5:59am , Wednesday 20th January 2021

Failure to Apprehend an Anonymous Killer Called Thalium

23 February 2011

Ammar Saleh –Adstour 22 November 2010 It did not occur to the Ministry of Interior to request the assistance of the School of Pharmacy at Al-Basra University to prepare a report on a toxic material that is prohibited locally and internationally for the past three decades, especially that Pharmacy schools in Iraq are older and closer to the Ministry, and are far from the phantom of death, which already took three victims of exposure to breathing Thalium in Basra city during that period, including Adel Qassem who died on last September at the age of 53, one year after being exposed to this toxic material in strange circumstances, according to the death certificate issued by the Legal Medicine Department in Basra, which referred the death to “heart muscle seizure resulting from Thalium poisoning.”One Incident, Many Stories The beginnings of poisoning cases recorded in Basra took place in October 2009. Stories regarding their reasons and causes continue to differ widely over the causes and effects on health. While the Basra city Health Department talks about 16 victims, according to Dr. Abdel Abbas Nasser, Hamza Abbas, whose family were poisoning victims, says that the real number is double that, according to what he observed when he accompanied his sister and daughter on their treatment procedure. The first death took place on November 20, 2009, after the victim suffered for 28 days from the effects of the poison referred to as TI; namely, high toxicity heavy metals related to Thalium. The University of Basra had prepared a report about its hazards, uses and symptoms of exposure to it, but the report could not be accessed, perhaps because the University wishes to observes the considerations involved in correspondence with official parties that requested it, despite the importance of this report in a country that suffers from security disruptions after three wars over three decades. Poison in Honey Prior to the Basra incident towards the end of 2009, members from the Air Force Club team had been poisoned, with members of their families by Thalium during a party held by the club in Baghdad in January 2008 after eating a cake. In a statement issued after the incident, office of Deputy Saffiyeh Al-Suhail demanded that “the ministries of Defense and Interior intervene to apprehend those involved in the crime of lacing the cake with Thalium for the team, and to control the sources of the hazardous Thalium material.” That incident claimed the life of three children, while the others survived after the British Toxicity Laboratory in Birmingham provided the antidote, and the Iraqi government transferred the victims to a hospital in the Jordanian capital. More than two months after that incident, the Director of Al-Husseini General Hospital in Karbala, Dr. Ala’a Al-Ansari declared on March 12, 2008 that three child poisoning cases were identified. The doctor attributed these cases to breathing or ingesting Thalium. Two of the cases did not end as did the cases in 2009 because a number of officials were wondering how this material reached the homes of the victims, especially that importing the material was prohibited since 1980. Hence, this interest created a lot of noise and conflicting explanations, starting with attributing the cases to the abuse of insecticides, or the use of chemicals delivered by “perpetrators” who remain anonymous to the areas of Al-Bakr and Al-Ahrar, populated by about 10,000 people in squalid squatter houses in Basra, where three million people reside. Conflicting DiagnosesOfficials are almost in agreement that the poisoning was a result of people using rodent poison available in the market, and deny that there were committees that sprayed insecticides. But what negates this theory is that insecticides containing Thalium requires locating other cases in various areas within Basra Governorate, 550 kilometers south of Baghdad. Many citizens use insecticides available on the market in their houses without any incident. Ja’afar Sadeq, who lives in Al-Ahrar area and works for Ibn Al-Majed government-owned company lost his wife and all six members of his family were poisoned by “anonymous people.” “After returning home, my wife told me that a committee from the Ministry of Health provided her with insecticides to eliminate rodents, and that she spread them around the house to get rid of rodents and insects from which we suffer. Immediately after, my wife and daughter started suffering from strange symptoms, including losing hair and impaired mobility. My father also contracted these symptoms”. After my family situation deteriorated, “I sought treatment and cause with some doctors and at a private hospital in Basra, but to no avail.” Eventually, family members were admitted at Al-Sadr Educational hospital and one of the doctors was able to diagnose their case severe poisoning with the prohibited Thalium material. Dr. Mohammad Taleb Al-Qarini at Al-Sader Hospital emphasized to us that “the patients have Thalium poisoning, some severely.” This was diagnosed through symptoms the patients were exhibiting, and after examining blood and urine samples and sending them to the Toxicity Treatment Center in Baghdad, which confirmed the poisoning situation. Due