A message from the 3rd and 4th grade classes at Summers-Knoll School in Michigan: After viewing a photograph of twoRead more
By Alex Potter, Water for Peace Program Assistant
In 2003, the US declared war on Iraq. Almost eight years later, the effects of invasion and occupation remain. Besides the thousands of troops and civilians killed or wounded, the unreturned middle class, homeless victims of bombings, and destroyed infrastructure, another result of the conflict has been more hidden. In 2004, the number of children suffering from cancer and birth defects began to increase dramatically. A recent study in the International Journal for Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERP) illustrates the dramatic difference in infant mortality in Iraq compared to the rest of the Middle East: from 2006 – 2010, Iraq averaged 80/1000 still-born children compared to only 9.7/1000 in Kuwait. The apparent cause? Depleted uranium.
During the siege of Fallujah in 2003, the US used 1000 – 2000 tons of depleted uranium munitions in their attack. With a half life of 4.5 billion years, the depleted uranium virtually never disappears, meaning the effects on the environment and public health are serious and obvious. True to its mutagenic nature, depleted uranium can cause cancer, adult malignancies, and fatal birth defects. Many bloggers have posted gruesome photos of malformed Iraqi infants, supposedly the result of depleted uranium munitions. Although the evidence of depleted uranium seems obvious, some involved in the occupation continue to deny the use of depleted uranium in the assault on Fallujah, as well as understating its use elsewhere. Regardless, it is imperative to find out if cities like Fallujah and Najaf are still contaminated with chemicals and determine how to protect those at risk. Public health professionals in Iraq and the US are researching this in a most unorthodox way: with teeth.
Our bodies contain a certain amount of uranium without contamination; all of it natural and most concentrated in our bones. Since it is not feasible to take a traditional bone sample from Iraqi citizens, doctors turned to gathering teeth, a lesser known form of bone. Doctors and dentists across Iraq are partnering to study the amount of depleted uranium in children’s teeth. The reason for using children’s teeth is two-fold. First, it is the youth of Iraq that are being affected by cancer, malignancies, and birth defects. Second, children’s teeth are some of the fastest growing bones in the body; the use of fast growing primary teeth provide the most reliable judge of the depleted uranium remaining in the bodies of Iraqi children today. After gathering teeth that have been lost or extracted, researchers will analyze the components of the teeth using mass spectrometry; this will measure the amount of chemicals and minerals present in the teeth.
Named the Iraqi Children’s Tooth Project, the research is controversial and possibly dangerous in both Iraq and the US. Some teeth have been gathered in Iraq already, but participating dentists have felt their safety has been at risk and have limited their participation in the study. Yet participants are still willing to continue with the project because they believe it is important to determine if and where depleted uranium remains in the environment. What do you do with a silent enemy you can’t get rid of? That is the great question. If successful, the Tooth Project hopes to publish its findings in an international medical journal and seek further research, answers, and solutions.