Published online 15 September 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040913-14


Iraq to tackle toxic 'hot spots'

UN will help the country clean up the legacy of war.

Decades of neglect and war have left country-wide contamination.Decades of neglect and war have left country-wide contamination.© UNAMI

Scientists will start assessing pollution in Iraq in the aftermath of the war, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced yesterday. It will be the first step on a long road to cleaning up the contaminated country.

A pilot project will target up to 5 of more than 300 environmental 'hot spots', which are thought to have suffered severe contamination, UNEP said on 14 September. The areas to be investigated may include a sulphur mining site, a seed store contaminated by mercury and an oil pipeline damaged by attacks.

This study is the first large, on-the-ground assessment of the environmental damage that has accumulated in Iraq over decades of environmental neglect and war. The project should help to identify threats to human, animal and plant health and to prioritize areas for cleaning.

The project is coordinated by UNEP in collaboration with the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment, and is part of a wider US$4.7-million plan to bolster the ministry. Its aim is to train Iraqi scientists to carry out the monitoring, with findings being confirmed by European laboratories.

Iraqi scientists must ultimately build up their own, independent pollution monitoring teams, says environmental health expert Wajdy Hailoo of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who heads a project to establish environmental training and research centres in Iraq. "You can't just have one international project," he says.

UNEP say that this is their long-term aim. But any large-scale environmental clean-up will probably have to take a back seat until more pressing humanitarian and security issues are dealt with, says UNEP spokesman Robert Bisset. "Environment is not top of the agenda at the moment," he says.

Dirty legacy

Iraq is thought to be in bad shape, environmentally. Problems started in the 1970s, when the country underwent rapid industrialization and little attention was paid to toxic fumes and waste.

The situation was compounded by environmental neglect and damage during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War and over a decade of foreign sanctions.

An assessment by UNEP in April 2003, based mostly on interviews and documents, concluded that there was an urgent need for environmental remedies.

Experts say that the most recent conflict will also have a toxic hangover. One particularly pressing issue is that of depleted uranium, a dense material used to blow holes in heavily armoured vehicles. In other countries, toxic and radioactive uranium remnants have been tentatively linked to higher incidence of cancer and birth defects after conflicts.

The effects of depleted uranium could take many years to show up in Iraq, says Diane Henshel, who studies environmental pollutants at Indiana University, Bloomington. But, she says, "I think there are all the indications that there will be a low-level chronic problem."