PC(USA) webinar calls for environmental justice for Iraq

The Wednesday webinar points to health and environmental problems from depleted uranium

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

A panel convened for a Wednesday webinar discussed the health hazards caused by depleted uranium in Iraq. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — The Presbyterian Office of Public Witness and some of its partners held a webinar Wednesday about an environmental justice issue — depleted uranium contamination in Iraq — and the church’s desire for the United States to do more to help those affected by the crisis.

The webinar was a joint effort with the Iraq Partnership NetworkPresbyterian World Mission and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations to raise awareness about depleted uranium left behind from U.S .weapons used in conflicts in Iraq.

“What we left there is not going away,” said the Rev. Matt Fricker, a webinar panelist and U.S. veteran who served in Iraq. “We need to send resources to help support the Iraqi people to be able to collect this (depleted uranium) and get it out of their water, out of their ground and away from their people.”

The purpose of the webinar was to “learn why we should be concerned about the use of depleted uranium, the harm that it has caused, as well as the steps the U.S. government can take to help the people of Iraq,” OPW’s representative for international issues, Catherine Gordon, told the Zoom audience.

It’s an issue of importance to the 225th General Assembly (2022), which last summer directed the church to contact the U.S. government to raise concerns about the crisis and advocate that the issue be addressed. It also stressed the need to work toward a worldwide ban against the military use of depleted uranium.

During the webinar, Fricker explained why the substance is used in weaponry. Because it’s very dense, depleted uranium can penetrate things if put on top of projectiles and can catch things on fire. It’s also used for armor, he said.

“You may be firing a missile covered in depleted uranium that hits armor,” leading to an explosion and depleted uranium particles everywhere, he said. Soldiers breathe in the particles, which also get caught by the wind, “sending them into water basins” and “into our agriculture and sinking into our soil.”

The contamination issue has weighed on Fricker as a veteran. “When I served in Iraq, our first general order was supposed to be liberating the people of Iraq and what part of liberation can exist if we are going to use weaponry that will poison land for billions of years? That is an impossibility.”

He also questioned the ethics of sending weapons to other countries, such as Ukraine, that might end up in Iraq’s toxic situation.

Dr. Zuhair Fathallah, a retired plastic reconstructive surgeon, said it is common in the southern region of Iraq for people to have high concentrations of depleted uranium in their bodies and that exposure has had tragic consequences. For example, he noted that there’s been an increase in congenital malformations, miscarriage, premature labor and cancer.

Webinar viewers also heard from Erik K. Gustafson, founder and executive director of the Enabling Peace in Iraq Center. He’s a U.S. Army veteran and social entrepreneur, focusing on peacebuilding, human rights and humanitarian affairs.

Gustafson noted that in addition to the depleted uranium crisis, Iraq is grappling with the scourge of climate change. “You have a huge scarcity of water right now, and this has impacted agriculture. You also have a problem with rampant water pollution” of waterways from things like raw sewage, medical waste and industrial dumping. More and more exposure to such toxins is “contributing to cancers,” he said.

He also mentioned the problem of natural gas being “burned into the atmosphere and that puts all kinds of chemicals into the air, including known cancer-causing agents — toxins like benzene.”

Sue Rheem

Sue Rheem, who coordinates the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, gave a brief report about UN action. She noted that the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution in December on depleted uranium. It asks for the Secretary-General to request that international organizations update their studies on the health and environmental effects of armaments containing depleted uranium, according to the UN. It also invites member states that have used such armaments to provide information to the relevant authorities and give assistance to the affected states.

“It’s really heartbreaking to hear what’s happening on the ground,” said Rheem, who also affirmed the importance of continuing to collect information.

The Presbyterian Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations are part of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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