UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Radioactivity poses risk to population, warns UN nuclear agency
BAGHDAD, 25 Apr 2006 (IRIN) - The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced on Monday that some 1,000 people living near the former Tuwaitha nuclear site faced serious health risks from lingering radiation.
Tuwaitha, situated some 20 km south of the capital, Baghdad, “is one of a number of sites in the country identified as needing decommissioning or remediation, where radioactive material was used or waste buried,” according to an IAEA statement.
Residents of the nearby Ishtar village, for example, are exposed to levels of radiation higher than normal, the agency noted, which – in the case of prolonged exposure – could pose serious health risks. According to Bushra Ali Ahmed, director of the Radiation Protection Centre in Baghdad, blood tests carried out on residents revealed a degree of radioactivity in almost half of them.
Devoted to nuclear research under the former regime of Saddam Hussein, Tuwaitha has the highest levels of ambient radiation in the country, according to experts. “Research was done under the Hussein regime using the most dangerous kinds of nuclear material,” said Ammar Kheiry, a senior official at the Ministry of Science and Technology. “This resulted in a concentration of radioactive material and exposure of innocent civilians to the dangerous material.”
Kheiry went on to draw attention to the government’s concern over radioactive material and equipment that vanished from Iraq's nuclear sites in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion of the country. There have been scattered reports, for instance, of equipment being used by poor families to store water and petrol domestically.
Officials at the health ministry, meanwhile, point out that the number of patients diagnosed with cancer countrywide has increased noticeably in the past two years. Experts suspect the main cause for rising cancer rates could be radioactive contamination resulting from the widespread use of radioactive munitions and equipment.
"Before 2003, there was one new cancer case a day in the capital, at most. This number has now risen to five per day,” said Dr Ahmed Abdul Jabbar, an oncologist at the Baghdad Radiation Hospital. “An urgent study should be undertaken, because, according to our statistics, most of the cancer cases have come from areas affected by war and fighting.”
The government, therefore, has asked the IAEA for assistance compiling a study on radiation levels throughout the country. “We’ve called for help from international organisations with expertise in these issues to protect Iraqis from becoming victims of these dangerous materials,” Kheiry explained.
The first steps to be undertaken by the IAEA will be to identify, cordon off and prioritise the areas posing the greatest risk to the population. According to agency officials, the main challenge will be to “determine unknown locations where contaminated equipment and materials might be buried and recover lost records about…radioactive materials stored in waste containers”.
But cleaning up radioactive materials is a relatively long and complicated process, say officials. "This is a huge task,” Dennis Reisenweaver, the IAEA expert heading the effort, noted recently. “And one that could take many years.”
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