Depleted uranium from ordnance threatens thousands of lives around the Iraqi oil hub of Basra, Iraqi experts say.
In the area surrounding the Iraqi rich oil city of Basra, pummelled by years of war and swamped with industrial and agricultural pollution, there are concerns that cancer cases are on the rise due to the presence of depleted uranium found in war debris in the area.
Incidences of cancer, deformed babies and other health problems have risen sharply in the area, Iraqi officials say. And although it is difficult for doctors to isolate specific causes for cancer, many suspect contamination from weapons used in years of war and accompanying unchecked pollution as a cause.
Residents of the town of Abu al-Khaseeb, about 20km (12 miles) south of Basra, have for years lived among mounds of scrap metal that include war debris, the brown rust flaking off into the wind and carried into peoples homes, food, and lungs.
Locals say Iraqi and US. teams surveyed heaps of scrap metal scattered in residential areas. But no procedures were taken to remove the metal contaminated with uranium, they say.
"This mound of scrap metal is harmful to the health , this is the radiation from the war. They came here three times and said ninety percent of the scrap metal is a harmful, but no action has been taken so far. It has not been removed yet," said Mohammed Hussein , a resident of the area.
Large quantities of depleted uranium were used in the first Gulf War in 1990, some of it near Basra.
Hussein believes that some of the people he knows are ill because of their exposure to contaminated metal.
"Now, you can see different types of disease, there is a man who got cancer, we have been told that because of the contaminated scrap metal . There is another man whose leg will be cut also because of the contaminated scrap metal. My mother suddenly lost her sight , all the cases are because of radioactive pollution,'' he said.
The use of depleted uranium in US. and coalition weaponry in the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait and the 2003 Iraq invasion is well documented, but establishing a link between the radioactive metal and health problems among Iraqis is hard, officials say.
Zuhair Mohammed Ali, deputy head of technical committee in Basra provincial council, said that the radioactive pollution varies from one area to another, and that not all areas are contaminated with uranium.
"The rate of pollution is different from one area to another. Everyone expects the rate of pollution to be the same everywhere and this is not the case. For instance the rate of pollution is one percent in the centre of town (in Basra), but it is two percent in Hayaniya city (a slum in Basra city). I expect the rate of pollution to be high in Abu al-Khaseeb town and in al-Madinaa town because we found big pieces of war debris during our visit to these locations,'' he said.
Zuhair added that around 46,000 tones of contaminated scrap metal with uranium will be buried at deserted area near the Iraqi-Saudi border.
"Around 46,000 tones of contaminated scrap metal are in Basra, most of the contaminated scraps will be removed to Khrashej area near the Iraqi-Saudi border to be buried . It will not affect water underground," he added.
A 2007 Basra University medical journal report found "no major rise" in cancer death rates, but that the proportion of children dying of cancer in Basra had jumped 65 percent in 1997 and 60 percent in 2005, compared to cases in 1989.
Uranium is a toxic heavy metal which is also radioactive. If it is inhaled or enters the body through the skin, it can stay there for decades. Some illnesses associated with exposure to uranium are lung fibrosis and different types of cancer, and vital organs such as the kidneys can also be damaged.