FALLUJAH, Iraq — Three years after the United States removed troops from Iraq, the people of Fallujah still feel the after-effects of our military’s presence. But now the city has a new enemy: a birth defect and cancer epidemic.
Fallujah faced strong aggression in the Iraq War. The city sits 43 miles from Baghdad and started out as an important stronghold for Sunni resistance to U.S. occupation. But after the U.S. government decided to make an example out of the focal point of its opposition in November 2004, the city was left disseminated. Even today, Fallujah lacks infrastructure, such as a functioning sewage system and ruined buildings remind the people of a ruthless attack.
The city and its citizens were victim to some of the cruelest wartime technology in history. During the assault, the U.S. classified all remaining residents as enemy combatants, and with no regard for the safety of those defenseless women and children, unleashed bombs made of depleted uranium and burned survivors with white phosphorus. The brutal onslaught left the city in ruins and its residents massacred.
Depleted uranium is massively destructive; 40 percent of the substance is released from a bomb when the shell shatters, and this chemical can remain radioactive in the soil and water in an area for thousands of years. Even worse, uranium can get into the bloodstream, lungs or sex cells, causing horrible medical problems for generations to come.
It has now been a decade since Fallujah’s near annihilation, and now the city is starting to see the effects of the uranium on its population.
According to the 2010 study, called, “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex Ratio in Fallujah Iraq 2005- 2009,” cancer in the city has increased four times in the general population since 2004 and childhood cancer is up 12 times from pre-attack levels. These cancers are of the same type as seen after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, but at even higher levels. Since the Fallujah bombings, there has been a 38-fold increase in leukemia and a 10-fold increase in breast cancer compared to surrounding nations. Lymphoma and brain tumor incidence in adults has also seen a spike.
Children and newborns are among those most tragically affected. The same study revealed that infant mortality in Iraq is now five times that in Egypt and Jordan and eight times the rate in Kuwait.
The most heartbreaking of medical calamities that resulted from the uranium attack are the birth defects. Dr. Samira Alani of the Fallujah General Hospital says, “We have all kinds of defects now, ranging from congenital heart disease to severe physical abnormalities.”
The numbers are staggering. The incidence of birth defects after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was one percent to two percent. After the attacks in Fallujah, the incidence is 14.7 percent. In the Fallujah General Hospital alone, birth defects increased by 17 times between 2003 and 2012. Before the violence, defects of this sort were seen once every two months. Alani says she now sees two or three cases per day.
Most of these newborns suffer from defects to their heart or nervous system that often result in death, since the infants are simply “incompatible with life.” But there is a frightening array other of deformities as well. Alani says she has seen babies born with three heads, one eye in the center of the forehead or internal organs outside the body.
One of the most shocking results of the uranium is the shift in the sex ratio. In a healthy population, 1,050 boys are born to every 1,000 girls. However, because of complex genetic mutation in the womb, there are only 860 boys born for every 1,000 girls in Fallujah. This change in sex ratio is at even higher levels than Hiroshima.
In the face of such medical tragedy, the U.S. military still refuses to take responsibility for the increase in cancer and birth defects. Both the U.S. and Iraqi governments have made research on the subject difficult and deny that uranium and phosphorous have caused the tragedy seen years later in Fallujah.
But even while the U.S. rejects culpability, doctors in Iraq are convinced that the country’s use of depleted uranium is the source of their troubles. Dr. Salah Haddad of the Iraqi Society for Health Administration and Promotion says, “We are concerned about the future of our children being exposed to radiation and other toxic materials the U.S. military has introduced into our environment,” and many local doctors echo his sentiments.
As it turns out, the use of uranium in such attacks is prohibited under Article 35 of the 1977 amendment to the Geneva Conventions because the medical damage caused can be classified as unnecessary suffering and excessive injuries. The U.S. must take responsibility for the harm it has caused and restrict the use of such weapons in the future to avoid thousands more similar catastrophes down the road.
Fallujah will continue to struggle with cancer and birth defect rates for generations. Once uranium is in the water sources, the soil and the air, it is there to stay. Now we must ensure that Fallujah can offer the best of care to its sick and no population suffers a similar tragedy in the future.
– Caitlin Thompson