U.S. practices in Iraq questioned by public health researchers

By Amabel Karoub, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 8, 2014

Two experts in the field of Iraqi public health gave a lecture Wednesday night on the increase of birth defects in the war-torn nation.

Muhsin Al-Sabbak, a physician at Iraq’s Basra Maternity Hospital, and Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist who resides in Ann Arbor, presented a one-hour lecture centered on their research, which links the increase in congenital birth defects in Iraq over the last two decades to the use of U.S. and coalitions force weapons there.

Al-Sabbak referenced his study that found a 17-fold increase in children with birth defects between the years 1995 and 2003, a jump from 1.37 birth defects per 1,000 children to 23 per 1,000. By 2008, the number had increased to 48 per 1000, and in 2014 it was 37 per 1000.

Savabieasfahani attributed the spike to an increase in pollutants caused by U.S. weapons and the presence of military bases.

“The most important event that happened in these years was U.S. invasion and U.S. bombardments,” Savabieasfahani said. “As much as we don’t like to get into politics, pollution is a very political thing.”

Savabieasfahani said bombs, bullets and explosives increase the amount of toxic metal such as lead and mercury in the environment. She also said U.S. military bases often have “open air burn pits,” or pits in which they burn disregarded military waste, releasing dangerous pollutants into the atmosphere that are inhaled by individuals in the area.

“They were summoned to get rid of military waste on U.S. military bases,” Savabieasfahani said. “They found these pits and they would dump everything in it … and just burn it.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges these burn pits were widely used at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan but denies that any long-term health effects among U.S. veterans have been linked to these pits.

Savabieasfahani said the inhalation of pollutants could be extremely harmful to a developing fetus. She also cited a study that examined children with birth defects in Fallujah, Iraq. These children had five-times great lead levels and six-times greater mercury levels than those without birth defects.

Al-Sabbak has been researching birth defects in Iraq since 1994. He said it is important to raise awareness about what is happening in Iraq in order to stop the harm currently being done.

The lecture was sponsored by the School of Natural Resources and Environment, School of Public Health’s Office of Global Health, the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, the Medical School’s Global REACH program and the Migrant and Immigrant Rights Advocacy group. Prior to the event, Savabieasfahani submitted a viewpoint to The Michigan Daily after initial uncertainty surrounding the University’s participation in the event.