The U.S. military has consistently downplayed or denied possible adverse health and environmental effects because of its use of depleted uranium ordnance, yet birth defects and spikes in sometimes odd health problems seem to follow closely behind in communities unfortunate enough to have been the site of the heavy use of such munitions. U.S. and NATO forces used D.U. penetrator munitions in the 1991 Gulf War, the Bosnia war, Serbia and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Now in Fallujah, Iraq, the site of two rounds of intense fighting and bombing raids by U.S. forces in March and April 2004, a University of Michigan study (<-warning: not for faint of heart) funded by the World Health Organization has uncovered "staggering" increases in sometimes bizarre birth defects—babies born with brains and other organs outside their bodies—according to a report in Britain's Independent. The study found that in Fallujah, more than half of all babies born between 2007 and 2010 suffered some kind of birth defect. "Before the siege, this figure was more like one in 10."
The WHO's report is expected to be released next month. The study included nine "high-risk" areas in Iraq, including Fallujah and Basra.
According to the Independent:
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.
The report's authors link the rising number of babies born with birth defects in the two cities to increased exposure to metals released by bombs and bullets used over the past two decades. Scientists who studied hair samples of the population in Fallujah found that levels of lead were five times higher in the hair of children with birth defects than in other children; mercury levels were six times higher. Children with defects in Basra had three times more lead in their teeth than children living in non-impacted areas.
The study's author, the University of Michigan's Mozhgan Savabieasfahani said 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."
"In utero exposure to pollutants can drastically change the outcome of an otherwise normal pregnancy. The metal levels we see in the Fallujah children with birth defects clearly indicates that metals were involved in manifestation of birth defects in these children," she said. "The massive and repeated bombardment of these cities is clearly implicated here. I have no knowledge of any alternative source of metal contamination in these areas." She added that the data was likely to be an "underestimate", as many parents who give birth to children with defects hide them from public view.
D.U. has been used in munitions because of its armor-piercing capabilities (it was developed to counter Soviet advances in armor plating that resisted penetation by then conventional ordnance). The use of D.U. in munitions has been controversial because of questions about potential long-term health effects to combatants and noncombatants alike; Uranium is a toxic metal and exposure to it can effect any number of organs and biological systems. D.U. bombs and bullets produce contamination when the rounds become an aerosol after impact or after bombs detonate. Combustion of depleted uranium munitions can contaminate wide areas around the impact sites, leading to inhalation by human beings.
Added 10/17: Previous reports on contamination in Fallujah include denials of D.U. use by military sources as well as the difficulty of verifying munition use in the field since record keeping in Fallujah was questionable. U.S. officials previously denied then confirmed the use of white phosphorus munitions in Fallujah.