LLRC Journal Radioactive Times. Vol.4 No 2

Radioactive Times. Vol.4 No 2

Hot News from Iraq

Following his invited presentation to the Royal Society Committee on Depleted Uranium and Health, Chris Busby was approached by an Arab television company based in Qatar to be interviewed for a documentary that they were making on the effects of DU. After describing all the particle dose effects he had discovered near the Irish Sea, Chris pointed out that it was difficult to obtain real information about the situation in Iraq. Figures on cancer were hard to come by or were disputed. Radiation figures for the areas involved in the bombing by the US were non-existent. Shortly after this, the Iraqi goverment agreed to allow him to visit the country with the television crew and to bring a sensitive scintillation counter so that he might advise on the levels of alpha radiation in the south and also look at the cancer figures that were available.

Since the airport at Baghdad is closed because of sanctions, the trip involved flying to Amman in Jordan via Damascus and then driving 1200km at night across the desert, through the Jordanian Iraqi border to Baghdad.

Into the Desert
The Electra scintillation counter (on the ground) shows a count rate of 800cps beta emission near this tank. wrecked Iraqi tank(23KB)
The Iraqis had laid on a Brigadier General from the Ministry of Culture, a Major with a pistol, several armed soldiers and a driver. The itinerary, agreed with the Egyptian TV producer, Yosri Fouda, involved a visit to the University Hospital in Baghdad, meetings with senior officials in the Ministries of Information, Health, and Culture, talks with the Baghdad University Hospital Director and his staff, Cancer Registry officials and doctors, the Director of Public Health for Basrah, visits to the Children’s Hospital in Basrah, and hospital tours with bedside meetings with dying cancer patients including children suffering from leukemia and bone cancer. In addition, the General took Chris on a tour of the southern Iraq battlefield, named ‘The Mother of All Battles’.
Measuring radioactivity near an Iraqi tank destroyed by DU.
From left: Yosri Fouda, London Bureau Chief, Al-Jezeera Satellite Channel; a Scientist from Iraqi Defence Ministry; Brigadier General Abdul-Wahab Al-Joboury; Dr Chris Busby
wrecked Iraqi tank(13KB)

Some of the adventures were quite hair-raising. Whilst driving the 600km from Baghdad to Basrah in the south at night, the lead vehicle, travelling at about 100mph along the desert road, with the General, Yosri Fouda, Chris Busby and the camera operator, suddenly encountered a bank of mud placed across the road. The driver braked violently but the vehicle, a Chevrolet land cruiser, hit the bank at about 50mph and took off, like one of the flying car displays that stunt artists attempt. It came down with a tremendous crash, skidded and and eventually halted.

The only injury was to the camera man who hit the roof and hurt his back. The bank had been placed across the road because some 100m further on, the US bombing had destroyed the bridge over the River Tigris and the road had been diverted to the east. The vehicle narrowly missed diving 50m into the river.

The radioactive battleground

Radiation readings from the southern desert both close to and remote from the destroyed tanks were interesting. The measurements were made with a Nuclear Instruments Electra instrument, which is a micro-processor controlled scaler and integrating rate-meter together with a DP2/4 49sq:cm area dual phosphor scintillation probe calibrated on Americium 241 for alphas (33% efficient at 5.5MeV) and Strontium-90 for betas. The system can distinguish between alpha, beta and gamma counts.
Entry holes look like exit holes, because of the intense heat generated on impact. The resulting alloy is highly radioactive. wrecked Iraqi tank(21KB)
Some tanks were examined in which there was a hole in the turret. This hole was caused by the impact of a 14.7mm A-10 penetrator (many of which, having missed their target, were were just lying around). The diameter of the hole in the armour plate was about 70mm. The metal around the hole was highly radioactive with beta emission giving about 2000 counts per second eqivalent to a dose of about 80 microSieverts per hour. This was presumably due to alloying of the Uranium with the steel in armour and decays from the two daughter beta emitting isotopes, Protoactinium-234 and Thorium-234. The often expressed belief that bulk DU is an alpha emitter and therefore cannot harm those who handle it is seriously in error. These materials were very hot.

Unburned DU penetrators

There were several places where the 14.7mm penetrator cores of the 30mm A-10 shells were just lying on the road. These were very radioactive, and gave 12000cps or more beta radiation equivalent to tissue doses of 0.48mSv/hour. The uncorrected alpha signal was 12cps. Thus anyone handling them for any length of time would receive a serious burn. No doubt pieces of these and whole penetrators litter the area around the towns where they were used. In one building in an oil pumping station where no tanks were, there were several such rounds lying about. One had grazed the plaster inside a doorway of a building and embedded itself in the floor. There were high levels of radioactivity along the greyish graze mark.

Radiation levels

The main purpose of the visit was to try and obtain data on general alpha radiation levels in the areas where DU had been used and where it had not been used and to see if there was any correlation with cancer and other illnesses.

