The Poisonous Legacy of Arms Manufacturers: Iraqi Birth Defects and Cancers

Yalda Hakim in Iraq (BBC)

Yalda Hakim in Iraq (BBC)

Bombs and bullets do not just kill and maim directly. They contain toxic metals such as lead, mercury and uranium which can contaminate the environment long after the guns have fallen silent. With sufficient contamination the miserable lives of the civilian population are cursed for generations to come with high levels of serious birth defects and cancer cases. This is what is happening in Iraq. Figures suggest that the rate of birth defects in the Iraqi city of Fallujah surpasses those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after nuclear bombardment.

IWM’s commercial partner for the Annual Defence Dinner event, Chemring Group, is a producer of the detonating agent, lead azide – though it has only been an approved supplier to the US military since the end of 2012. According to their website, “Chemring Energetic Devices is now the only US based producer of this important primary explosive, which is used in a wide variety of US and NATO fuze and detonator assemblies.” The Joint Center of Excellence for Armaments and Munitions in the US says that lead azide is the most widely used high-explosive ingredient in US military munitions.

A lead azide safety data sheet produced by manufacturer DuPont warns,

“DuPont considers lead compounds to be potential developmental toxins and states that a woman of childbearing potential should be warned of the risks to an unborn child in operations involving exposure to lead and lead compounds.”

An unborn child may be at risk of permanent injury from a pregnant woman’s exposure to lead and lead compounds under conditions of exposure that would not be expected to cause adverse effects in the adult woman.”

“Epidemiology studies reported in the literature suggest an association of high blood lead levels with increased blood pressure, EKG abnormalities, increases in colon-rectal cancer and increased chronic renal disease. Although lead styphnate was not specifically indicated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), this organization has classified lead and lead compounds as “Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans” on the basis of animal evidence.”

“No acceptable information is available to confidently predict the effects of excessive human exposure to Lead Azide. However, most azide compounds are moderately to highly toxic by interfering with cellular oxidative metabolism and by producing severe hypotension.”

Research in the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Basrah, lead Dr Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, revealed “increasing numbers of congenital birth defects, especially neural tube defects and congenital heart defects. It also revealed public contamination with two major neurotoxic metals, lead and mercury. The Iraq birth defects epidemic is, however, surfacing in the context of many more public health problems in bombarded cities. Childhood leukemia, and other types of cancers are increasing in Iraq. Childhood leukemia rates in Basra more than doubled between 1993 and 2007. In 1993, the annual rate of childhood leukemia was 2.6 per 100,000 individuals and by 2006 it had reached 12.2 per 100,000.”

Al Jazeera reporter, Dahr Jamail, recently discussed the range of birth defects that doctors in Fallujah are facing: “It’s common now in Fallujah for newborns to come out with massive multiple systemic defects, immune problems, massive central nervous system problems, massive heart problems, skeletal disorders, babies being born with two heads, babies being born with half of their internal organs outside of their bodies, cyclops babies literally with one eye — really, really, really horrific nightmarish types of birth defects.” The images that accompany Jamail’s report on Democracy Now speak for themselves.

Iraqi child with congenital birth defect

The British Ministry of Defence responded to a BBC investigation into the Iraqi birth defect and cancer crisis by saying that it would be “premature to suggest a link to any cause without reliable evidence.” The BBC investigation claimed, however, that an Iraqi governmental report does seem to establish a correlation between war and the epidemic but is currently being withheld from publication.

The BBC report by Yalda Hakim reveals that certain suspected toxic sites are blacklisted by the Iraqi government from outside investigation. We know that, as well as lead and mercury explosives, the US and UK used depleted uranium in their attacks. 2,000 tonnes of depleted uranium, which is slightly radioactive, may have been fired in total in Iraq since 2003. The US also used the chemical weapon known as “white phosphorus” in their attack on Fallujah.

The evidence suggests a correlation between the deployment of toxic metal explosives by the invading forces, mainly US and British, and the tragedy of the rise in child cancers and birth defects in Iraq. Though, until fuller investigation is required. It is likely that toxic compounds such as lead azide were utilised and are contributing to the high levels of lead found in Iraqi children.

Chemring Group’s lead azide production was approved by the US Energetic Materials Qualification Board for US Department of Defense use in August 2012. This particular product of Chemring is unlikely, therefore, to have played, to date, a major role in the toxic poisoning of parts of Iraq and its people. However, according to this site, “Chemring Ordnance has been the sole source of US Government hand grenade fuzing for the last 35 years.” That is, the ignition mechanism that initiates the explosion. Moreover, the site explains, “Chemring Ordnance leads the way in the development of new 40mm ammunition and ordnance.”

To what extent munitions produced by BAE Systems or Boeing, two more of IWM’s partners, were used in the brutal onslaught of Iraq, we do not know.

