STOKING FIRE: In Iraq, High Rates of Cancer and Birth Defects Linked to Use of Chemical Weapons in War

Eleanor J. Bader

The U.S. war ended in December 2011, but families in numerous Iraqi cities are living with a dramatic rise in birth defects and cancer from chemical weapons that were detonated near homes, schools, and playgrounds.

It’s said that wars never end for those whose lives they touch, and it’s true. Take Iraq—a place that surely proves the maxim that war is not healthy for children or other living things.

To wit: Despite the fact that the U.S. war with Iraq came to a close on December 18, 2011, families in numerous Iraqi cities are now living with a dramatic rise in birth defects and cancer from chemical weapons that were detonated near homes, schools, and playgrounds during the nearly seven-year conflict.

The cities of Babil, Basra, Falluja, Haweeja, and Najaf are cases in point. Let’s start with Haweeja, which is 30 miles south of Kirkuk and was home to Forward Operating Base (FOB) McHenry throughout the war. Yifat Susskind is executive director of MADRE, a New York-based international women’s human rights organization. Susskind says that Haweeja’s skyrocketing health problems came to the group’s attention when members of Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI)—MADRE’s partner organization in that country—began going house to house to talk about the need to establish a shelter for rape survivors.

“When they arrived, they noticed that almost every family they visited had a child under the age of 10 with stunted or paralyzed limbs, or who had been born without fingers or toes,” Susskind says. “And they found teens who had been toddlers at the time of the U.S. invasion and were now sick with cancer. The OWFI activists were shocked and wanted to know what was going on, why this was happening.”

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What they uncovered points directly to U.S. culpability. Peace Alliance Winnipeg, for one, reports that beginning in 2004, the United States “tested all types of explosive devices on Iraqis—thermobaric weapons, white phosphorus, depleted uranium.”

The upshot, discussed in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, has been a monumental increase in cancer, leukemia, malignant brain tumors, and infant mortality. In Falluja alone, The Journal concludes that the rate of life-threatening illnesses and birth defects is “significantly greater than those reported for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.”

Yes, you read that correctly—greater than the damage of an atomic bomb, a fact corroborated by a 2009 article in The Guardian newspaper. The article described a 38-fold increase in the number of cases of leukemia and a 15-fold increase in the number of newborns born with deformities during the first five years of the war, including limb malformations, neural tube defects, heart and vision anomalies, and a baby born with two heads.

Not surprisingly, the miscarriage rate  throughout the country has mushroomed, and tumor clusters have been recognized in Basra and Najaf, intense battle zones where so-called modern munitions were heavily used.

In cities like Haweeja, where U.S. soldiers at FOB McHenry routinely detonated explosive devices, it was not uncommon for children to play, and for shepherds and sheep to walk, in grass-covered fields that were adjacent to the base. As they did so, they often tracked a fine dust containing the residue of depleted uranium (DU) from place to place. Microscopic particles from the blasts were spread by wind, and subsequently inhaled. These particles found their way into groundwater and soil, polluting the air and contaminating virtually everything they touched.

DU is, of course, lethal—scientists estimate that it can remain radioactive for 4.5 billion years—but it remains in use because it increases the penetration capacity of projectiles. DU is blamed for the cancer spike in the city of Babil, south of Baghdad, where the number of diagnosed cases went from 500 in 2004 to 9,082 in 2009.

These facts point to a crisis of enormous proportions. At the same time, MADRE’s Susskind makes clear that Iraq’s problems are compounded by poverty and lack of access to affordable health care—as well as by pervasive superstitions about the causes of illness. Widely held fallacies feed bias against the disabled, she says, making the task of organizing especially grueling.

“Iraq is a place where none of the work that has been done in other countries to promote disability rights has occurred, so there is still a lot of discrimination against the disabled,” Susskind says.

“This gives us the tragic opportunity to organize to upset the stigma, to break down negative attitudes that exist, and to do community-based peer counseling to help parents overcome the fear, guilt, anger, and resentment they feel. The needs in the aftermath of this war are so huge.”

Susskind says that MADRE is is “working with OWFI on the three-pronged strategy that for now is exclusively focused on Haweeja: To raise $50,000 for direct services to begin meeting the immediate and long-term needs of the population that has been affected; to do a comprehensive public-health survey to give us hard data on the extent and range of the problems; and to explore a legal challenge to demand U.S. accountability for the crisis.”

The challenge, Susskind continues, is made even more daunting by the fact that there is only one health clinic in Haweeja, a city of approximately 100,000 people. “We are studying models that have been used in other places with limited access to mental and physical health services,” she says. “With OWFI we’re trying to find community-based models that can train moms to help their kids, get medical aid to people, and enhance the population’s awareness of the correlation between illness and the fact that their city was used as a munitions dumping ground. We want the people of the United States to understand that this crisis is a direct result of the U.S. military’s disregard for the health of the people in Iraq.”

Click here for more information about Madre’s Haweeja project.

Click here to donate to help Haweeja. 

Click here to join MADRE’s Haweeja Action Team.

