Hiroshima Memo: Depleted uranium weapons and the alarming rise of cancer patients

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

On February 20, Dr. Jawad Al-Ali, 66, who has been treating patients with cancers for many years at a hospital in Basra, the largest city in southern Iraq, said quietly on the other end of the telephone that all the citizens of Basra are “hibakusha,” just like the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who have been suffering from their exposure to radiation from the atomic bombings.

As the number of patients who complain of such unaccountable symptoms as muscle pain, headaches, perceptual disorders, and fatigue has risen, the dread of contracting cancer has spread among the women of that region.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Persian Gulf War, waged in 1991, when American and British troops used the radioactive weaponry of depleted uranium (DU) shells for the first time in actual warfare. In addition, we are also approaching the 8th anniversary of the Iraq War, which began in 2003 and again saw the use of a large number of DU munitions. In the Persian Gulf War, which ended quickly, DU shells were used in Kuwait, which was then occupied by Iraqi forces, and in southern Iraq, including the area around Basra.

It was in 2000 that I visited Basra to cover a story on the health damage caused by DU weapons. At that time Dr. Al-Ali explained the situation that the people of that area were facing as he guided me through the cancer ward. Even in those days there was an alarming rise, compared to the time before the Gulf War, in the number of patients with such cancers as leukemia, breast cancer, and lymphatic malignancy. Cancer wards were also established at the Basra Pediatric and Maternity hospital in order to treat an increasing number of children with cancer. Many children, including infants, have been hospitalized to treat cancers that include leukemia.

DU is not only a radioactive material that omits mainly alpha rays, it is also a metal of extreme toxicity. A dire number of babies have been born with congenital disorders allegedly due to the combined impact of these characteristics of DU.

In the Iraq War in 2003, British troops attacked the city of Basra with a reported 100 tons of DU shells. Though the tanks and other vehicles that were destroyed were removed from the city, the land has remained contaminated. The citizens of Basra are continuously breathing in uranium particles through the air and the dust.

The population of Basra has more than doubled, to about 2.5 million, over the past 10 years. Due to this rapid increase in the size of the population, among other factors, it has been difficult to conduct an epidemiological survey on cancer. Still, thanks to the cooperation of major medical facilities and medical specialists like Dr. Al-Ali, the effort has been made to carry out such a survey. According to this data, the incidence of cancer continues to increase each year. In particular, the number of women with breast cancer is said to have tripled or quadrupled since the time prior to the Iraq War.

Dr. Al-Ali said, “You can understand why women in Basra are so sensitive about coming down with cancer.” He went on to say that, despite conditions in which medicines and medical equipment are lacking, he must, as a doctor, continue to treat his patients as best he can.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, freedom of speech was restored to the people and the standard of living has been improving. Dr. Al-Ali is pleased about these positive developments. However, the repercussions of land polluted by DU linger on. Dr. Al-Ali noted how the exposure to radiation differs between A-bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who were exposed to a large dose of radiation at one time in the atomic bombings, and radiation victims in Basra. Both groups of people, though, have been affected by their exposures to radiation long after the war ended. In that sense, there is no difference between A-bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and radiation victims in Basra. He went on to say that he would like the citizens of Japan to be aware of this reality.

How should we respond to Dr. Al-Ali's compelling appeal? This appeal, I felt, poses questions on the role of the local government of the A-bombed city of Hiroshima as well as Hiroshima citizens.

(Originally published on February 21, 2011)

Related article
Negative legacy of nuclear development (Feb 26, 2011)

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