Remember Falluja? That city in central Iraq was the scene of two furious attacks in 2004 by American Marines. That spring, they went on a bombing, shooting rampage to avenge the murder and mutilation of four American mercenaries. Instead of targeting the estimated 2,000 insurgents, the Marines almost leveled the city of 300,000, without conquering it. Seven months later, they attacked again with artillery and bombs in what was described as the bloodiest urban warfare involving Americans since the Vietnam War.
Remember Basra? That southern Iraqi city has been suffering since the first Gulf War, in 1991. Radioactive residue from the 800 tons of bombs and 1 million rounds of ammunition used was soon showing up in babies born with huge heads, abnormally large eyes, stunted arms, bloated stomachs and defective hearts. Later in the 1990s, Basra was hit as part of maintaining the American no fly zone on Saddam Hussein. It was attacked yet again in the 2003 American-British invasion and subsequent occupation.
Now we see that the children of Falluja and Basra are suffering a staggering rise in birth defects, primarily from the metals released by bombs, bullets and shells — the dust that gets into food, water, air, soil and crops.
A recent study by an environmental toxicologist at the University of Michigan attributes the defects to the presence of high levels of lead, mercury and other contaminants in the bodies of both parents and their afflicted children.
It substantiates what horrified doctors at Falluja General Hospital had been reporting since 2005. In September 2009, they had asked the United Nations to investigate why a quarter of the 170 babies born there that month had died within seven days and a staggering 75 per cent of the dead babies were deformed.
In 2010, the University of Ulster reported that increases in congenital birth defects, leukemia and infant mortality in Falluja were higher than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Later that same year, Mozhgan Savabieasfahani of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health published an epidemiological study, also showing shocking levels of birth defects in Falluja children.
Since then, she and her collaborating team of doctors in Iraq and neighboring Iran have broadened their research in Falluja and Basra. Last month, they published their findings in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.
They followed 56 families from Falluja General Hospital and also thousands of records at the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Basra maternity hospital.
Between 2004 and 2006, almost half the pregnancies among those Falluja families resulted in miscarriage. Between 2007 and 2010, more than half the children born in them had some form of birth defect (compared to less than 2 per cent in 2000). Abnormalities included heart defects, malformed or missing limbs, cleft palates, swollen heads, single eyes, bloated tummies and body organs spilling out of defective abdominal walls.
Among the children with birth defects, lead levels were five times higher and mercury levels six times higher than for normal children.
In Basra, birth defects had gone up to 23 per 1,000 births by 2003, a 17-fold increase since 1994.
Mercury levels in children with defects were three times higher than among normal children. The enamel portion of the deciduous tooth from a child with birth defects showed nearly three times higher lead levels than the teeth of children from other areas. Their parents had 1.4 times higher lead levels in tooth enamel compared to parents of normal children.
If anything, the data underestimates the epidemic, says Savabieasfahani. Many parents tend to hide their children with defects and abnormalities.
The American and British governments try to deflect such damning studies by saying they were “not aware of them,” or that the findings may not be definitive.
But Savabieasfahani told me on the phone from Ann Arbor, Mich., that there’s “a clear footprint of metal in the population” in Falluja and Basra. “There is compelling evidence linking the staggering increases in Iraqi birth defects to neurotoxic metal contamination following the repeated bombardments. There is no other explanation. There has been no volcano eruption, for example.”
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is also studying the crises not only in Falluja and Basra but also seven other “high-risk” Iraqi cities. Its report is due out next month.
These studies should be required reading for anyone who still wonders why the Arab and Muslim world remains so angry at America and its allies.