To partner with arms manufacturers that supply invading forces, as well as authoritarian regimes, is to associate oneself with more than just war – but long-term devastation of environments and their people. Chemring’s lead azide will be put to use in future onslaughts; it will poison more mothers and devastate the health of children. The Imperial War Museum, like the rest of British society, should decide if it wants to be complicit in this.

Clip from Yalda Hakim’s BBC report:


The Victims of the Iraq Invasion

The Iraq invasion of March 2003 cannot properly be understood without examining the plight of the major victims – the Iraqi people and, additionally, the soldiers. It is true that some Iraqis consider themselves better off, especially amongst the Kurdish population who were targetted by the tyrant Saddam Hussein. However, the majority of Iraqis polled in 2011 said that they consider themselves worse off as a result of the invasion. This is indeed a very serious accusation considering the evils of the Hussein regime.

Are these the views of an ungrateful people – or do they have legitimate reasons to condemn their “liberation”? An estimated minimum of 123,000 civilian deaths in ten years gives us a clue. Over 2 million Iraqis are internally displaced or have fled abroad.

But, these are only numbers. A full understanding of the consequences of the invasion, war and occupation must look deeper. DemocracyNow, the New York based daily news show, hosted by Amy Goodman, devoted much of their shows last week to examine the horrific impact of the war on the victims. Each show from last week is a must watch for those unfamiliar with the victims of the violence.

Here are some excerpts from the weeks’ shows on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion. The full DemocracyNow programmes are available in full on their website:

On Monday, March 18th 2013, Arundathi Roy, the renowned author and activist discussed the “psychosis” of US/British foreign policy. She expresses her anger and frustration that men like Tony Blair and George Bush continue to insist that the Iraq invasion was necessary despite the exposure of the pretexts for their war – and the horrific human cost.


On Tuesday, 19th, DemocracyNow reviewed a report on the costs of the Iraq War, including the huge death toll of civilians, soldiers, as well as the unprecedented financial cost. Raed Jarrar, Iraqi-American blogger went on to discuss these figures in the context of the sectarian violence unleashed by the invasion

On Wednesday, the show examined, amongst other things, the birth defect and cancer epidemic in Iraq caused by the use of certain metals, including uranium, in US munitions.

On Thursday, hosts, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, spoke to paralysed Iraq war veteran, Tomas Young, about his plan to end his life by ceasing his nourishment. Included in this interview are Young’s wife and carer, Claudia Cuellar, and Phil Donahue, the director of a film about Tomas Young called, Body of War.

On Friday, the US’ use of Iraqi militia to conduct its dirty work of torture and murder is examined through a review of an BBC Arabic – Guardian documentary: “Searching for Steele”.

Sean Smith: Iraq War Photographer

New exhibition at IWM North, Manchester, of Iraq War photographs by The Guardian’s Sean Smith. In this Guardian interview, Sean Smith discusses his experiences in Iraq.

“Marking ten years since the start of the 2003 Iraq War, a new photographic display by award-winning British war photographer Sean Smith reveals the collision of two worlds where local civilians and military personnel were forced to co-exist.

Smith documented the war in Iraq for The Guardian newspaper and these photographs were taken before, during and after the Iraq War. They will be exhibited in two displays, one inside and the other outside IWM North.

The display will reveal previously unpublished photographs, alongside Smith’s better known images from The Guardian’s coverage from Iraq.” (copy from

The policy of being “unbiased”

IWM asserts that its funders do not influence the way its subject is presented to the public. “Our policy is to be unbiased,” Diane Lees, Director-General, wrote to me.

If this was true and IWM had editorial independence, then this would make the issue of accepting  money from arms traders more ambivalent. Whilst the arms trader funders are immoral, brutal and exploitative, if IWM is able to turn this bad money ‘good’ through rigorous and brave independent work, critically examining British involvement in conflict, then, in this time of cuts and funding shortages, there might be an argument to suggest that the net effect is positive.

But being unbiased is nigh on impossible. All news, however accurate, is subjective – after all, a subjective choice is made as to which facts to include and what to leave out, seeing as including every item of fact and evidence is an impossiblity. That’s not mentioning the subjective choice of how to present the facts that are included.

Just because news reporting is subjective does not mean that no truth exists. An honest news reporter will cast their net as wide as possible for relevant facts and evidence, select what they consider to be the most relevant and rigorously examine the validity of these. Basically, it is akin to a scientific inquiry.

It is interesting to note how IWM’s website summarises the “Iraq War and Insurgency”; the site reads:

On 20 March 2003, a United States-led international coalition – which included Britain – launched an invasion of Iraq. The stated aims were to disarm the country of weapons of mass destruction, end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism and free the Iraqi people from his repressive regime.

The invasion began with air strikes on Baghdad and an amphibious assault on the Al-Faw peninsula to secure oil fields and key ports. As the land campaign progressed, many Coalition troops encountered fierce opposition. But by 9 April, US troops were in Baghdad – effectively ending Saddam Hussein’s regime. On 1 May, US President George W Bush made a speech in which he declared the war over saying, ‘The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11, 2001’.

