Souad Naji al-Azzawi, an Iraqi environmental scientist, has devoted much of her professional life to studying one of the thorniest problems remaining from the years of war in her home country—the effect of depleted uranium weapons on the Iraqi environment and on human health.
Iraq’s environment suffered enormous damage in nearly four decades of war. Iraqi scientists, environmentalists and government continue to assess the extent of the effects of armed conflict on the country’s air, water, soil and on the health of its people.
Al-Azzawi, although she is technically retired and lives in Abu Dhabi, continues to publish research and to campaign on this issue, which has largely receded from public view, even though the problem has not gone away. In May, an independent nonprofit, the Arab Scientific Community Organization, published al-Azzawi’s paper, Modeling Depleted Uranium Contamination in Southern Iraq.
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Depleted uranium—a waste product of nuclear power generation—is effective in anti-tank projectiles. The radioactive metal reaches high temperatures on impact with tank armor: hot enough to melt the armor into minute particles that are carried on the wind as dust. Environmentalists and many scientists argue that this radioactive dust contaminates air, water and soil, and has harmful consequences for human health—notably, conspicuously high incidences of cancer, leukemia and severe birth defects in areas where depleted uranium weapons were used.
“It’s not a subject that people are talking about much any more. I don’t know why,” said Renad Mansour, a research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House who specializes in the reconstruction of post-war Iraq.
A Persistent Campaigner
While database and Internet searches indicate the number of papers published on the subject has dwindled in recent years, al-Azzawi has not stopped publishing and campaigning. She lectures worldwide, and in recent years has appeared on Iraqi TV as a political commentator.
“I’m not quitting,” she says.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Mosul in the early 1980s, she left Iraq—with her three children—for the United States, to study geology and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. The subject of her doctorate was the contamination of underground water by nuclear power generation.