to the lack of specialized laboratories in Al-Sadr Hospital in Basra, the Sadeq family was sent to Baghdad to receive treatment at the Toxicity Center, where they received the necessary care. But Sadeq adds that his wife died after about two months of being poisoned, while all other family members continue to suffer from the poisoning symptoms, as Dr. Hussein Ali Radi, Professor of Pharmacy at Al-Basra University emphasizes. He further describes the hazards of Thalium, saying: “Thalium poisoning ends either with death or with permanent dysfunction in the neurological system or the heart. Complaints from negligence that followed the initial care do not stop at the level of the victims. On his part, the Municipal Council President in Al-Bakr and Al-Ahrar in Basra, Kareem Rayyes Mahmoud criticizes “the lack of care on behalf of government officials of the patients after they are released from hospitals.” Sadeq now suffers from paralysis in his limbs and is bed-ridden.Thalium poisoning in Basra has resulted in panic among citizens, especially that the material has no taste, color or odor. People are talking about teams, claimed to be from the government, who are spreading the poisonous material, allegedly to combat rodents. They also claimed that the team members wear uniforms different from those worn by health teams. Although a number of mosques in Basra warned the people against teams distributing poisonous materials to kill children, officials in the Health Department in Basra “denied any relationship between their department and the spraying teams” about which the people talk. The warnings came late, however, and the spraying teams are actually present. Hussam Abdel Amir (32 years), who works in Basra, says that his family of four was exposed to Thalium poisoning after “a spraying team sprayed his home while he and his family were inside, claiming that the material combats rodents. A few days later, his son lost mobility and his hair started falling off. His wife then started suffering from the symptoms, as diagnosed by the staff of the Educational Hospital in Basra, where they were staying. Abdel Amir asserted that “what happened was the result of the actions of the teams, who introduced themselves as teams from Basra Health Department. They sprayed some houses with the insecticide, and provided the same material to other houses.” He explained that “the teams that visited us used modern vehicles that did not carry any license plates.”Contradictions and Ironies Local officials in Basra considered Thalium as an “organized terrorist attack carried out by groups that are intent on destruction.” Other officials, however, considered it “nothing more that citizen ignorance of this material, resulting from misuse of the insecticide.” All insecticides used in Iraq for combating rodents, agricultural blights and insects are decided by the Ministry of Agriculture, with the exception of 56 types that are prohibited. Even those prohibited do not contain Thalium, but were prohibited because they contain high toxicity, or because they are not environmentally suitable, or because they are not practically useful. Between conflicting stories and opinions regarding what happened, Ahmed Al-Sulaiti, Deputy President of the Basra Governorate Council attributes the reason of these incidents partially to “the chaos through which the country lives; chaos in all aspects of life, and a dysfunction in the operation of the government, whereby laws are not implemented. There is covering, collaboration and forgiveness towards those who are destroying the country and its economy. Kareem Rayyes Hmoud, President of the Municipal Council in Al-Bakr and Al-Ahrar areas in Basra sees poisoning cases in his area as “a terrorist attack against citizens”. He wonders: “How else can you explain the passage of this fatal material through borders? How is it handled among people unless it is intentional?” He emphasizes that the Municipal Council “was not notified of any campaigns to spray insecticides during the period when poisoning cases started to appear in Al-Bakr and Al-Ahrar. He complains that “the Health Department in Basra did not take other measures to secure the area after cases were reported and victims were inspected and taken to government hospitals, with the exception of a health awareness seminar for the area residents regarding the dangers of Thalium.” Dr. Mansour Amin, the Health Committee official at the Basra Governorate Municipal Council has a contradicting opinion. He believes that “the cases happened after citizens bought uncontrolled insecticides available on the market. Mansour wonders: “If we exclude insecticides as a source for Thalium spreading, where else does this poisonous material come from?” Proving what the health officials believe requires the presence of other cases in various areas of the governorate. Many citizens use the insecticides available on the market in their homes without poisoning results. This was asserted by the public health official at Basra Health Department, Dr. Abdul Abbas Nasser. “No poisoning cases with this material were recorded in Basra prior to this case, and no cases followed with Thalium.” Cases which were recorded for the first time in Basra “were reported by one of the doctors at Al-Sadr Educational Hospital”, explains Nasser, the head