 bullets.
  • A 2007 UN report found about 1,000 to 2,000 metric tons of depleted uranium was fired in Iraq in 2003 alone
  • There are more than 500 U.S. military bases in Iraq, many of which routinely detonate explosives, store radioactive compounds and uranium-containing ammunition, and use burn pits to get rid of things like explosives, batteries, electronics and plastics.

And this isn't the first link between the war and health impacts on Iraq children: Doctors have been raising the alarm about increased birth defects and child cancers in Fallujah, which was bombed by the U.S. in 2004, since 2005.

Savabieasfahani and colleagues reported in a 2016 study "alarming" levels of lead in the baby teeth of Iraq children with birth defects.

Such evidence caught international attention and in a 2013 report the World Health Organization concluded that there was "no clear evidence to suggest an unusually high rate of congenital birth defects in Iraq." However, there was immediate and widespread backlash against the report.

The Lancet journal, for example, reported that several of the WHO's expert reviewers raised concerns about the methods used in the study.

"We appreciate the big and great sacrifices" 

The health impacts haven't been solely linked to Iraqi children: U.S. veterans have raised alarms about the health consequences of military burn pits as well. A burn pit registry at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has 183,950 participants.

However, "compared to US soldiers, who are temporarily exposed to war pollution, including burn-pit emissions, Iraqis who live permanently in the area are exposed to toxic emission and a full range of war pollutants for much longer," the authors wrote adding that the exposed include growing children, elderly, pregnant mothers, and infants, who "are likely to be more susceptible to exposure to toxicants."

Savabieasfahani said since she and others have been reporting these findings, she hasn't seen any action from the U.S. military.

Dr. Basher expressed gratitude for military sacrifices but told EHN that people in the US should know the health toll he believes this has taken on the Iraq people.

"We appreciate the big and great sacrifices … by USA to change our life and to help our people by replacing the dictator government by a democratic one," Dr. Basher said. "But the war was expensive and we pay till now."

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