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B.C researcher probes soaring Iraq cancer rates
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VANCOUVER — A researcher from Simon Fraser University is investigating childhood leukemia in southern Iraq, where the rate of the blood cancer in some areas is now four times that of neighbouring Kuwait.

Tim Takaro and his associates from the University of Washington, Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and Basrah University said in a newly published study that the rate of leukemia in children under 15 from Basrah rose to 8.5 cases per 100,000 from three per 100,000 over the 15-year study period. The rate in nearby Kuwait is two per 100,000.

The intensity and duration of armed conflict in Basrah has presented researchers with a natural laboratory to conduct their search for the causes of childhood leukemia, Takaro said.

Basrah was at the centre of nearly continuous armed conflict — including attacks by the U.S. military — during the 15-year period of data collection, which ended in 2007.

The area was also a frequent attack target during the 1980-88 war with Iran. The rates climbed most sharply in the last three years of the study period, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States.

The leukemia numbers are particularly shocking because the rate of the disease tends to be low in poor and developing nations, lower even than the western world, said Takaro.

"To find these numbers in Iraq was surprising to us," he said. "The next question is: Why is this happening?"

Takaro speculated that further study may reveal the specific causes of childhood leukemia.

"It's impossible to say without further study why (rates in Basrah) are going up," Takaro said. "But this may be an unintended result of armed conflict."

Basrah offers several likely candidates, from the hundreds of oil wells set ablaze by Saddam Hussein's forces in 1991 to depleted uranium shell casings used by the U.S. in Operation Desert Storm and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and benzene, a known carcinogen that is present in gasoline and occurs naturally in pools of crude oil that dot the landscape of Basrah. Children in Basrah are also sometimes used in the local black market trade in gasoline, which is distributed using mouth-operated siphon hoses.

Depleted uranium is only weakly radioactive, but the toxic metal is very widely distributed when it is used in armour-piercing shells. The uranium completely disintegrates and burns when it penetrates armour, Takaro said.

"We know from Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the sites of American atomic bombs attacks in 1945) that ionizing radiation causes leukemia," Takaro said.

Trends in Childhood Leukemia in Basrah, Iraq, 1993-2007, appeared in the Feb. 18 edition of the American Journal of Public Health.

Source >  The Vancouver Sun | mar 03

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