After years and countless lives lost, the US government is refusing to fully acknowledge the health crisis its burn pits in Iraq have unleashed upon the US service members exposed to airborne contaminants, even after the VA was ordered by Congress last year to establish a registry for those who have suffered ill health as a result. But when it comes to the long-term hazards of burn pits, bombings, bullets and chemical weapons upon the people of Iraq, whose exposure is exponentially greater and continues to the present day, such recognition is virtually non-existent.
In fact, if it were not for the crusading work of environmental toxicologist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, key information about the environmental legacy of the US occupation of Iraq would be completely lost to US scholarship. Earlier this month, Savabiesfahani released a troubling new study, which unearths further evidence that air pollution directly tied to war is poisoning the most vulnerable members of Iraqi society: children.
The burn pits were built and operated by KBR, which was then a subsidiary of Halliburton, the huge energy services company once headed by former Vice President Dick Cheney. For seven years, the pits went completely unregulated, seemingly exempt from all government oversight. Only after service members barraged their representatives in the Senate and Congress with complaints did the Government Accountability Office launch an investigation into the burn pits, finally prompting the Defense Department to put in place pollution-control measures in 2009. During that investigation, the GAO discovered that the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan were releasing over 1,000 toxins and carcinogens into the air.
Published in the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, the investigation evaluated “elemental bio-imaging of trace elements in deciduous teeth of children with birth defects from Iraq,” the report states. These teeth were then compared with “healthy and naturally shed teeth from Lebanon and Iran.” According to Savabiesfahani’s published findings, “Lead (Pb) was highest in teeth from children with birth defects who donated their teeth from Basra.” In fact, she writes, “Two Iraqi teeth had four times more Pb, and one tooth had as much as 50 times more Pb than samples from Lebanon and Iran.”
“What we saw in these baby teeth is that children had very high levels of lead,” Savabiesfahani, who won the 2015 Rachel Carson prize for her work on the environmental legacy of war in the Middle East, explained to AlterNet. “If children have this much lead in their teeth there is probably a whole lot of lead in their bones.”
As Flint, Michigan emergency revealed, lead poisoning poses a severe hazard to public health. This fact is acknowledged by the World Health Organization, which notes, “Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system. Lead also causes long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight, as well as minor malformations.”
And like in Flint, the epidemic of lead poisoning in Iraq was human-made. Savabieasfahani, who is based close to Flint in Ann Arbor, told AlterNet that the “major environmental disruption in the Middle East has been the massive war events There is no other impact as enormous as this. Iraq has had a number of major pollutants released in it since 2003, and this lead, I suspect, is coming from aerial bombardments. While there may have already been lead in the environment, bombings raise the background levels of lead to the point that it impacts the health of children on a large scale.”
Her report notes that, in war zones, “the explosion of bombs, bullets, and other ammunition releases multiple neurotoxicants into the environment. The Middle East is currently the site of heavy environmental disruption by massive bombardments. A very large number of US military bases, which release highly toxic environmental contaminants, have also been erected since 2003.”
“Our hypothesis that increased war activity coincides with increased metal levels in deciduous teeth is confirmed by this research,” Savabieasfahani concludes.
Savabieasfahani is not the first to document the environmental poisoning by the US occupation of Iraq; numerous civil society organizations in the country, including the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq and the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq have long sounded the alarm. Iraqi organizations, along with US-based anti-war organizations, have long demanded US reparations, in light of the lasting harm done by American intervention, dating back to the 1991 Gulf War.
Yet, a scholarly report published last year by Eric Bonds, assistant professor of sociology at University of Mary Washington, found that mainstream media outlets have systematically ignored the impact of burn pits in both Iraq and Afghanistan on civilians nearby, instead focusing nearly exclusively on the health effects for US military service members and veterans.
According to Savabieasfahani, her own colleagues shoulder much of the blame. “As a public health researcher, I feel like my colleagues have seriously failed to save people’s lives. They have shied away from holding administrations responsible for massive environmental damage to the planet. War is a public health issue. War is a global issue.”
“The situation is not hopeless,” she emphasized.” There is a lot we can do. Wealthier countries that perpetuate this kind of environmental disaster should be held accountable. The US and UK have done enormous environmental damage to the Middle East, and I think they should clean up this damage.”
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The Official Report
Sarah Lazare is a writer and organizer in the US antiwar, veteran and GI resistance movement as a steering committee member of the Civilian-Soldier Alliance and an ally to Iraq Veterans Against the War. She is also an active union member and a graduate student at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where she is studying Arabic and learning about social movements in the Middle East and North Africa. Sarah is interested in connecting local struggles for racial, social and economic justice with international movements for justice, peace and liberation.