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: