Iraqis grapple with post-war radioactivity
Iraq's ministry of health launched a survey Thursday to look for radiation sickness.
Salaam Kadhim had no idea what he would find last April, when he and three thieving friends breached the walls of Iraq's nuclear facility at Tuwaitha, as the regime of Saddam Hussein collapsed.Skip to next paragraph
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What they found were countless barrels full of radioactive uranium powder, known as "yellowcake." They emptied the barrels to use them as water cisterns at home - and then had a taste.
"I thought it was milk powder," Mr. Kadhim recalls in his village on the edge of Tuwaitha, 15 miles southeast of Baghdad. "But when we poured it out, it made us dizzy. It tasted very bitter."
While Kadhim says he has had no lasting health problems resulting from his part in the comprehensive looting of Tuwaitha, reports of symptoms of radiation sickness - and fear of contamination from looted goods - persist in local neighborhoods.
Such concerns have led Iraq's new health ministry to launch Thursday a two-month survey of 5,000 residents near Tuwaitha. Iraqis will be brought to a nearby hospital in groups of 75 to 100 daily, to undergo a battery of tests.
"It is serious, there is a real problem, but we don't know how big or the long-term reach," says Yasin Kamil, director of the Al Medaan Hospital, where the survey will be conducted. "There are only suspected cases, but it needs a specialist team to diagnose precisely."
American military radiation experts - arriving in the midst of sharp criticism of US forces for not preventing the looting of such a sensitive site - visited some affected villages two weeks ago. Though the results of their work is yet to be publicized, US officials in the past have downplayed the risk.
Col. Tim Madere, the officer in charge of coalition forces' nuclear-weapons search teams, in May rejected assertions that locals were suffering severe ill health as a result of contaminated equipment from Tuwaitha - or that missing material could be used by terrorists to make a powerful radiological weapon, according to The Washington Times.
He acknowledged in the same interview, however, that "there is still a potential health hazard."
Iraqi doctors say that complaints of radiation effects are proving difficult to track down, much less to diagnose. The aim of the new survey, they say, is threefold: to alert people to the dangers; to determine if there are any real cases of radiation poisoning; and to allay popular Iraqi fears.
Iraqi radiation specialists and other experts will be part of the team, which received orders from the health ministry on July 5. Several are deeply skeptical of local claims.
Combating ignorance of the risks is a key element in rural villages where some Iraqis complain of itchiness, nosebleeds, vomiting, and other problems that they link to turning yellowcake barrels and other looted goods into household items.
"Iraqi families are very afraid ... but the people are ignorant and don't believe it is harmful," says Said Mutar al-Musawi, a religious leader in the village of Wardiyeh, adjacent to Tuwaitha's high walls, from whence many looters came. "Having water is more important than [the dangers of] something that doesn't touch them. Some people have drunk from barrels, and washed with them."
While US military radiological experts have surveyed some areas, the United Nations and activist organizations are expressing concern that Iraq's occupiers are, if not deliberately minimizing the risks, limiting their ability to independently examine the impact.