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The biological legacy of warfare

January 25, 2014 at 8:39 am

Medical personnel in a majority of countries which have been attacked by armies using modern and chemical munitions, such as white phosphorus shells, have reported increases in the number of structural birth defects, as well as infants who are born with or later develop tumours. These effects become more evident with time and represent the long term consequences of the use of such bullets and shells. Doctors who have observed, reported and attempted to document these effects, often in difficult situations, have often come up against a brick wall. That is not to say that they or researchers experience direct intimidation, but the circumstances have been made too difficult to put in place timely protection for the populations at risk.

While the long term physical legacy of war often becomes obscured gradually – whether mutilations, unwanted pregnancies resulting from rape or mental problems – and is reduced to being a pain revealed reluctantly by the victims and perhaps ignored by institutions, in modern times victims are more open about it. This is possibly because of the specific means of warfare being used and people are faced with uncertainty and insecurity not only about their own health, but also the health of their progeny. They must also deal with complications that extend more deeply into personal lives and the social fabric than they ever did previously.

This legacy can hardly be forgotten and the extent of the potential damage in terms of the numbers that will be affected and the period or generations over which the effects will be felt are still unknown.

The burden is multiplied since in most cases there is no local intervention or even any assessment possible for years; in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Somalia and now Libya, circumstances frequently do not allow for it. These countries are experiencing ongoing attack, siege, occupation, unrest, institutional instability, the lack of specialised personnel, dependence on international aid agencies or are in a state of dire poverty and therefore lack adequate means.

The lack or postponement of assessment adds to the difficulties of “finding out” the facts and of providing eventual protection or care for the population from further damage. Being essentially impossible, at each step, to obtain knowledge that could grant protection against the long term effects of this weaponry and provide justice for victims already suffering serious trauma following the anguish of being attacked by a modern military arsenal, it becomes a burden of uncertainty about their future health and that of their children.

In addition, the lack of assessment adds to the potential for damage caused by components in this weaponry, as the effects of their toxicity may increase with time, with continuing assumption, as mentioned below.

The acquisition of accurate data on the long term biological effects of the use of such weaponry using the support of independent scientists and doctors from abroad has also been discouraged or suppressed in numerous ways, from direct intimidation to the absence of funding, as well as the numerous other political and practical difficulties in between these extremes.

There is an international consensus among governments and within the military industrial complex that, despite having been used ‘in the field’ on civilians for more than a decade, this weaponry will remain beyond all classification in accordance with the various conventions on the use of weapons including the Geneva Convention. As such, they also remain in limbo with regard to legal assessment of war damages as well as the definition of military misconduct, war crimes and crimes against humanity even though these were prefigured in various cases by UN commissions of enquiry or fact-finding missions and rapporteurs.

This has become the status quo upon which modern warmongering states base their ability to act with apparent impunity.

The question of the long-term effects of weaponry arose with the extensive use in Vietnam of Agent Orange contaminated with dioxin, a chemical agent that is known to interfere with normal embryonic development1. Coincidentally, congenital anomalies in Vietnam have been documented up until the present day. The responsibility of dioxin in carcinogenesis and as a teratogen (an agent that produces anomalies during fetal development and thus late miscarriage and birth defects) has been documented in association with accidents at industrial plants and has been confirmed experimentally.

The use of depleted uranium (DU) weapons raised the same issue,2 and there is an accumulated body of information that describes the coincidence of DU contamination and serious illness, cancer and birth defects. In itself, DU has the characteristics to act both as a radioactive mutagen and a chemical carcinogen and teratogen agent. It has the peculiarity, as with other metals, to persist in the environment and resist being eliminated from the body in which it accumulates.

Unfortunately, DU is only one of the many components of modern weaponry to cause health concerns. Extensive military and industrial literature illustrates the fact that much modern weaponry, from ammunition for light guns to bombs and missiles, is enriched with various metals including uranium. These metals have a toxic legacy; they are carcinogenic and teratogenic, they pollute the environment and they accumulate in the body.

Ammunition ‘augmented with metals’ have been used in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon and Libya, and possibly in Somalia.  They include bombs, light ammunition, lethal and sub-lethal-maiming weapons.

The presence of metals delivered by modern ammunition has been detected in bomb craters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza3 as well as in spent white phosphorus shells used in Gaza3 and Fallujah. They were also detected in the biopsies of victims’ wound sites offering factual proof of the presence of the metal in the ammunition that caused the wounds in Gaza4.

Children’s hair in Gaza5 and Falluhja6 was shown to have a high metal load with at least 10 metals being detected in various amounts and combinations. These metals have toxic, carcinogenic and teratogenic action as shown by scientific research, and confirmed by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) classification. They include V, Cr, Co, As, Mo, Cd, W, U, Hg, Pb.

The fact that these metals remain in the environment and accumulate in the human body makes their effects potentially more dangerous for the population with the passage of time, particularly given their ongoing consumption and absorption from the environment and atmosphere, as well as through metal-contaminated food and water.

