FALLUJAH, Iraq — Three years after the United States removed all troops from Iraq, the people in the city of Fallujah still feel the after-affects of our military’s presence. Now the city has a new enemy: birth defects and a cancer epidemic.
Fallujah faced strong aggression in the Iraq War. The city sits 43 miles from Baghdad and was originally 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 decimated. Even today, Fallujah lacks basic infrastructure such as a functioning sewage system. Ruined buildings remind the people of the ruthless attack.
The city and its citizens were victims 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, they 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. Forty 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 work its way 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 Fallujah has increased four times in the general population since 2004. Childhood cancer is up 12 times from pre-attack levels. These cancers are the same types seen after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, but they appear 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 have 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. Doctor 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 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. Doctor Alani says she now sees two or three cases a day, showing how the war caused serious health repercussions in Fallujah.
Most of these newborns suffer from defects to their heart or nervous system that often result in death because the infants are simply “incompatible with life.” But there is a frightening array of other of deformities as well. Doctor Alalni 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 mutations in the womb, there are only 860 boys born for every 1,000 girls in Fallujah. This change in sex ratio is even greater than at Hiroshima.
In the face of such medical tragedy, the U.S. military still refuses to take responsibility for the increase in birth defects and cancer in Fallujah. 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 United States rejects culpability, doctors in Iraq are convinced that the country’s use of depleted uranium is the source of their troubles. Doctor 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.” 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, soil and the air, it is there to stay. Now we must ensure that Fallujah can offer the best of care to its sick people and that no population suffers a similar tragedy in the future.
– Caitlin Thompson