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Iraqi clean-up gets on its marks

November 11, 2005 By Mark Peplow This article courtesy of Nature News.

Cash is secured to decontaminate a priority site.

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A long-promised clean-up Iraq's toxic 'hot spots' could begin as soon as December, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). But experts caution it will be a long haul: the first site to be targeted, a derelict metal-plating factory south of Baghdad, is just the beginning.

In September 2004, UNEP announced that it was starting the first large-scale assessment of Iraq's environmental pollution, a legacy of wars, sanctions and decades of rapid industrialization (see ' Iraq to tackle toxic 'hot spots' ).

The Al Quadissiya metal-plating factory is one of five sites investigated by the UNEP project since April; these five were deemed in need of urgent attention by an initial assessment two years before. The factory is badly contaminated with several tonnes of sodium cyanide, which is strewn across an unsecured area and accessible to the public. The toxic chemical was used to harden metals for making rifles.

The challenge now is to assess all areas of contamination in Iraq and systematically restore them.
Narmin Othman
Environment minister of Iraq
The plant has been bombed, looted and demolished since coalition forces entered the country in 2003. UNEP says that it may take six months and up to US$900,000 to clean up the site, which it has declared a severe public-health risk. That money is now secured, but it is only the beginning of a larger project that, UNEP estimates, could eventually cost $40 million.


The political situation in Iraq was judged too dangerous for a UNEP assessment team, so more than 30 Iraqis were trained to collect samples from the five sites, which were then tested in European laboratories.

"One of the more positive outcomes of this work is that it has led to the training of Iraqis from various ministries, including the Ministry of Environment, in the latest, state-of-the-art sampling techniques," says Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's executive director. "It will allow the government to carry forward this work so that all potentially hazardous sites can be assessed and dealt with over the coming years."

"This project is only a beginning," adds Narmin Othman, Iraq's environment minister. "The challenge now is to identify and assess all such areas of contamination in Iraq and systematically restore them." The environment ministry plans to conduct similar tests on more than 100 other polluted sites.

Do not enter

Some of the money earmarked for Al Quadissiya may actually be used at a nearby site, the Al Suwaira pesticide warehouse complex, which lies 50 kilometres southeast of Baghdad. The warehouse was looted after March 2003, and pesticides were spread around the buildings after containers were smashed.

UNEP says that the area is "unsafe to use or even enter and will remain in that condition unless decontaminated". It suggests vacuuming up the pesticide waste before spraying the buildings to neutralize remaining residues.

Another hotspot is the Al Mishraq sulphur mining complex, south of Mosul. In June 2003, a catastrophic fire burnt up to 300,000 tonnes of stockpiled sulphur, releasing as much sulphur dioxide gas as a volcanic eruption (see ' Iraqi fire pollution rivalled volcano' ). The site is now derelict and dotted with acidic ponds of stagnant water.

The country's pollution problems are detailed in a UNEP report, Assessment of Environmental 'Hotspots' in Iraq, published on 10 November1.


  1. United Nations Environment Programme Assessment of Environmental 'Hotspots' in Iraq, (2005).


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