Analysis Human Rights

Stoking Fire: Addressing the Specific Needs of Female Syrian Refugees

Eleanor J. Bader

Humanitarian groups are working to provide aid to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled to Jordan, but the specific needs of women and girls all too often fall through the cracks.

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, more than a million people have fled, causing a refugee crisis of enormous magnitude. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), upwards of 3,000 Syrians a day have registered as asylum seekers in neighboring Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey. The lion’s share of these refugees—between 300,000 and 400,000—have ended up in Jordan, with approximately 30 percent of the total settling in the Al Zaatari refugee camp and 70 percent moving into host communities throughout the country. UNFPA further estimates that three-quarters of the refugees are women and children.

By all accounts, displaced Syrians are encountering grim conditions, with overt violence, supply shortages, and filth more the rule than the exception.

The Al Zaatari refugee camp, administered by the UN High Commission for Refugees, was built to accommodate 60,000 people, but there may be as many as 120,000 refugees there now, according to the New York Times. Yifat Susskind, executive director of MADRE, was in Jordan and visited the Al Zaatari camp in mid-April.

“Jordan is a highly functioning state, but it is resource stressed, especially for water,” Susskind told Rewire. “Syrian refugees are putting a huge strain on the population, and tensions have developed. For example, Syria is a beautiful, green country with adequate fresh water, so it does not have a culture of conservation. One of the big issues in the camp is that refugees are protesting the amount of their daily water ration. At the same time, water-strapped Jordanians are beginning to resent camp residents who they perceive as having easy access to all the water they need.”

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In addition, Jordanians are fearful that the Syrian influx will inflame already pervasive problems, including deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, and the overgrazing of land.

Even more daunting are safety concerns. Al Zaatari’s toilets are unlit so many woman are terrified to use them at night, and there is a need for more routine health-care services, including basics like adequate access to sanitary pads, and ongoing educational programs for youth. Although UNFPA reports that it provided reproductive health services to more than 3,600 women in the camp during two weeks in early April, Susskind said that there are nonetheless barriers that need to be addressed, among them the distance between the health center and the location of many people’s temporary housing. “The camp is so large that it can take an hour and 15 minutes to walk to the area where services are offered,” she said.

“For women who are in the last months of pregnancy, who are sick, or who have just delivered a baby, this location poses a terrible hardship,” Susskind said. “There has been talk of trying to raise money for a shuttle bus, but this has not yet happened.”

Despite this criticism, Susskind is quick to commend UNFPA for its valiant efforts. Still, as she spoke, she shook her head at the enormity of the issues facing aid workers each day.

Dealing with survivors of sexual trauma or rape is even more problematic, she continued: “We know that rape and domestic violence always increase in times of war and displacement, and we know that many of the women became refugees after being raped or out of fear that sexual violence would be perpetrated against them or their family members.”

She went on, “There is no way to estimate the number or refugees who have been raped or sexually abused, and it is really clear that this is a topic the women won’t talk about. Syrian refugees have a lot of disincentives to keep them from coming forward to talk about these issues. They live in a culture where honor killing is practiced and where the blame and shame of rape is placed exclusively on them.” This means that crisis counseling teams need to be attuned to the signs of trauma that typically appear in survivors, from the inability to bond with a newborn to disassociation to overt clinical depression.

Women Under Siege Director Lauren Wolfe, writing in The Atlantic, calls Syria “a nation of traumatized survivors,” and notes that men as well as women have been violated by government forces and plainclothes militia in a campaign meant to humiliate, intimidate, and ultimately stifle resistance to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

What’s more, overwrought and fearful families have pushed girls as young as 13 into arranged—some would call them forced—marriages. In more than a few instances, this has unwittingly placed them in the hands of traffickers; in other cases, it has meant moving adolescent girls far from their families, isolating them from everyone they have ever known.

Meanwhile, the number of refugees keeps growing as more and more people opt to leave Syria, on foot and by paying drivers to transport them across borders that may eventually be closed. While humanitarian groups such as Handicap International, the Jordanian Red Crescent, Mercy Corps, and UNICEF are working to provide supplies to this diaspora, the specific needs of women and girls all too often fall through the cracks. Code Pink and MADRE, among other feminist groups, are working to address and meet female needs; they recently teamed up to purchase 350 solar lanterns so that at least some of the women in Al Zaatari can be more relaxed about walking in the camp after dark. They are also fundraising to train midwives to counsel women who show signs of sexual abuse and trauma.


STOKING FIRE: OTC Weed-Killing Toxin Causes Birth Defects, Poses Wide Range of Other Health Hazards

Eleanor J. Bader

According to the NIH, research indicates that the number of babies born with birth defects in places where Atrazine is sprayed is consistently higher in the months following its use. And the danger of Atrazine extends beyond physical imperfections in newborns. 

Back in May, Syngenta, one of the world’s largest pesticide manufacturers—a company with offices in 90 countries and a workforce of 26,000 people—settled an eight-year-old class action lawsuit for $105 million. The agreement provides funding to more than 30 districts in the Midwestern United States to clean up water supplies that had been contaminated by Atrazine, a pesticide that was banned by the European Union in 2004 and that the National Institutes of Health have linked to adult illnesses and disabilities in newborn babies who were exposed to it in utero. 