Integrated 60-sec readings of alpha activity were made in Baghdad, Basrah, in the southern battleground area, inside 50 and 20km radii from the destroyed tanks and close to the tanks themselves, including inside the turrets of tanks with radioactive holes in them.

In general what was found was that the alpha counts were higher in the whole battlefield area than they were in Basrah by a factor of about ten fold. In Basrah, in the dust by the Shatt Al- Arab waterway, the uncorrected integrated alpha count rate was about 0.01 to 0.02cps. In the desert area it was between 0.1 cps to 0.18cps with a mean of about 0.13cps. The activity was higher in the area near the dead tanks but not significantly so. These results are based on less than 30 x 1-min integrals so caution sould be exercised.

Soil near tanks

An area of soil close to the tank on the cover had a black powdery surface which showed slightly elevated radioactivity with 26cps beta though the alpha signal was the same as the ambient level in the desert. This tank did not show elevated radiation readings inside the turret even though the penetrator must originally have covered the inside with DU. Another tank had a very radioactive area of soil around it with high pure beta readings of over 1600 cps associated with a yellow solid material existing in small <3mm clumps in the sand. This material could not be identified and unfortunately all the samples taken by Chris Busby were confiscated by the Iraqis, although they have promised to have them analysed themselves and provide results.

Radiation and Cancer

Where did all the DU go? The general southern area seems to have a higher alpha activity so perhaps the particles produced by the bombing became generally dispersed over the area.This would fit the alpha measurements. Have they caused cancer increases? Well the evidence seems to be that since the war, there is a higher rate of cancer in the areas of the north and south where the DU was used than in the city of Baghdad where it was least used. And if the northern rates are also high, this rules out the oil fires as a major cause. In addition, there seems to be a large increase in cancer in soldiers who were in the battles. Chris met one of these soldiers who was dying in his mid 40s of a rare cancer of the nasal passages.

The epidemiological problem is not easy since the population base of the high exposure areas of interest has changed since the war. However, Table 1 shows the percentage distribution of leukemia by provinces where DU was used compared with Baghdad as a control. Further figures have been supplied by the Iraqi authorities and are being analysed.

Province 1989 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997
Baghdad 5.9 6.1 5.0 5.4 5.1 6.6
Wasit (S) 5.3 7.0 7.4 7.3 4.9 10.1
Salah Al Din (N) 2.1 9.1 6.4 6.4 7.6 9.7
Maysan (S) 4.5 6.2 5.8 7.4 11.9 14.3
The-Qar (S) 4.6 8.7 8.4 7.7 6.9 7.4
Al-Basrah (S) 5.4 8.5 6.1 9.1 14.3 8.4
Al-Muthana 3.9 10.9 8.0 9.9 5.1 14.7
Al-Taamim 5.5 6.4 7.3 8.9 8.1 9.5
Deyala 8.7 8.9 8.0 7.2 11.4 8.9
Al-Anber 6.4 9.7 6.6 7.7 8.9 5.8
Karbla 8.0 6.5 7.0 6.6 3.9 7.7
Nejaf 10.6 7.6 8.0 8.2 3.0 5.6
Babylon 8.9 8.0 7.4 5.8 8.4 7.9
Ninveh 3.3 2.4 1.5 3.4 2.7 2.3
Al-Qadisyah 6.8 15.1 13.0 5.9 6.2 6.1

Percentage of all cancer which are leukemias by regions in Iraq from 1989 to 1997. (Source: Cancer Registry)
Table 1 Leukemia as a percentage of all cancers before and after Gulf War in selected northern and southern provinces of Iraq [N = northern, S = southern areas].

Childhood war cohort

One indication of a real increase in cancer is the numbers of cases in the period 1995-1997 in children aged 0-14 by 5-year cohort. The figures are given in Table 2. Note the significant rise in leukemia in the 5-9 age group. These are the children exposed in utero and early life. They show a significant excess leukemia risk (p < .0001) compared with the children in the 0-4 and 10-14 age groups.

  0 - 4 5 - 9 10 - 14
All cancers 476 611 590
Acute leukemia 122 166 118

Table 2 Cases of cancer and leukemia by age group in children 0-14 from 1995-1997

This is all the more clear because the well-known peak in acute leukemia with age which occurs in the 0-4 age group in the west is clearly absent in this group, suggesting that something happened to the 5-9 cohort causing excess leukemia. The World Health Organisation team who visited Baghdad to investigate the reports of childhood leukemia increases seem to have missed this obvious point, perhaps intentionally.

Sanctions kill children

Owing to the sanctions, the conditions in the hospitals were pitiful: there were shortages of cancer drugs, broken down radiotherapy machines missing spares and children dying for lack of medicines. The radiotherapy departments were reduced to calculating doses using a pencil and paper and graphs.

If you are seeing this page full screen (i.e. without a navigation bar on the left) you can't see how the rest of the site is organised.
This Home page link takes you to the index page, which has links to all the topics we discuss on the site [only use it if this page is full screen]
Use the Radioactive Times button to see links to the whole electronic edition on this site.

This page was last updated May 2001