Iraqi environmental scientists investigating radioactive pollution around the southern city of Basra are finding alarmingly high levels of radiation left by the use of depleted uranium (DU) in recent wars.
But given the lack of a permanent, elected government in Iraq and poor security, they are finding it difficult to get permission to remove contaminated material amid growing instances of cancer and birth defects in the area.
One such scientist is Khashak Wartanian, a researcher at the University of Basra on radioactive pollution, who also works for the city's Environmental Direoctory. While carrying out a survey during the summer on radiation levels in the Qibla area near Basra, he found two Iraqi tanks which had been hit by DU-tipped ammunition. They found children playing near the site, which was then fenced off and marked by warning signs.
"These tanks are just two in a series of tanks and ammunition we have uncovered since the Radiation Unit at the Environmental Directory was set up in 2001," he told IRIN.
DU is an extremely dense, heavy metal, and a waste product of atomic bomb production. It has a half-life of over 4 billion years. It contains trace amounts of plutonium and is 60 percent as radioactive as naturally occurring uranium.
According to local residents, the area was a military target during the 1991 Gulf war and again in 2003, when it came under heavy fire from US aircraft. Wartanian took a radiation reading of 0.6 mR/h on one tank and 0.5mR/h on the other. "This is 1,000 times more radioactive than average background radiation," the researcher said.
He also checked radiation levels in nearby residential areas and found they were worringly high. In the home of Abdel-Zahra Shindy, a resident living near the polluted site, he took a reading of 0.2 mR/h-0.3 mR/h, compared with normal levels of 0.008R/h.
DU occurs naturally in the environment but when used in weapons it burns releasing uranium oxide dust into the air.
Officials at the Environment Directory in Basra told IRIN that although they were collecting data on areas exposed to radioactive debris, the lack of government direction was making it hard to take measures to remove material.
They added that there was also a lack of reliable information about areas contaminated. "We only know about tanks in areas hit more than 10 years ago, during the Gulf war in 1991," an official at the directory said. "There were more concerns with pollution during the former regime. Two radiation units were established in Baghdad and Basra in 2000 and were provided with the needed modern equipment," the official said.
The Pentagon admits to dropping 320 mt of DU in Iraq, although the environmental organisation Greenpeace puts the estimate at over 800 mt. Immediately after last spring's war to oust the former regime, residents said the US military cleared the area, picking up unexploded ordnance and other debris. However, they refused to remove many artillery pieces.
In the aftermath of the war, Wartanian made a reading around a tank in the centre of Basra, which picked up evidence of Thorium (th324), a DU equivalent. "Since May 2003 we have been trying to search for more contaminated areas. We met with the WHO [World Health Organisation], as well as with British troops, to investigate the matter but things have moved slowly due to a continuous deterioration in security," Wartanian said.
In December 2003, 22 DU-polluted tanks were found in an area 5 km away from Basra city, close to the Iranian border. So far his team have found DU-polluted tanks across the south in Basra, Muthana, Abu al-Kahsib and in Samawa.
Some local residents, unaware of the radiation danger, cut scrap metals from DU-polluted tanks and sell them. An Environmental Directory official said that they were trying to warn people of the dangers of using such metal. Scrap metal plants may also have released contaminants from destroyed military vehicles, he said.
In conjunction with the now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the directory succeeded in banning licences to sell scrap metals to other countries last June, but it is uncertain how effective this has been given the lack of a proper government to enforce the law.
"It was sold for 50,000 Iraqi dinars [US $34] per ton, but some people may still be doing the business unofficially," the official said.
Another serious problem, which has long been linked to the use of DU, is the rise in cancer and birth defects in the area. Wartanian said that although many of the residents close to radio-polluted sites may have registered cases of cancer, skin sensitivity and respiratory diseases, the relation between radiation and cancer was still controversial.
However, doctors in Basra have registered an increase of incidences of colon cancer and thyroid cancer, in addition to leukemia and lymphomas.
According to Dr Janan Hassan, an obstetrician at the Basra Maternity and Children's Hospital, malignancies and leukemia among children under the age of 15 have more than tripled since 1990.
Whereas in 1990 young children accounted for only 13 percent of cancer cases, today over 56 percent of all cancer in Iraq occurs among children under the age of five.
"Also, it is notable that the number of babies born with defects is rising astonishingly. In 1990, there were seven cases of babies with multiple congenital anomalies. This has gone up to as high as 224 cases in the past three years," she said.
Dr Jawad al-Ali, director of the Oncology Centre of Sadr Educational Hospital in Basra, told IRIN that there were a number of cases that led some doctors to assume DU's adverse effects on human health in Iraq.
"There has been a sharp rise in cancer, birth defects, miscarriage, and in neurological disorders, muscular disease and kidney failure; causes have not been identified but they could be assumed to be caused by the toxicity of DU munitions," the doctor said.
According to a study of cancer patients in Basra carried out by the doctor in 1988, cancer rates were 11 per 100,000 people. The number went up to 116 in 1991 and 123 in 2002. There was also a sharp rise in the leukemia patients in 1996 and there has been another rise in recent years. Many cases are near places where DU weapons were used, he said.