|Published Monday, April 6, 1998,
in the Miami Herald
Iraqi cancers offer clues to Gulf War Syndrome
Uranium residue a prime suspect
By JOHN DONNELLY
Herald Foreign Staff
BASRA, Iraq -- Valuable clues to one of the American
military's most perplexing mysteries may be swirling in
the dust around this southern Iraqi city.
As U.S. veterans complain of a puzzling array of
debilitating ailments loosely grouped together as ``Gulf
War Syndrome,'' the number of cancer
cases and birth defects among civilians in four southern
Iraqi cities has grown at least threefold since the 1991
war, according to Iraqi doctors and medical records.
Unpublished Iraqi government documents show a sharp
postwar rise in cancer rates in Basra, Amara, Nasiriyeh
and Diwaniyeh. In interviews, doctors at three Iraqi
hospitals cited anecdotal and site-specific
evidence to support the government's conclusions.
Scientists investigating the ailments suffered by Gulf
War veterans say the Iraqi data may shed new light on
the veterans' health problems, because Iraqi soldiers
and civilians could have been exposed to the same
toxins in air, soil and water as U.S. soldiers, perhaps at
higher doses and for longer periods.
At Basra Maternity and Pediatric Hospital, in this city of
1.5 million, the cancer ward recorded 380 new cases in
1997 compared to 80 in 1990.
According to Iraqi government figures, the number of
leukemia cases in Basra in 1995, the latest year for
which records are available -- was 68 compared to 48 in
1989. Most alarming, doctors say, is a sharp rise in
leukemia cases among children, including some who
were born more than nine months after the end of the
war, suggesting that some environmental carcinogens
may have lingered after the war ended or that some
war-related toxins may be causing genetic damage.
But because the Iraqi government has not permitted
independent studies of cancer and other diseases in
areas where its citizens may have been exposed to
chemical or biological weapons, or to other toxins, it is
possible to confirm the Iraqi data.
Moreover, there have been no independent studies to
help determine whether certain materials can be linked
to the apparent increases in Iraqi cancers and birth
defects. One of the prime suspects is depleted uranium,
a low-level radioactive metal first used in artillery rounds
during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Upon impact, the
depleted uranium in munitions ignites and burns,
releasing toxic airborne dust that could drift many miles
from desert battlefields to populated areas.
In 1995, a World Health Organization investigating team
told the Iraqi government it would fund a two-year
epidemiological study of the impact of the Gulf War. But
the government never responded, according to Dr.
Habib Rejab, the WHO representative in Baghdad.
In Baghdad, several foreign charity workers suggested
that the government feared that reporting higher cancer
rates would cause panic and unrest in Shiite Muslim
areas in southern Iraq, where Hussein's troops brutally
suppressed a rebellion after the Gulf War ended in 1991.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, say Iraq may be blocking
independent studies of cancers and other diseases
because the government fears they might point the
finger at Baghdad's own chemical and biological
opposition groups also have charged that Hussein's
forces used napalm to suppress the Shiite rebellion and
dumped toxic chemicals into southern Iraq's marshes to
kill the fish that comprise a large portion of the marsh
But those who have been trying to unravel the mysteries
of Gulf War Syndrome -- including the mystery of
whether such a thing exists -- are hungry for any
information that could help explain whether some of the
same substances may be causing health problems
among both Iraqis and U.S. veterans.
``The more information you can get out of Iraq, the better
we'll understand this problem,'' said Doug Rokke, who
until last year was the Pentagon's main expert on
depleted uranium. ``No one knows what has happened
to the Iraqis.''
Study called for
He added: ``We need to have a powerful epidemiological
study done here and there. We need to get a handle on
what happened to them as much as what happened to
Several disturbing trends emerge from Iraqi hospital
records and from the government's cancer registries
and battlefield radiation tests. For example:
o The number of childhood leukemia patients
hospitals in Basra, Amara and Baghdad's central
treatment center is double or triple what
it was before the
Gulf War. More than half the patients come
southern districts, which have less than 20
o An Iraqi government study of 1,625 pregnant
nationwide found the odds of a miscarriage
times greater if the father had been a Gulf
o Another Iraqi study found that the per capita
rate of all
cancers in southern areas was 4.6 times higher
rate of birth defects was 2.8 times greater
elsewhere in the country.
o Measurements of radiation taken from destroyed
tanks in 1995 --more than four years after
the war --
found readings eight times higher than normal
background radiation. The tanks had all been
depleted uranium rounds.
