There are up to 400 polluted sites in Iraq that are serious health hazards to the population and urgently need to be cleaned, according to a specialist in the Iraqi government. But ongoing violence, particularly the targeting of municipal workers, and a lack of funds is hampering clean-up efforts.
“The situation is very serious. These sites have to be cleaned as soon as possible to guarantee that the Iraqi people don’t face health hazards because of them,” said Fua’ad Abdel-Sattar, an environmental researcher at the Ministry of the Environment, adding that his ministry does not have the money or manpower to undertake the task.
As most of these sites contain hazardous chemical materials, including depleted uranium, and are near communities, there is a risk of an outbreak of diseases, he said.
Polluted sites are not the only threat to the health of the population.
“In addition to hundreds of polluted sites, we also have high pollution in our rivers, lakes and potable water systems. But with electricity shortages in most key areas, it is impossible to pump out dirty water and treat these systems,” Abdel-Sattar said.
Those involved in identifying and cleansing contaminated areas face the risk of being targeted by armed groups. Abdel-Sattar said that ministry workers lack protection and are frequently threatened and attacked when out in the field.
“I have been a victim of such threats many times,” Ahmed Salim, a senior official and soil analyst at the Ministry of Environment, said. “Once, I was taking samples from the soil [to identify dangerous chemicals] and an armed group stopped me from doing so, alleging that I was going to use the material I was collecting to help the US develop new potent guns. I tried to explain but in the end I was forced to leave the place without the sample.
|The situation is very serious. These sites have to be cleaned as soon as possible to guarantee that the Iraqi people don’t face health hazards because of them.|
“Some areas, which need urgent cleansing, are hard to reach due to violence. For example, the Khan Dhari petrochemicals site west of Baghdad; one of the world’s biggest sulphur mines in al-Mishraq, south of Mosul; and the Ouireej military scrap yard on the outskirts of Baghdad, which is full of unexploded bombs and parts of destroyed tanks,” Salim added.
While work is being done to clear contaminated sites, it is too slow and too little, specialists say.
According to Abdel-Sattar, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in cooperation with the government, has cleansed two dangerous sites: al-Qadissiya metal plating facility and al-Suwaira pesticides warehouse, both on the outskirts of Baghdad.
“But there are still about 30 other sites dangerously exposed and we are trying to study them. Unfortunately, because of lack of funds and insecurity, it might take longer than envisaged,” Abdel-Sattar said, adding that there are up to 400 polluted sites in Iraq in need of immediate cleansing.
According to specialists, the number of cancer cases has increased dramatically over the past five years, partly as a result of exposure to polluted materials during wars over the past 25 years.
“We see more than six new cases of cancer in our hospital per week. Years ago, we were treating about 4,000 patients per year but in the past three years, the number has jumped to more than 9,000 cases a year,” Bassima Jua’ad, oncologist at the Cancer Radiation Hospital in the capital, said.
“The most worrying thing is that dozens of those patients have been exposed to radiation in different forms. Some were living near polluted sites, others were children during the last wars who played near dangerous sites and now the effects are appearing on them or in their children,” she added.
|Children are particularly vulnerable to contracting diseases when playing or scavenging in rubbish dumps|
According to the Ministry of Health, about 52 percent of all cancer patients in Iraq are children under 5 years of age.
In general, it takes more than 20 years for people to develop radiation-related diseases after they have been exposed to radiation but Dr Salah Bahiri, an environmentalist and oncologist, said that such diseases can develop more quickly if exposure is higher.
“Cases of leukaemia, especially among children, have risen without control. This type of cancer is very common among people who had been exposed to polluted sites,” Bahiri said.
In Tuwaitha, 18 km south of Baghdad, where nuclear research has been going on for years, many residents appear to have suffered some ill effects, according to Bahiri.
“Tests developed at the Radiation Studies Centre (RSC) showed that of 4,000 residents who had their blood tested in five villages surrounding Tuwaitha, about half were found to have higher than normal white blood cell counts, showing a higher capacity of development of cancer than other communities,” Bahiri added.
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