Intended for healthcare professionals


Iraq blames Gulf war bombing for increase in child cancers

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: (Published 12 December 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:1612
  1. James Ciment
  1. New York

    Iraqi health officials have claimed that depleted uranium weapons--used by the American and British military during the Gulf war--may be to blame for a substantial increase in the number of cancer cases in the southern part of the country. Depleted uranium--the byproduct of nuclear weapons and power generation--is used to make shells heavier and denser so that they can pierce tank armour more effectively.

    “The use of depleted uranium has caused irreparable damage to Iraq's people and its environment,” said Health Ministry Under Secretary Shawqi Sabri Murcos, at a conference hosted by the Iraqi government in Baghdad last week. “Our surveys show a dramatic increase in cases of leukaemia, especially among children in areas of southern Iraq bombed by the allies.”

    Both US and British military spokespeople have denied the allegations. “We do not believe that a normal exposure to these munitions causes cancers, and have found nothing to confirm [Iraqi claims],” said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon. “We're still studying the consequences of exposure to depleted uranium but in the case of the Gulf war, we don't believe that it has been linked with cancer.”

    United Nations cancer statistics for southern Iraq between 1989 and 1994 have revealed a sevenfold increase in cancer rates. In the Thi-Qar district, the number of cancer cases rose from 72 in 1989 to 489 in 1994. Charges that depleted uranium weapons pose serious long term health risks have circulated for some time. Gulf war veterans have complained of a host of ailments that they attribute to depleted uranium.

    According to the Pentagon, about 300 metric tons of depleted uranium weapons were fired in the Gulf war, although the international environmental organisation Greenpeace puts the figure at around 750 tons.

    According to Leila Richards, an American doctor and public health expert who recently toured southern Iraq, sanctions have made it difficult to accurately assess the impact of depleted uranium on cancer rates. “The technical equipment needed for testing blood or spinal fluid was maintained by outside contractors and so there is little knowledge of how to fix this equipment.” Iraqi officials have asked the World Health Organisation to provide experts to assess their claims.

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    Iraq is asking the WHO to assess childhood cancers

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