During the Gulf War, the American-led coalition used an
estimated 300 tons of depleted uranium, which is used in
armor-piercing rounds and missiles because it is
Excessive radiation levels
A March 1991 U.S. Army test on 15 American vehicles hit
by depleted uranium shells in ``friendly fire'' incidents
found radiation levels on the vehicles as much as 47
times higher than the recommended maximum level of
radiation exposure, according to recently declassified
documents. After transporting them to Saudi Arabia on
open trucks, the Army buried six of the vehicles and an
Iraqi T-72 tank because they ``posed substantial health
risk'' to humans, according to the Pentagon documents.
A December 1996 U.S. presidential advisory committee
report on Gulf War illnesses, however, concluded that ``it
is unlikely that health effects reported by Gulf War
veterans today are the result of exposure to DU
[depleted uranium] during the Gulf War.''
Maj. Tom Gilroy, a Pentagon spokesman, said a more
likely cause of Gulf War illnesses would be the release of
chemicals from Iraqi bunkers during the war. He said he
believed that any Iraqi studies on cancers would
ultimately prove inconclusive ``because there are so
many environmental and health concerns there.''
But he acknowledged that ``depleted uranium does have
some danger, like any heavy metal has.''
The Defense Department has acknowledged that as
many as 100 U.S. soldiers had depleted-uranium
shrapnel in their bodies and were ``highly exposed'' to
the toxic substance, but Rokke charged that the
not telling the truth about vast numbers of other
servicemen who he and two Gulf War veterans' groups
said were exposed to depleted uranium simply by
climbing into tanks to hunt for souvenirs or to have their
``It's a deliberate coverup,'' charged Rokke, who was
appointed director of the Pentagon's Depleted Uranium
Project in 1994 and left the job last year.
Rokke headed an Army team of about 100 servicemen
responsible for cleaning up all destroyed U.S. equipment
hit with depleted uranium rounds.
>From March to June 1991, Rokke's team, wearing only
surgical masks, climbed into 31 U.S. armored vehicles
that had been hit by friendly fire to measure radiation
``We found out later that the surgical masks didn't work,''
Rokke said. ``We should have been wearing gas masks.
But we didn't use gas masks because of the high
temperatures in the desert . . . and no one told us
we had to wear them.''
Since the Gulf War, 18 of the 100 servicemen who helped
remove the contaminated vehicles have died, said
Told of the Iraqi government studies and hospital
figures, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, an epidemiologist in Toronto
who has studied the effects of radiation for 30 years,
said it is ``plausible'' that airborne particles from
depleted uranium shells could be responsible for the
rise in cancer
cases in southern Iraq and specifically for the increase
in leukemia cases among children.
One study's findings
She cautioned, however, that a full study is necessary to
determine the reason for the increase in cancers. Bertell,
who is conducting a study of six American Gulf War
veterans who have fragments of depleted uranium
shells in their bodies, said her research suggests that
the greatest radiation exposure occurred when depleted
uranium munitions hit their targets.
``When those shells hit tanks and reached temperatures
above 500 degrees Celsius [932 degrees Fahrenheit],
depleted uranium became an aerosol, and it was highly
breathable and could travel great distances from the
source,'' she said.
Although Iraqi doctors carefully avoided saying depleted
uranium or chemical exposure is the cause of the rise in
cancers and birth defects in southern Iraq, all said the
situation is getting worse.
``We need a wide, thorough study to understand why,''
said Dr. Salma al-Haddad, head of pediatric oncology at
Al-Mansour Hospital in Baghdad, one of the country's
two centers for cancer treatment. ``I'm sure we are
seeing only a fraction of the cases because many
families can't afford to bring their children here. One
family sold their house in order to buy medication for
``It's something in the environment -- that much is
obvious,'' said the director of Saddam General Hospital
in Amara, who gave his name only as Dr. Khalid. ``We're
seeing all these leukemia patients, almost all children, in
the last two or three years.''
deformities in Iraqi children
`What else is there?'
Other Iraqi doctors, though, think they know the culprit. ``From
evidence that we have collected, there is nothing else to blame
but depleted uranium,''' said Dr. Walid al Tawil, aUniversity of Texas-trained
physician who is a member of the Iraqi parliament. ``By exclusion, what
else is there?''
In the pediatric wards of Iraqi hospitals, the cries are not for
scientific studies. In the 28-bed cancer ward of Baghdad's Al-Mansour
Hospital recently, every bed was taken, 13 of them by children from
``The bombing did this,'' said Zenab Kadham of Basra, whose
12-year-old son Jasem wears a hooded sweat shirt to hide his bald
head. ``He was 5 years old then and during the war he was in and
of houses that were bombed. He smelled the fumes.''
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