It played unwilling host to one of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq war. Fallujah’s homes and businesses were left shattered; hundreds of Iraqi civilians were killed. Its residents changed the name of their “City of Mosques” to “the polluted city” after the United States launched two massive military campaigns eight years ago. Now, one month before the World Health Organisation reveals its view on the legacy of the two battles for the town, a new study reports a “staggering rise” in birth defects among Iraqi children conceived in the aftermath of the war.
High rates of miscarriage, toxic levels of lead and mercury contamination and spiralling numbers of birth defects ranging from congenital heart defects to brain dysfunctions and malformed limbs have been recorded. Even more disturbingly, they appear to be occurring at an increasing rate in children born in Fallujah, about 40 miles west of Baghdad.
There is “compelling evidence” to link the increased numbers of defects and miscarriages to military assaults, says Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, one of the lead authors of the report and an environmental toxicologist at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. Similar defects have been found among children born in Basra after British troops invaded, according to the new research.
US marines first bombarded Fallujah in April 2004 … Seven months later, the marines stormed the city for a second time, using some of the heaviest US air strikes deployed in Iraq. American forces later admitted that they had used white phosphorus shells, although they never admitted to using depleted uranium, which has been linked to high rates of cancer and birth defects.
… The latest study found that in Fallujah, more than half of all babies surveyed were born with a birth defect between 2007 and 2010. Before the siege, this figure was more like one in 10. Prior to the turn of the millennium, fewer than 2 per cent of babies were born with a defect. More than 45 per cent of all pregnancies surveyed ended in miscarriage in the two years after 2004, up from only 10 per cent before the bombing. Between 2007 and 2010, one in six of all pregnancies ended in miscarriage.
The new research, which looked at the health histories of 56 families in Fallujah, also examined births in Basra, in southern Iraq, attacked by British forces in 2003. Researchers found more than 20 babies out of 1,000 were born with defects in Al Basrah Maternity Hospital in 2003, a number that is 17 times higher than recorded a decade previously. In the past seven years, the number of malformed babies born increased by more than 60 per cent; 37 out of every 1,000 are now born with defects…
Dr Savabieasfahani said that for the first time, there is a “footprint of metal in the population” and that there is “compelling evidence linking the staggering increases in Iraqi birth defects to neuro-toxic metal contamination following the repeated bombardments of Iraqi cities”. She called the “epidemic” a “public health crisis”.
Dr Savabieasfahani said she plans to analyse the children’s samples for the presence of depleted uranium once funds have been raised. She added: “We need extensive environmental sampling, of food, water and air to find out where this is coming from. Then we can clean it up. Now we are seeing 50 per cent of children being born with malformations; in a few years it could be everyone.”