According to the NIH, research indicates that the number of babies born with birth defects in places where Atrazine is sprayed—defects that include spina bifida, Down syndrome, respiratory anomalies, and esophageal, and gastrointestinal abnormalities–is consistently higher in the months following its use.  

“Atrazine is applied and spread on crops in the spring,” Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council explains.

“It then goes into the ground water. The amount spikes during application season so that there are weeks, or even months, when people are exposed to drinking water containing more than three parts per billion—the threshold for safety that has been determined by the Environmental Protection Agency–of this known endocrine disruptor. That’s why when a woman conceives during Atrazine application season, she is more likely to have a baby with health issues.”

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And the danger of Atrazine extends beyond physical imperfections in newborns. The Centers for Disease Control found that “chronic high dose toxicity observed in animals demonstrated decreased body weight, myocardial muscle degeneration, liver toxicity, developmental ossification defects, impaired fertility, altered estrus cycles, delayed onset of puberty, and reduced levels of luteinizing hormones, prolactin, and testosterone.” In addition, scientists noticed that humans exposed to high levels of Atrazine had an elevated risk of miscarriage, breast, and prostate cancers.

“The settlement money will help clean up and prevent future contamination,” says Paul Towers, the Organizing and Media Director of the Pesticide Action Network of North America “But it does not have any public health implications for the hazards of Atrazine. On the positive side, there is money for cleaning the water Midwesterners drink. The problem is that Syngenta has lobbied hard to keep selling Atrazine; it’s their flagship product.”

PANNA estimates that seven million US residents were exposed to Atrazine in their drinking water in the five years between 1998 and 2003. What’s more, 75 percent of all corn, 58.5 percent of all sorghum, and 76 percent of all sugarcane is presently treated with the pesticide. It’s also used on lawns and golf courses throughout the country.

As if this were not enough, recent studies conducted by the NRDC found Atrazine in the drinking water of 153 public water systems. “The adverse effects of Atrazine have been seen in amphibians, mammals, and humans, even at low levels of exposure,” the researchers concluded. ”Concentrations as low as one part per billion have been shown to alter the development of sex characteristics in male frogs.”

No, people are not frogs. Still, it seems clear that dangers lurk, something the EPA noted 22 years ago when it dubbed the herbicide a “restricted use product.” Despite this gesture, the designation changed nothing. Atrazine continues to be sold over the counter—to the tune of 76 million pounds a year in the U.S. alone–and there is absolutely no oversight to make sure that it is used safely. Worldwide, 60 countries allow it to be sprayed on crops.

For its part, despite the settlement agreement, Syngenta is hunkering down and continuing to sing Atrazine’s praises.

“Syngenta acknowledges no liability and continues to stand by the safety of Atrazine,” Ann Bryan, the company’s Senior Manager for External Relations wrote in an email. ”The value of Atrazine is clear. It benefits American farmers by up to $3.3 billion and supports up to 85,000 American jobs related to farming annually.”

Indeed, Atrazine IS effective and has proven to be a fast and inexpensive way to kill weeds. The question is whether having weed-free fields is worth the health risks everyone but Syngenta associates with the product.      

Worse, the fact that Atrazine can linger in the water supply for up to 15 years should give everyone–from the EPA, to farmers, to corporate executives—pause, especially since it is possible to promote safer ways of using Atrazine until it can be phased out.

The Land Stewardship Project cautions that if Atrazine has to be utilized it should never be sprayed within 200 feet of a lake, pond, or reservoir and urges the planting of high grass buffers along all rivers and streams. At the same time, the Project argues that weed control without pesticides is possible—if more labor intensive.

It comes down to how much we value the people who plant, pick, and nurture our crops since farm workers and their offspring are clearly at disproportionate risk of pesticide poisoning. “Farmers seem stuck on a pesticide treadmill,” PANNA’s Paul Towers admits. ”Rather than moving toward more ecological practices that allow us to grow more successfully, they too-often fall prey to relentless sales pitches from pesticide corporations.”  

That said, some heartening progress in workplace and consumer safety is evident. Not only has BPA, another known endocrine disruptor associated with increased heart disease, diabetes, liver toxicity, and breast cancer, been banned from baby bottles and sippy cups—a small first step–but in the past few years coalitions have formed to address the health consequences of other pesticides. To wit, six months ago, in March 2012, the Arysta LifeScience Corporation agreed to stop dumping methyl iodide on California’s strawberries fields. The concession followed an unprecedented campaign by the United Farm Workers and environmental and reproductive health groups to publicize the dangers the chemical poses for human reproduction.

While all agree that Atrazine may be a tougher nut to crack—it has been used since 1958—mounting evidence of the havoc it causes cannot be ignored. The onus, however, is on us to do extensive outreach, bringing together a broad cross-section of people to demand safe workplaces, safe food, and safe conditions for conception. Time is surely of the essence.


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