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Sep-22-2013 15:56printcomments

'Damning Evidence' Becomes 'No Clear Evidence': Much-Delayed Report On Congenital Birth Defects In Iraq

"All studies done by the Ministry of Health prove with damning evidence that there has been a rise in birth defects and cancer, since the substances in question cause birth defects if the mother was exposed to them, or cancer, or in some cases, both." - senior MOH official in Baghdad

Iraq boy with Leukemia
Image: Media Lens

(LONDON) - In a 2010 alert, 'Beyond Hiroshima – The Non-Reporting Of Fallujah's Cancer Catastrophe', we noted the almost non-existent media response to the publication of a new study that had found high rates of infant mortality, cancer and leukemia in the Iraqi city. The dramatic increases in these rates exceeded even those found in survivors of the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The Independent's Patrick Cockburn was a lone exception in reporting these awful findings.

As many readers will recall, Fallujah was subjected to US military attacks in March 2004 and an even larger assault in November 2004 which also involved UK forces. Our media alerts at the time highlighted the abysmal lack of media coverage of Western war crimes in Fallujah, including the use of chemical weapons and depleted uranium. Media Lens paid particular attention to the appalling performance of BBC News ('Doubt Cast on BBC Claims Regarding Fallujah', 'BBC Silent On Fallujah', 'BBC Still Ignoring Evidence Of War Crimes').

And it is not just Fallujah that has suffered appallingly. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health and author of the book Pollution and Reproductive Damage, notes that increasing numbers of birth defects have also been seen in Mosul, Najaf, Basra, Hawijah, Nineveh and Baghdad. In some provinces, adds Dr Savabieasfahani, the rate of cancers is also increasing. She says:

'Sterility, repeated miscarriages, stillbirths and severe birth defects - some never described in any medical books - are weighing heavily on Iraqi families.'

In Basra, attacked and occupied by UK troops, childhood leukaemia rates more than doubled between 1993 and 2007, the year that UK troops withdrew from the city.

Dr Savabieasfahani describes 'an epidemic of birth defects in Iraq' and says that what is 'most urgently needed' is: 'comprehensive large-scale environmental testing of the cities where cancer and birth defects are rising. Food, water, air, and soil must be tested to isolate sources of public exposure to war contaminants. This is a necessity to discover the source, extent, and types of contaminants in the area followed by appropriate remediation projects to prevent further public exposure to toxic war contaminants.'

In 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO), after being pressured by public health experts for a decade, belatedly instigated a study in conjunction with the Iraqi Ministry of Health (MOH) to investigate 'prevalence and factors associated with congenital birth defects' in Iraq. But although the study is extensive in scale, with 10,800 Iraq households selected as the sample size, Dr Savabieasfahani describes the scope of the research as 'severely handicapped'. Why? Because of the controversial decision not to investigate the possible causes of birth defects and cancer; in particular, depleted uranium (DU), white phosphorus and other dangerous residues of the war, notably lead and mercury.

DU is a by-product of the process of enriching uranium. Because of its very high density, it is often used in weapons designed to penetrate buildings and armoured tanks. Dr Keith Baverstock, a former health and radiation adviser to WHO, says that:
'There is absolutely no doubt that DU is toxic if it becomes systemic and gets into the bloodstream.'
The decision by WHO and MOH not to consider uranium in their study 'is an important omission', says Dr Baverstock, and he 'believes that WHO has miserably failed to assess risks posed by DU... There is no doubt in my mind that the upper management of WHO failed to fulfil their obligations to examine the public health implications of DU.'
In 2004, Dr Baverstock was the lead author of a WHO report linking the US and UK use of depleted uranium in Iraq with long-term health risks. But the report was declared 'secret' and never published. Dr Baverstock said that the report was 'deliberately suppressed', pointing the finger of suspicion at the powerful pro-nuclear UN body, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The War Is Responsible – 'No Other Explanation'

The new WHO/MOH report was originally due to be published in November 2012, but it was indefinitely postponed with no satisfactory reason given. Months passed. Meanwhile, in March 2013, the BBC included a report on its World News channel about birth defects and cancer in Iraq. BBC reporter Yalda Hakim interviewed Dr Mushin Sabbak at Basra Maternity Hospital. He told her that he believed that 'mercury, lead, uranium' from the war were responsible for a 60 per cent increase in birth defects there since 2003. 'We have no other explanation than this,' he added. (An edited version of the World News segment appeared here on BBC News.)
Dr Chaseb Ali, a senior MOH official in Baghdad, told Hakim that:

'All studies done by the Ministry of Health prove with damning evidence that there has been a rise in birth defects and cancer, since the substances in question cause birth defects if the mother was exposed to them, or cancer, or in some cases, both.' (English subtitles)
The BBC journalist said in the report's voiceover:
'Dr Chaseb says there could be many factors, including the use of depleted uranium, and the looting and destruction of Saddam Hussein's laboratories.'
Tellingly, when the journalist asked the senior Iraqi health official whether, given the extensive findings of increased birth defects and cancer, the Iraq government would call for action, he smiled uncomfortably and said:
'I'll keep my thoughts to myself.'
Switching to English, he stated directly:
'I have no answer. I know the fact, but I cannot say anything.'
Hakim then spoke with two Iraqi Ministry of Health doctors working on the WHO/MOH study. These researchers discussed the increase in Iraqi birth defects, and blamed the increase on the war. The BBC reporter was told that the report had been repeatedly delayed but that:
'They confirm that the report will show a rise in birth defects in areas which show heavy fighting....'

Related articles:

Sep-16-2013: Al Jazeera: 'No Clear Evidence' for Rise in Iraqi Birth Defects - Mozhgan Savabieasfahani Special to

Aug-22-2013: WHO Is Delaying Release of Iraqi Birth Defect Data

Aug-11-2013: The WHO Must Release Report on Iraqi Birth Defects Now - Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani for

Jul-17-2013: WHO's Iraq Birth Defect Study Omits Causation - By Sudeshna Chowdhury Inter Press Service

Mar-24-2013: Burying the Truth Along with the Dead - Tyrone Borelli for

Oct-13-2012: Iraq Records Huge Rise in Birth Defects: 'New Study Links Increase with Military Action by Western Forces' -

Mar-23-2012: Under Attack Over Articles Revealing Suspected Illegal Nuclear Weapon Use - Tim King

Mar-14-2012: Victims of Israeli Attacks in Gaza Contaminated with Uranium - Tim King

Nov-04-2011: Birth Defects Reveal Weapons-Grade Enriched Uranium Used in Fallujah, Iraq - Tim King

Mar-21-2011: Recalling the Battle: History Repeats Itself on the 8th Anniversary of the Invasion of Iraq - Jeff Archer

Jan-02-2011: Four Polygamous Families with Congenital Birth Defects from Fallujah, Iraq -

Sep-21-2008: Marine Corps, Jordan and Israel Offer Hope for Iraqi Child Heart Patients - Tim King



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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.