The war we don’t see: metals and deformities

Marwa and Hameed have only one child who is still alive. In 2012, a little girl died in Marwa’s life – with a deformed head, without a brain. In 2013, Leyla was born, but she died half an hour after birth – without kidneys, with deformed arms. The neighbours, Nadia and Mohammad, had three children, but all three died shortly after birth. The fourth child was born in 2011, dead and deformed. We are in Fallujah, an old city with 300,000 inhabitants. Fallujah – the Mother of Mosques – was the base of the Iraqi resistance, and was slaughtered by the US Army in 2004. Twice, in April and in November, everything alive in Fallujah was the target of killers on rooftops and in cockpits. Two years later, more and more mothers in the city started to have abortions, and more and more children were born deformed. Just like in Basra in the South: the bombing of Basra began in the Gulf War in 1990 and continued for twenty years. In 1995, more abortions and malformations was observed. In 2013, the number tripled. As in Nangarhar, the province that took the most bombs during America’s revenge war against Afghanistan after the 11 September attack. In 2005, I (HH) was invited by colleagues at the provincial hospital in Jalalabad to study birth defects they had never seen before.

Is there a pattern here? Let’s look at Gaza: In Christmas 2008, Gaza was bombed day and night for three weeks. Local wars are opportune laboratories for testing “improved weapons”, and two months earlier Israel had received batches of new American high explosives. In the tissue samples from the wounds of the survivors of the Christmas War, our research team found aluminium, copper, mercury, barium, vanadium, nickel, manganese and cadmium – all metals in higher concentrations than in uninjured control subjects. In 2011, we analyzed hair samples from newborns with birth defects at Shifa hospital. The concentration of mercury and selenium was significantly higher in the deformed babies than in healthy controls. In hair samples from pregnant Gazan mothers after the 2014 war, we observed the same pattern. From 2006 to 2017, the frequency of congenital structural malformations has increased from 1.1 to 1.9% and preterm births from 1.1 to 7.9%. About 40% of these children will die during the first month of life. But it’s worse: Malformations of the heart are not included – add two percent. Diseases and system errors making their clinical debut later in life such as cancer, immune defects and behavioral disorders are not included – add at least five percent.

Epigenetics and metals

Our body is in constant change. From the time I attach myself to the wall of the warm womb until I die, I form new cells and discharge cells that are damaged or expired. New cells are created on the basis of the gene recipes stored in the previous generation. This is the river of life. It can be damaged in two ways. Either genetically – by messing with the recipe, the DNA molecule in the cell nucleus. Or epigenetically – by messing up the expression, transmission and understanding of the recipes, of the gene signals. Because cells are talking to each other, and they use estrogen channels for communication, both in girls and boys. A number of metals can interfere with the recipient cells’ estrogen receptors, thus creating incorrect signals into the cell nucleus. These false messengers – “metal estrogens” – do not work along a simple dose-response line, the more-brandy-the-more-drunk. Minimal quantities are enough to confuse the signaling system and thereby cell division, and the effects of the heavy metal cocktail are totally unpredictable. In the first weeks of life in the mother’s womb, while we are just a cluster of a few hundred stem cells, while the organs – and especially the nervous tissue – are in the making, a single reading error may trigger disaster.

Let’s trace the path to these metals: Thermobaric projectiles are used against apartment buildings and shelters/tunnels. Thermo(heat)-bar(pressure) explosives work by spreading a cloud of highly explosive gases which are then ignited in an ultra-fast explosion. No conventional explosive weapon creates equivalent heat and pressure. The latest generation thermobaric projectile uses aluminum dust as explosive gas. Microparticles of aluminum – 5 hundredths of a millimeter in size – with a coating of heavy metal are ignited and spread over the impact field. Colleague Ghassan Abusitta at Shifa hospital reported three weeks ago more and more burn patients, then the thermobaric weapon are in use.

The explosive dust spreads everywhere. The pulverization of buildings spreads the metals to the entire population. Mum breathes, drinks and eats – and is slowly poisoned. The metals pass from the mother’s blood, across the placental barrier and into the fetus’s blood, where they also cross the blood-brain barrier. Mother dilutes her own toxic reserves while poisoning her young. All the metals we found in the tissue samples in Gaza have documented epigenetic effects. If this is not chemical warfare, the authors of this chronicle have misunderstood the term.

The hardest thing to think about

Cells talk to each other, but they have memory as well: Nano-doses of heavy metals leave epigenetic traces in the fetal germ cells. These traces lie dormant, are activated during adolescence, and can then be passed on to grandchildren’s children.

What kind of future are we looking into?

Hans Husum is a surgeon with a doctorate in war surgery.

Paola Manduca is professor of genetics at the University of Genoa.

“Klassekampen”, December 1, 2023