Hence, proof of the presence of metals in weaponry and their diffusion into the environment was presented in many cases.

To diminish the relevance of the proof that toxic, carcinogenic and teratogenic metals are present in weapons, it is argued that reports on increased frequency of birth defects and cancers are only observational or do not provide comparisons with previous data available. However, the narrative from local medical personnel has recently begun to be supported by research.

The frequency of birth defects in Fallujah in 2010 was about 4-5 times that in any other country.7 It was also possible to establish retrospectively the frequency of birth defects from 1991, and thus have valid reference points for before the invasion and subsequent war. A continual rise in the frequency of birth defects beginning after 2003 has also been shown, the rate of which in 2010 was tenfold that in 1991.6 There has also been an increase in the number of cancers reported in the same city after 2003.8

The population in Fallujah, including babies at birth, was shown to have a high metal load (contamination) for at least 10 carcinogenic and foeto-toxic metals.6

The high frequency of tumours and birth defects are also associated with residence adjacent to shooting grounds, as in Quirra in Italy where weaponry used in the field in recent wars is tested by NATO, the EU, the USA and Israel among others. This case is currently in judicial proceedings and the shooting ground and its surroundings is closed to further use.

Court sentences sanctioned that delayed health damage was produced in military personnel who participated in war and military operations where this weaponry was used. Military regulations were issued to protect the health of the users of weaponry ‘augmented with metal’ indirectly confirming its dangerous nature. However, this of course does not relate to protection of the final ‘consumer’, who are the civilians.

So the evidence of an increase in birth defects and cancer associated with war and theatres for weapons testing are, in many contexts, accumulating and documented.

The most common attempt by governments and the military is to minimize the accumulating data and to call for direct proof of cause-effect by asking what proof there is that human reproduction and cancers are, in fact, caused directly by this modern weaponry?

In rational terms, of course, the regularity in the presentation of a phenomenon in different populations, e.g. increases in infant cancers or in birth defects, in the presence of a single major common environmental change in conditions, namely war waged by the same entities and using the same weaponry, should lead us to focus on that change as the potential cause of the poor health as well as concentrate efforts in research.

The road toward the establishment of a direct cause-effect relationship is slowly becoming accessible and its likelihood is paved by experimental results based on the fact that the metals in question can cause birth defects and cancers, and on knowledge of their mechanisms of action. The body of scientific data in this direction is now relevant and consistent; see ref in 5 and 6.

In addition, and in order to combat the situation, it is important that while we ask science for answers, we also learn to ask the right questions to weapons producers and to governments.

Confronted with the phenomenon, with the evidence and with the circumstances, they should provide proof that weaponry components are not agents that could account for the increase in birth defects and cancers; that they do not diffuse in uncontrolled ways in the environment; that they do not have cumulative effects extending over time and indiscriminately affecting the civil population. If they do not provide proof of this, it is necessary that we demand the application of the principle of precaution so diffusely claimed in other matters.

Meanwhile, it is mandatory that independent medical research be promoted and sustained, rather than suppressed, on an issue of such potential relevance for the general health of entire populations.

In summary, what emerges as the most novel and severe consequence of the use of metal-augmented weapons, is that their effects are virtually unlimited in time and that they are additive and potentially trans-generationally inherited, whether because they produce genetic changes or/and by post-genetic, epigenetic transmission. Effective methodologies for the remediation of contamination by metals, both environmental and human, are at this stage unknown. However, it is known that persisting exposure to toxic metals can increase health damage in time.

Timely, fair and factual documentation by qualified, independent sources which will appeal to reason and law – two things that the aggressor will do anything possible to avoid, should be promoted by all people and by all means.

We should know more about how to reduce the consequences and develop timely protection and remediation and should not just bear the “adverse destiny”. Nor should we allow this to become the doom of future generations.
*Prof. Paola Manduca is a geneticist at the University of Genoa, Italy

1. Dioxins and their effects on human health. Fact sheet N°225, May 2010,
2. Durakovic A. Undiagnosed illnessses and radioactive warfare CMJ 44:520, 2003
3. Manduca P,  Barbieri Mario, Barbieri Maurizio. Gaza Strip, soil has been contaminated due to bombings: population in danger. 2010
4. Skaik S, Abu-Shaban N, Abu-Shaban N, Barbieri M, Barbieri M, Giani U, Manduca P. Metals detected by ICP/MS in wound tissue of war injuries without fragments in Gaza. BMC Int Health Hum Rights. 2010 Jun 25;10:17.
5. Manduca P,  Barbieri Mario, Barbieri Maurizio. Metals detected in Palestinian children’s hair suggest environmental contamination. 2010,
6. Manduca P. Increase of birth defects and miscarriages in Fallujah 2011,
7. Alaani S, Savabieasfahani M, Tafash M, Manduca P Four polygamous families with congenital birth defects from Fallujah, Iraq. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2011, 89-96
8. Busby C, Hamdan M, Ariabi E.Cancer, infant mortality and birth sex-ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005-2009.Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2010, 2828-37.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.