of the section whose job it is to monitor epidemics at the Governorate. After the Health Section formed a team, with support from the Ministry, and carried out investigations regarding the cases and in search of the sources of poisoning, “the teams found nothing, because investigations were carried out two months after the incident. The victims, in turn, contest the explanations provided by the officials about “the misuse of insecticides”. Hussam Abdel Amir, whose family members were affected by Thalium says: “It is not reasonable that many families from the same area agree on buying poisonous insecticides and spraying them around the houses at the same time.” Al-Amir accuses the local government in Basra and the Health Department of “attempting to cover up on this matter by claiming that citizens in these areas were poisoned as a result of misusing these insecticides.” An Anonymous Killer and A Government Failure Ali Ghanem, the head of the security committee at the Basra Governorate Council denies from his part that any investigations were carried out on Thalium cases. He says that “there were no investigations in this matter, but rather some directives to relevant departments to undertake legal measures, each according to its work.” It was never proved, according to Ghanem, that “the poisoning cases were the result of a terrorist action, keeping in mind that our work included forming a committee from the Ministry of Health and security parties, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture to monitor these poisons on the market and to confiscate some insecticides, and to address border crossings to assure the safety of materials imported.” These measures did not succeed in “allocating the source of Thalium,” and the truth about its use by citizens, despite lengthy investigations, explains Abdel Abbas Nasser, Public Health Section Director. While he does not dispel the possibility that “these insecticides are among the possibilities that we expect to be a source of Thalium,” he explains that: “This material is difficult to identify and is difficult to appear. It is possible that ‘those with weak souls’ may use it again.” The Health Department in Basra employs temporary daily labor in its campaigns to spray insecticides against rodents, according to the Department Head, Riyad Abdel Amir, who adds: “They work under the supervision of a health cadre and are trained by such cadres.” He asserts that “None of the temporary workers suffered from poisoning during their work.” Ali Qassem asserts that he worked “in this field more than once after the Health Department advertised its need for temporary laborers to spray insecticides, without any exposure or poisoning.” On his part, the Public Health Section Head at the Basra Health Department asserts that “insecticide spraying campaigns are preceded by location monitoring in the area. Insecticides used are inspected by the Ministry of Health and do not contain any highly poisonous materials. The area is notified through the Municipal Council.” He further asserts that “at a time when some Thalium poisoning cases appeared in Al-Bakr and AL-Ahrar areas, there were no spraying campaigns.” Two officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, responsible for permits to import and market insecticides assured that the Ministry prohibited in 2008 the importation of 56 types of insecticides due to their hazardous nature and high toxicity, pointing out that some types are “carcinogenic”. Sameer Obaidi, information official at the Ministry of Agriculture says that “Agricultural quarantines at border crossings prohibit the entry of any insecticide unless it is approved by the national committee for approving insecticides at the Ministry of Agriculture.” Insecticides permitted “should be tested for at least two agricultural seasons before a permit is issued for importing them, to make sure they are environmentally friendly and do not carry any hazardous toxic materials.” Jabbar Kathem, director of the Plant Protection Section at the Basra Agriculture Department asserts that the Ministry contacted the Insecticides Control Center in Baghdad, after the Basra poisoning incident, requesting that he checks if any insecticide being used contains Thalium. He emphasized that all insecticides used are free from this material, after carrying out the necessary tests. Future Worries The suffering of those who survived Thalium “attacks”, and the failure to allocate its sources in Basra haunt the residents of this city, who are worried of seeing more victims. Mohammad Abdel Monem, a teacher in Al-Bakr and Al-Ahrar area, says that “government measures were not at a sufficient level to avert the occurrence of such incidents in future, whether in Basra or in other areas of Iraq.” He demanded that government institutions “be put on full alert to identify the parties that imported these fatal poisons into the country and spread them among citizens.” Aref Moussa, an employee at the Ports Company, believes that “fatal poisons such as Thalium are more hazardous than explosive belts, because their use is easier for destructive groups and their effects are more devastating.” Moussa “calls upon security agencies to secure border crossings to prevent the entry of these materials.”


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