Iraq: Depleted Uranium, Political Turmoil, and Disability

It is difficult to find demographic statistics on Iraq. The population has experienced considerable upheaval as a direct consequence of the war my government started there, and it was already tremendously unstable before the United States invaded in 2003 with the ostensible goal of “fighting terrorism.” Seven years later, we are still in Iraq, and some very alarming health trends are emerging.

Iraq is littered with pollutants, many of which are a direct consequence of military activity. This includes dioxins from sites where materiel was burned, depleted uranium1 from scores of shells fired in the 1991 Gulf War and during the present Gulf War, remains of chemical and biological weapons which have not been properly contained, and pollution from the burning of oil fields. Who can forget the televised images from 1991 showing Iraq’s oil fields on fire because Saddam was so determined to keep them from falling into our hands?

It was a horrific image, not least because the oilfield burning generated pollution which would be making Iraqis sick decades into the future. The pollution in Iraq is also not limited to its borders, because pollutants know no national boundaries. Pollutants are carried along waterways, in the air, and on vehicles exiting Iraq. In other words, although this post is about Iraq, the issues I am discussing here are highly relevant to Iraq’s neighbors.

Rates of cancers in Iraq are skyrocketing, especially childhood cancers. Women experience breast and bladder cancer at rates which are, again, very difficult to estimate, but are known to be much higher than the norm. Numerous recent reports have also illustrated the incredibly rapid rise of genetic conditions caused by exposure to pollutants. Between 2008 and 2009, doctors in Falluja alone observed “15 times as many chronic deformities in infants.” War also has profound impact on mental health and many Iraqis are in need of mental health services.

It’s worth noting that pollution appears to be concentrated in Iraq’s poorest areas. Iraq’s poor are already at a disadvantaged position, and this has been made worse by exposure to pollutants. Problems like asthma are common among people inhaling harmful smoke, for example, and these problems make it difficult to work and support families. Iraqi women in particular are in a difficult position as they are expected to care for their families, get food on the table, and manage the household, whether or not they are sick. Across Iraq, there are very wide gender disparities when it comes to things like access to education, as well; around 84% of Iraqi men were literate in 2000, for example, in contrast with 64% of Iraqi women.

Meanwhile, numerous Iraqis are experiencing amputations as a result of being involved in bombings, and this includes innocent bystanders as well as Iraqi police and military personnel, and of course insurgents. The United States military does provide services like surgery and some rehabilitation to injured Iraqis brought to our military facilities for treatment, which is excellent, but those services are needed because we are there, and legitimate questions can and should be raised about what kind of long term support we are providing for disabled Iraqis. It should also be noted that getting medical attention from the US military can be dangerous; families with children in our care, for example, have faced reprisals from people who assume that they must be aiding the enemy if their children are being cared for. (Even though treatment is provided in military facilities to all who need it.)

Despite a lot of hunting, I could not find a recent and accurate count of the number of people in Iraq living with disabilities. I know it’s high, and I know that the United States government, which controls many services in Iraq, doesn’t have the greatest record on serving disabled Iraqis. In 2004, for example, Iraq’s only hospital serving people with disabilities was basically left to its own devices. We are trying to administer a country while theoretically supporting it so that it can be independent and also managing a war. It’s not working out very well for us.

Iraq’s infrastructure has been repeatedly torn apart after decades of war. Whether or not you think we should be in Iraq now, whether or not you agree with me politically on what is happening in Iraq and what the United States is doing around the world, the consequences of long term war and military occupation are indisputable. Iraq is in desperate need of rebuilding, and that rebuilding needs to include people with disabilities.

The pollution in Iraq is not, of course, solely the fault of the United States and our allies. Under Saddam, environmental controls were not exactly top notch, and Saddam infamously tested weapons on the Kurdish population of Iraq. Those who survived were often left with long term health problems. Improper containment of Iraqi materiel also led to pollution. But, given the fact that Iraq’s government clearly cannot handle the level of environmental cleanup involved, I think that the global community has a responsibility to provide assistance.

Iraq needs a lot of help. What can you do?

If you are a citizen of a country which is involved in Iraq’s reconstruction, you can make it clear to your representatives that you want to see people with disabilities represented in Iraq, and that you are concerned about the availability of health services to Iraqis. This includes everything from the need for rehabilitation facilities for people who have just been injured to basic sanitation in impoverished areas to prevent the spread of parasitic infections. It is also important to stress that the focus of aid needs to be on empowering Iraqis, not just providing services; instead of putting in new wells, we should be teaching Iraqis to put in wells. Likewise, instead of sending in medical personnel from other countries, we should be supporting training of doctors, nurses, and rehabilitation professionals drawn from Iraq’s own population.

You can also push for environmental cleanup in Iraq, along with the cleanup of unexploded ordinance, which poses a serious hazard. This does not necessarily have to be done by governments; there are also private organizations which could assist with cleanup. The Danish Demining Group, for example, has been active in Iraq since 2003.

You can join people in lobbying for tighter controls on the use and cleanup of depleted uranium. Iraq is not the only region of the world struggling with DU contamination; it’s also a big problem in the Balkans.

Finally, if you’re from a country which sent soldiers to Iraq or currently has troops in Iraq, you can advocate at home for disabled service members. Many people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are developing health problems as a result of exposure to the same pollutants which are causing health problems for Iraqis.

Writing letters and lobbying can be hard work, and you may not have the energy for it. Just raising awareness by talking about these issues and linking to posts about this is also an important action.

  1. Depleted uranium is a nuclear waste product which is utilized in munitions because it is extremely heavy. It’s used for things like armor-piercing shells, and, guess what, it’s radioactive!

2 Comments

  1. this is an amazing post – thank you for writing it.

    a common theme in these posts – on Iraq, on Cambodia, on Rwanda and Haiti – is that whatever disrupts an area seems to have the most damaging impact on already vulnerable people. whether it be pollution from burning oil fields for spite or hurricanes or anything else, the bad seems to run straight downhill until it lands on the people already at the bottom. but of course, paying attention to that when planning a war or deciding whether or not to use land mines in combat would be giving “special privileges” to those groups…

  2. Another thing you might do is help advocate for the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The submunitions units from cluster weapons often fail to detonate properly and are a severe hazard to civilians. Children find them appealing: they tend to be shiny balls. Which explode unpredictably, injuring or killing the people who pick them up and anyone close by.

    Like land mines, they are a particular danger to people already vulnerable. Cluster munitions are weapons we can leave in the past.
    .-= kaninchenzero┬┤s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.