Nature breaks up Iraqi toxic trail

Nature breaks up Iraqi toxic trail

New Scientist, 23 January 1993

SOIL in areas of northeastern Iraq where Saddam Hussein’s army attacked the Kurds with chemical weapons is now free from all traces of mustard gas and nerve agents. The unpublished research is good news for Kurdish farmers who have returned to their land since the Gulf War, but bad news for scientists who want to uncover where chemical weapons have been used.

During 1988, the Iraqi army used chemi­cal weapons against Kurdish villagers and farmers in an attempt to destroy support for rebels operating in the countryside. In one attack alone, on the town of Halabja, an estimated 5000 people were killed.

Soil and blood samples taken around the time of the attacks confirmed that mustard gas had been used. After the Gulf War ceasefire, UN inspectors found that Iraq had huge stocks of mustard gas and the nerve agents tabun and sarin.

On a trip to Iraq last autumn, Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, a microbiologist from the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham and secretary of the London-based Kurdish Sci­entific and Medical Association, took soil samples from Halabja and two other sites of chemical weapons attacks.

Tests carried out by scientists from the Chemical and Biological Defence Establish­ment in Porton Down, Wiltshire, proved negative for tabun, sam, mustard gas and their breakdown products.

It is not surprising that all traces of the nerve agents had disappeared, says Alastair Hay, senior lecturer in chemical pathology at the University of Leeds. When exposed to the elements, these gases break down in hours or cause headaches and malaise, and stunt the growth of plants. “We can say al­most for definite that these complaints can’t be attributed to gas,” he says.

New Scientist, 23 January 1993, issue 1857, Page 6.

This project was completed in 1992, its summary published in the New Scientist. The full report was published in Zanin in 2005