Iraq's Secret Environmental Disasters

Horror stories of all types have emerged in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. But not only people were horrifically abused. Iraq's environment was tormented as well.

In the early 1970's a major methyl mercury-poisoning catastrophe occurred in which an estimated 10,000 people died and 100,000 were severely and permanently brain damaged. Saddam's regime was largely successful in suppressing information about the event.

The problem began in the late 1960's and early 1970's, when Iraq experienced a series of abysmal harvests. Since the "green revolution" was beginning, Iraq imported "wonder wheat" from Mexico. The risk was that the seed might grow moldy during the long, humid ocean transport to Iraq if it was not dressed with some fungicide. Methyl mercury became the most cost-effective fungicide, because it had recently been banned in Scandinavia and several American states due to environmental and toxicological risks. So the world market was flooded and prices dropped.

The wheat seeds were thus dressed with methyl mercury and sent to Basra in Iraq's south. Because the shipment arrived late, trucks and trains that had been at hand were reassigned. So it took another couple of months before the grain reached the farmers. By then the sowing season was long over. Farmers were left with a pink grain that they were told not to eat, only to plant. But recent harvests had been lousy and farmers had little or nothing to feed their animals and themselves.

Like farmers all over the world, Iraqi farmers mistrust their government. Some began feeding the grain to chickens or sheep and watched to see if there were any bad side effects. Nothing happened for weeks. So some then gave the grain to old grandfathers and grandmothers, who also didn't drop dead instantly. At that point, it seems, most farmers began giving the grain to their livestock and eating it themselves. Children supposedly liked the pink bread.

But within half a year or so, bad things did start to happen. Hospitals were flooded with patients showing symptoms of damage to the central nervous system. At first, doctors initially had no idea as to the cause. Some suspected an epidemic of "brain fever" of some sort. Others more accurately pointed to methyl mercury.

WINTER SALE: Save 40% on all new Digital or Digital Plus subscriptions

WINTER SALE: Save 40% on all new Digital or Digital Plus subscriptions

Subscribe now to gain greater access to Project Syndicate – including every commentary and our entire On Point suite of subscriber-exclusive content – starting at just $49.99.

Subscribe Now

A small group of international experts on mercury were called in. I went as a World Health Organization staff member. We confirmed methyl mercury poisoning through contaminated food.

But what food had been contaminated? Bread could be and sometimes was. As grain was fed to chicken, sheep, and cows, meat, milk, cheese, and butter became contaminated. To avoid problems, I ate only dates and American corned beef canned in 1941 and 1942 for the US Army.

When the imported grain was identified as the cause of the poisoning, Iraq's government acted decisively. Farmers were ordered to hand over all remaining supplies within a fortnight. To stress the urgency, a death penalty for possessing pink grain after that date was declared.

But most farmers had no access to radio, television, or daily newspapers. By the time most learned about the order and the penalty, the two weeks were gone and the army had started to execute those found still to be in possession of the grain. So the farmers dumped grain wherever they could--along roadsides, in irrigation canals, in rivers.

Fish soon became contaminated, as did migratory birds. One father of a family with several poisoned members and without any traditional food left stood in his doorway praising Allah for having made these migratory birds easy to catch when they had nothing else to eat.

At hospitals throughout the country, doctors concluded that there was nothing they could do. There is no real treatment for methyl mercury poisoning. In rural Iraq the tradition is that a person preferably should die at home with his or her family around. Thus, when they saw and heard that doctors couldn't help, people brought their sick family member home.

Consequently, the official figures that put the number of deaths from methyl mercury poisoning at 6,500 people only cover those who died in hospital. The real number is certainly far higher.

The crisis did provide doctors with some greater understanding of how to detect methyl mercury poisoning. "Quiet baby syndrome," for example, when mothers praise their babies for never crying, is now considered a warning sign for methyl mercury-induced brain damage in children. Treatment, too, has changed in the wake of the mass poisoning. The agents traditionally used to speed up excretion of inorganic metals from poisoned patients turned out to make symptoms of methyl mercury poisoning worse rather than milder.

Through tricks and threats Iraq's fallen dictatorship largely succeeded in keeping this tragedy under cover. Now the story can be told. But whether anything can and will be done to belatedly help the victims is very much an open question.