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Iraq Mercury Poisoning

In the early 1970's a major methyl mercury poisoning catastrophe occurred in which an estimated 10,000 people died and 100,000 were severely and permanently brain damaged. Saddam Hussein's regime was largely successful in suppressing information about the event.

The problem began in the late 1960's and early 1970's, when Iraq experienced a series of abysmal harvests its leader decided to import a newly branded "wonder wheat" from Mexico. The risk was that the seed might grow moldy during the long, humid ocean transport to Iraq if it was not dressed with some fungicide. Methyl mercury became the most cost-effective fungicide, because it had recently been banned in Scandinavia and several American states due to environmental and toxicological risks. So the world market was flooded and prices dropped. (reference)

The wheat seeds dressed with methyl mercury were sent to Basra in Iraq's south. Because the shipment arrived late, trucks and trains that had been at hand were reassigned. So it took another couple of months before the grain reached the farmers. By then the sowing season was over. Farmers were left with a pink grain that they were told not to eat, only to plant. But recent harvests had been lousy and farmers had little or nothing to feed their animals and themselves.

Like many farmers of the world, Iraqi farmers mistrust their government and began feeding the grain to chickens or sheep and watched to see if there were any bad side effects. Nothing happened for weeks. At that point, most farmers began giving the grain to their livestock and eating it themselves. Children got to like the pink bread.

However, bad things start to happen a few months later and hospitals were flooded with patients showing symptoms of damage to the central nervous system. At first, doctors initially had no idea as to the cause. Some suspected an epidemic of "brain fever" of some sort. Others more accurately pointed to methyl mercury.

A small group of international experts on mercury were called in and methyl mercury poisoning was confirmed through contaminated food. When the imported grain was identified as the cause of the poisoning, Iraq's government acted decisively. Farmers were ordered to hand over all remaining supplies within a fortnight. To stress the urgency, a death penalty for possessing pink grain after that date was declared.

But most farmers had no access to radio, television, or daily newspapers. By the time most learned about the order and the penalty, the two weeks were gone and the army had started to execute those found still to be in possession of the grain. So the farmers dumped grain wherever they could: along roadsides, in irrigation canals, in rivers.

Fish soon became contaminated, as did migratory birds. One father of a family with several poisoned members and without any traditional food left stood in his doorway praising Allah for having made these migratory birds easy to catch when they had nothing else to eat. At hospitals throughout the country, doctors concluded that there was nothing they could do. There is no real treatment for methyl mercury poisoning.

In rural Iraq the tradition is that a person preferably should die at home with his or her family around. Thus, when they saw and heard that doctors couldn't help, people brought their sick family member home. Consequently, the official figures that put the number of deaths from methyl mercury poisoning at 6,500 people only cover those who died in hospital. The real number is certainly far higher.

The crisis did provide doctors with some greater understanding of how to detect methyl mercury poisoning. "Quiet baby syndrome," for example, when mothers praise their babies for never crying, is now considered a warning sign for methyl mercury induced brain damage in children. Treatment, too, has changed in the wake of the mass poisoning. The agents traditionally used to speed up excretion of inorganic metals from poisoned patients turned out to make symptoms of methyl mercury poisoning worse rather than milder.

See also: Amalgamation, Appliances, Chlor-Alkali, Dentistry, Explosives, Iraq poisoning, 'Mad as a Hatter', Mercury, Methylmercury, Minamata, Minamata timeline, Medical uses, Pigmentand organic fungicide production, Toxicology