Looting in Baghdad and other major cities had destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and there was high unemployment – exacerbated by the disbandment of the previous regime’s army. Across Iraq, the fighting continued as a violent insurgency developed. Coalition forces and Iraqis working with them were targeted. Large quantities of arms and ammunition had also been looted, further fuelling the insurgency.

Thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed, injured or forced to leave their homes as the violence escalated, reaching its peak in 2006.

By 2008, the situation had stabilised due partly to a US troop surge. British combat troops were withdrawn in July 2009. US combat operations formally ended in August 2010.

Between 2003 and 2009, there were 179 UK military deaths in Iraq.

This seems a sober and unbiased summary of the Iraq War. But, it is interesting to consider some points left out of the summary.

The summary does not state that the act of war against Iraq started well before March 2003. In late 2002, the Ministry of Defence admitted that it was conducting heavy bombing of South Iraq. Anonymous Whitehall officials conceded to the Guardian that the US and Britain was using its “no fly” patrols to attack Iraqi air defence systems and had “nothing to do with their stated original purpose of defending the marsh Arabs and the Sh’ia population of southern Iraq.”

Of the “US-lead international coalition” for the invasion in March 2003, only four countries contributed troops, the US, Britain, Australia and Poland. The majority were from US and Britain.

The article summary provides the coalition’s stated war aims but does not remind us that they were discredited. Claims that Saddam Hussein had WMD capable of attacking the West and that he had links to Al Qaeda and therefore some complicity in 9/11 were proven false.

The article does not mention the fact that whilst the British and the US governments were decrying Saddam Hussein’s repression, they were enabling the brutality of other repressive regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya, Egypt and many others by selling military equipment, providing military aid and diplomatic support. In fact, the US had formerly provided Saddam Hussein with weapons and support when he was considered an ally.

There is no place in the article for the fact that Britain went to war against the wishes of a large section of the British public. In January 2003, 47% were against military action, with 30% in favour. 81% agreed that a fresh UN mandate was required before an offensive. Nor is there space for a mention of the unprecedented global public demonstrations against the war that occurred before and after the ground invasion.

Iraqi public opinion is also not deemed relevant – such as the fact that in 2011, polls suggested that the majority of Iraqis considered the country worse off as a result of the invasion. Much of this has to do with the ethnic civil war that had been unleashed by the invasion – another issue left out of the piece.

War crimes committed by the coalition forces are left unaddressed. For example, the Independent reported the following on 8th November 2005: “Powerful new evidence emerged yesterday that the United States dropped massive quantities of white phosphorus on the Iraqi city of Fallujah during the attack on the city in November 2004, killing insurgents and civilians with the appalling burns that are the signature of this weapon.”

The article says that “thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed, injured or forced to leave their homes…” The true cost of the decade long war is much more severe. A 2013 study by Brown University puts the Iraqi death toll at 134,000.

And so on and so forth.

But this is a mere thumbnail sketch designed to quickly and simply summarise the Iraq War, IWM may say. This does not, however, explain why all these crucial issues are completely omitted. The summary is is biased in its selection of facts and evidence, omitting much that will cast too much negativity on the military action.

The story presented is one largely from the point of view of the British military.

IWM’s Response

After writing a few time to IWM’s Director-General, Diane Lees, she helpfully agreed to put my concerns about the the Annual Defence Dinner (the annual arms trader dinner held at IWM London) and other IWM funding from arms manufacturers, such as BAE Systems and Boeing UK, before the Board of Trustees, who are the ultimate decision-makers.

Ms Lees, reporting the Board’s decision, stated:

“The Board is confident that IWM has robust systems and policies in place to ensure that all financial contributions to IWM are appropriate and present no conflict of interest. Our financial supporters have no influence over the way we present our subject to the public, and our policy is to be unbiased, reflecting a variety of views and operating within the code of ethics for museums. Our subject is of course a very complex one and we take the ethics and sensitivities of how we present war and conflict very seriously.”

This response fails to properly discuss the ethics of funding and whether it is immoral to accept money from corporations that profit from conflict and openly arm violent, authoritarian regimes (with the approval of the government). Secondly, it asserts the editorial independence of the Museum from funders but offers no evidence for this. It is merely a claim by the Board which I am meant to accept blindly. I would, however, ask, how often IWM has examined the role of arms manufacturers in conflict in recent aldecades? How often, even, has IWM evaluated the motivations of British involvement in recent wars?

Moreover, you have to wonder where IWM would draw the line with funders. What is “inappropriate” as a funder if arms dealers who enable brutal, criminal violence by states and, in the case of BAE, are regularly exposed to be engaged in unlawful activity are considered appropriate by the Trustees?

Put simply, the letter is a, “trust us, we know best” from the Trustees.