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U.N.: Iraq hazardous waste sites neglected

Thousands of contaminated sites left over from wars in Iraq are health hazards and must urgently be cleaned up, a U.N. agency said Thursday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thousands of contaminated industrial and military sites left over from wars in Iraq must urgently be cleaned up to stop them from further harming people’s health and the environment, a U.N. agency said Thursday.

The U.N. Environment Program, or UNEP, has assessed five contaminated sites during the past 18 months to train Iraqi specialists to detect the risks, analyze harmful chemicals and eventually clean up such sites.

“We are still at the beginning,” said Narmin Othman, Iraq’s environment minister. “We have thousands of polluted areas, and we need millions and millions (of dollars) to clean them up. The challenge now is to identify and assess all such areas of contamination in Iraq and systematically restore them.”

The sites include chemical and petrochemical factories, mines, military scrap-yards and sites polluted by depleted uranium. Almost all the sites have been repeatedly looted after they were destroyed or bombed during conflicts, including the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the 1991 Gulf War and the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Leaking heavy metal wastes contaminate the soil, ground and drinking water, UNEP said. Children from nearby dwellings often play on such sites and touch or even ingest toxic materials, the agency noted.

UNEP estimates it will cost about $40 million to tackle the operation’s next stage, which includes cleaning up an additional 20 areas and assessing other sites, implementing environmental legislation, and buying back military scrap material. Most importantly, Iraq must build a hazardous waste treatment facility, UNEP said.

One of the five sites recently assessed by UNEP — a metal plating facility near Baghdad damaged by ground and air strikes in 2003 — is believed to contain several tons of acutely toxic sodium cyanide, which is lethal at a dose of less than one ounce.

“These are ... sites that have a history of contamination, all of which are linked to massive neglect,” said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP executive director. He said Iraq’s lack of investment into environmental matters had further aggravated the situation.