Concerned about depleted uranium and what they say are increasing cancer rates, Iraqi officials are receiving training from U.N. experts on techniques to measure radiation levels according to international standards, a U.N. official Tuesday.
Pekka Haavisto, chairman of the U.N. Environment Program’s Iraq Task Force, said the Iraqis were especially concerned about the southern city of Basra and the surrounding area. He said the Iraqi government approached UNEP for help.
“They did their own studies and found that the cancer risk has increased by two to three times since the 1991 Gulf War,” Haavisto told The Associated Press. “These are local studies and have not been internationally verified so it is difficult to say if the picture is so black.”
Depleted uranium is a heavy metal used in armor-piercing weapons. The Pentagon maintains that depleted uranium is safe and is about 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium.
The British government has given UNEP detailed information on locations where it used 1.9 tones of depleted uranium in the south of Iraq, but UNEP says the U.S. government hasn’t come forward with the same information despite U.N. requests.
UNEP is instructing 16 officials from the Iraqi Ministry of Health and Environment, including both vice-ministers, in how to detect depleted uranium.
“The UNEP is currently providing training and equipment to Iraqi scientists to measure Beta and Gamma radiation from depleted uranium sources,” Haavisto said.
He said UNEP has carried out studies on depleted uranium found in munitions used in Kosovo and the Balkan wars but “due to the security situation in Iraq, we are training Iraqis to conduct the studies themselves.”
Haavisto said the UNEP is concerned that “there has been no proper clean up in Iraq since wars in 2003 and 1991. There is still depleted uranium and other chemicals on the ground. Looting has contributed to the problem,” he said.
“Usually hazardous materials must be cleaned up as rapidly as possible,” he added.
He said the UNEP had several other concerns about Iraq, such as the presence of toxic materials, heavy metals and oil spills that present environmental and health hazards.
UNEP’s studies in the Balkans called for monitoring depleted uranium affected areas, cleanup efforts and clearly marking affected sites.
It concluded that that localized contamination can be detected at contaminated sites and so precaution is needed, while in general, levels are so low that they do not pose an immediate threat to human health and the environment.
But the Balkans studies also identified a number of uncertainties requiring further investigation, according to UNEP. These include the extent to which depleted uranium on the ground can filter through the soil and eventually contaminate groundwater, and the possibility that depleted uranium dust could later be re-suspended in the air by wind or human activity, with the risk that it could be breathed in.
UNEP is also involved in environmental management of the Iraqi marshlands.