Heavy Metal Toxicity—One Possible Explanation for Iraq's High Rate of Birth Defects

Imagine for a moment that the food you ate, the water you drank, and the very air you breathed were poisoned.

And what if this same poison were leading to increasingly high rates of birth defects in your community?

Wouldn’t you want to know what was happening? Wouldn’t you want others to know so that, together, you could come up with a cure?

For many Iraqis, this may very well be the case.

When we speak or write about The Backlog, people often ask us, “Why are there so many children in Iraq born with heart defects?”

To help answer this question, we like to stay updated on the recent research on birth defects in Iraq.

Loving well doesn’t mean just providing the lifesaving surgeries—loving well also means understanding more about the nature of these heart defects so we can help children before they’re even born.

So, though we cannot yet say that the imagined situation above is reality, what we do know suggests it may have some truth.

Take Fallujah. Some scientists think that heavy metal toxicity may be at the root of the city’s birth defect problemsDifferent studies indicate that Fallujah has abnormally high concentrations of lead, mercury, depleted uranium, and other heavy metals.

Recent wars in Iraq may have contributed to this abundance of metal. When a bomb is dropped or a gun is fired, the metals used in those weapons disintegrate on impact, turning into dust. This dust can be inhaled, enter groundwater supplies, or fall into soil to be absorbed by plants and eventually consumed by humans and wildlife.

Regardless of how these metals enter the body, once inside, they can cause damage. While our bodies have methods to counteract the negative effects of the metals, we can be thrown out of balance if too much metal enters. And if this imbalance happens, our body can undergo a series of reactions that can drastically alter our DNA and cells.

For instance, our bodies use vitamin B9—which we usually get from leafy greens or fish—to make new DNA for growing cells. When we don’t have enough vitamin B9, our cells grow much slower and our DNA can develop incorrectly.

In developing fetuses, a lack of vitamin B9 can be life-threatening. Vitamin B9 deficiency has been known for years to result in very high rates of heart defects, neural tube defects, and cleft lips or palates. Recent studies show that an increase in heavy metals will decrease the amount of vitamin B9 in our bodies—so, the more heavy metals, the less vitamin B9. We still don’t know exactly why this happens, but some scientists think that one of the metals’ toxic effects can change vitamin B9 into something else. So when levels of vitamin B9 decrease, fetuses have a higher chance of developing a birth defect.

While many of these facts may seem overwhelming, in reality, the research has a silver lining. As we discover the nature of our bodies’ reactions, we can better serve our children born with heart defects.

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Heavy Metal Toxicity—One Possible Explanation for Iraq's High Rate of Birth Defects
Heavy Metal Toxicity—One Possible Explanation for Iraq's High Rate of Birth Defects
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