Skip to main content

Rise in Iraqi cancer cases may be linked to wars, environment

The causes of the spike may be linked to Iraq's wars or environmental pollution, but the evidence is sketchy.
As oil fires burn in the distance, a man covers his face near the entrance to the besieged city of Basra on March 29, 2003, in Iraq.

Director of the Environmental Department in southern Iraq Walid Hamid said May 21 that “Ministry of Health statistics indicate that 2,000 cases of cancer are recorded annually due to oil flares that release toxic gases into the air as a result of extraction operations in the Basra fields,” and he criticized oil companies for their disregard of the approved environmental and health standards and controls.

There have been mounting calls to address this health crisis. In 2018, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Basra announced that “about 800 cases of cancer are recorded every month in the province.” The office confirmed the figure on Jan. 4 and stated that “the governorate leads Iraqi cities in cancer cases, with 600 to 700 cases recorded on a monthly basis in 2020.”

In 2019, the Iraqi Environment and Health Association in London stated that “the oil and gas industries in Iraq failed to shoulder their responsibilities as far as the environmental fallout of oil projects is concerned, knowing that such projects entail severe health risks.”

However, statistics and theories that establish a link between the spread of cancer and the work of oil companies did not prevent Oil Ministry spokesperson Assem Jihad from stating to Al-Monitor that “despite the fact that oil operations and oil flares pollute the environment, it is just not right to establish a link between cancer cases and oil pollution, as it has not yet been scientifically proven that this is behind the spike in cancer cases in southern governorates, including Basra.”

Jihad believes that “many reports ignore or turn a blind eye to the effects of the wars that Iraq witnessed, including the eight-year Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War in which prohibited weapons, including enriched uranium, were used, as well as millions of bombs, projectiles and contaminated remnants of war, which continue to threaten the lives of the province residents.”

He added, “The effects of military and chemical pollutants continue to be felt for decades, and their effects cannot be easily removed.”

Jihad said, “Negligence is the name of the game when it comes to treating these pollutants or removing the remnants of war, which claim dozens of lives on a yearly basis.”

“I personally visited the Basra hospital that treats cancerous diseases and listened to a study presented by a doctor, which proved that the remnants of wars and forbidden weapons and their devastating effects are the main causes of cancer cases in the province,” he said, adding, "The ministry is interested in addressing environmental pollution, as it is seeking to stop burning gas completely by 2025 through a series of contracts with international companies in Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar, while it has thus far managed to invest between 50% to 60% of associated gas.”

Asked about the accusations leveled against international companies, Jihad said the international companies "working on developing oil fields are working in accordance with the strictest environmental and health standards, and they are known for their commitments in this regard.”

He believes the Ministry of Oil is an "effective contributor to improving the health situation in Iraq by providing monthly financial support, good equipment and medicines to hospitals specialized in treating cancerous diseases, as well as equipping them with early examination devices to detect these diseases. Also, the ministry bears the costs of modernizing and building advanced medical units in hospitals.”

Contrasting with the Ministry of Oil’s view, Riyad Abdel Amir, director-general of the Public Health Department at the Ministry of Health, told Al-Monitor, “The ministry does not have statistics on citizens who died of cancer caused by oil flares.” He stressed that “there is no scientific study proving the existence of a link between oil fields and cancer.”

Confirming the spike in cancer cases, Iraqi parliament member Ali al-Budairi told Al-Monitor his field surveys “confirm an increase in cancer cases in oil provinces, with Basra province at the forefront.” He stressed that he “does not have evidence that oil flares are the cause.”

Budairi said this is due to “the fact that companies operating in the oil sector do not have health standards to follow. Add to this the rampant corruption in the Ministry of Oil and the lack of follow-up and accountability, which led to the spread of deadly and dangerous diseases due to the lack of adherence to environmental standards established by laws.”

Dr. Haider Salman from the Basra Health Directorate believes there actually is a link between the spike in cancer cases and oil activity.

"Unused, combusted gas leads to major environmental problems at the local and global levels,” he said, adding that “gas companies are reluctant to contain what is burned. Such emissions, if exploited, would stop the environmental pollution, which provides an incubator for cancer diseases.”

Salman said Basra underwent "acid sulfur rains in 2018, which led to the poisoning of 4,500 people in just three days. Hospitals were overwhelmed at the time, and media outlets failed to shed light on this issue.”

On May 4, Iraqi doctors revealed that cancer cases "registered an alarming rise in Basra, Maysan and Nasiriyah.”

Ali al-Bayati, a member of the Iraqi Human Rights Commission, told Al-Monitor, “There is a failure to pay attention to the health conditions of the residents of the areas surrounding the oil fields, and this is exemplified by the fact that the social amenities granted by oil licensing companies are exploited in projects that do not support the health sector. Also, in the absence of oversight, these companies have failed to honor their commitments stipulated by the licensing round contracts, as they have yet to remove the effects of pollution associated with incineration and extraction processes.”

It is clear there is uncertainty between the ministries of oil and health when it comes to the spread of cancer and burning of oil and gas flares, but what is certain is that environmental pollution in the oil field areas has yet to be treated, especially considering that Iraq is already suffering from a collapse in its health institutions as well as a clear defect in services related to water and electricity in general.

More from Adnan Abu Zeed