‘Environmental Poisoning’ of Iraq Is Claimed

Mar 27, 2014 by

The New York Times


Middle East


WASHINGTON — An advocacy group representing American military veterans and Iraqi civilians arrived here on Wednesday armed with a message for the United States government: Washington must do something for the thousands of people suffering from what the group called the “environmental poisoning” of Iraq during the war.

The group, Right to Heal, says that veterans and civilians continue to feel the effects of the burn pits — banned by Congress four years ago — that were used to dispose of military waste, and that new health problems arise every day for Iraqis.

“Things are worse off today by a thousandfold,” Representative Jim McDermott, Democrat of Washington, said during a hearing in the House on Wednesday morning that featured witnesses from Right to Heal.

Several hours later, Right to Heal called its own “people’s hearing” at a Quaker meeting house in Washington. One witness there, John Tirman, executive director and principal research scientist at the M.I.T. Center for International Studies, said that in playing down the health effects of the war, American officials had violated “the trust we place in government, that is, that they would be accountable to us even in the most severe times of war.”

Another witness, Kristi Casteel, said her son, Joshua, an interrogator for the Army who died of lung cancer in 2012 at age 32, had lived about 100 yards from an Iraqi burn pit. “While very aware of the thick black clouds that covered the base every day, and experiencing symptoms of congestion, burning eyes and nausea at times, he, like most all the other soldiers, just labeled their symptoms the ‘Iraqi crud,’ ” she said.

Right to Heal wants large-scale cleanup efforts in Iraq and American reparations for the civilians who lived near the pits, inhaling smoke from the burning of paint, plastics, metal cans, rubber tires, munitions and chemicals.

The burn pit ban, detailed in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, called for studies to determine the far-reaching environmental and health effects of the practice.

One of the resulting reports, from the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academies, said not enough data existed to conclude that pollution from the burn pits had caused any long-term health problems. But it conceded that five or more of the chemicals detected at the Joint Base Balad pit could lead to cancer, anemia, and liver, kidney, heart and respiratory problems. The chemicals can also harm the brain and reproductive system, the study found.

Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist, has sent two teams to Iraqi hospitals — one in Basra in the south, the other in Falluja, near Baghdad — to study the effects of war-related pollution. She said she found higher rates of birth defects, heart abnormalities and various cancers in the two cities than elsewhere in the country.

Health experts said they were also concerned that Iraq’s powerful dust storms are laced with toxic substances released during the war.

Right to Heal is also calling for more independent health studies, financing for health centers, and the creation of registries to track the types and rates of birth defects and cancers related to the Iraq war.

“There are human beings on both sides of this equation of war, and they’re sharing some of the same traumas and illnesses and tragedies,” said Pamela Spees, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The answers we find and the approaches we take to the Iraq side of the equation will certainly benefit and help us understand what’s happening with those who were sent to fight.”

A version of this article appears in print on March 27, 2014, on page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘Environmental Poisoning’ of Iraq Is Claimed. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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