News / Middle East

Birth Defects Rise in Former Iraqi Battleground

Sebastian Meyer
The Iraqi city of Fallujah, which saw some of the heaviest fighting during the Iraq war, is now experiencing an alarming increase in birth defects, including spina bifida.  A recently-published medical study indicates that exposure to toxic metals from U.S. munitions could be responsible, though the Pentagon discounts the claim.

Five-year-old Lujane is one of hundreds of children in Fallujah who have been born since 2004 with severe birth defects.  Her father says Lujane suffers from multiple afflictions that Iraqi doctors struggle to treat.

“The doctor was shocked because it was the first time he saw four defects in one person. A hole in the lower back, a hole in the heart, brain atrophy, and paralysis.”

The medical report, published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, found that the rate of birth defects in Fallujah jumped from two percent in 2001 to 50 percent in 2007. The report suggests that the massive amount of firepower used by the U.S. military in the 2004 battle for Fallujah could be responsible for this alarming increase.

Dr. Ahmed Kamal Qasim, a human geneticist in Baghdad, says the increased birth defects in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq stem from multiple factors related to war, including malnutrition, but also pollution from spent munitions. “Birth defects are genetically divided into two types: chromosomal types and gene types. Chromosomal type increased in huge numbers, compared to the genetic defects types due to the polluted areas," Qasim explained. "Also, the gene defect type increased in some ways like the chromosomal defect, but in small numbers in special areas. We suspect mostly due to the types of chemicals in weapons, especially missiles.”  

The report found that lead levels in children with birth defects are five times higher than in other children and mercury levels are six times higher. Lead and mercury are both neurotoxins which the study says are contained in munitions used by the U.S. military.

Officials at the Pentagon deny U.S. military ammunition contains mercury. And they say they are not aware of any official reports showing increased birth defects in Fallujah caused by exposure to metals contained in U.S. munitions. However, the Pentagon says it always takes very seriously public health concerns that could be associated with U.S. combat activities.
     
But in the case of Abdullah, who suffers from birth defects similart to Lujane's, the cause is clear, according to his father.
 
“I cannot describe my feelings, but all I can say is that I’d sell my own soul to have my son walk. My message to the American soldiers is this: ‘Would you let this happen to your children?’”

The toxicology study is careful to mention that more research needs to be done to find the exact cause of these birth defects.

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