The steel industry in Iraqi Kurdistan is considered one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s growth industries. Although there are plans to produce ore, at the moment, factory owners say most of the steel being worked is coming from scrap metal, some of which is sourced from inside Iraqi Kurdistan and other bits of which come from elsewhere in Iraq.
Many of those pieces coming from elsewhere are trucked in from southern parts of Iraq and include old cars and other vehicles, as well as parts of buildings. Some of these were destroyed during fighting in the Gulf War or after 2003, when a US-led invasion toppled the Iraqi government headed by Saddam Hussein. The problem is that some of that scrap metal is suspected to be contaminated with the depleted uranium that many experts now say was used in munitions in Iraq.
Past studies conducted by various federal ministries have confirmed that there are high levels of contamination in the centre and south of the country. As British newspaper, The Guardian, reported in 2010, a “joint study by the environment, health and science ministries found that scrap metal yards in and around Baghdad and Basra contain high levels of ionising radiation, which is thought to be a legacy of depleted uranium used in munitions during the first Gulf war and since the 2003 invasion”.
And now Iraqi Kurdish locals fear that some of that contaminated scrap is ending up in their region.
Ministry of Trade: We have had a lot of complaints and some have proven justified.
According to the Iraqi Kurdish Ministry of Trade and Industry there are 17 factories producing steel and iron-related products: 13 in the Erbil province and four in Sulaymaniyah province.
“We bring the scrap metal – mostly from damaged cars and other vehicles – into the region legally and then we recycle it,” one steel factory owner in Sulaymaniyah told NIQASH, on condition that he remain anonymous. “We produce home appliances out of this as well as construction materials. But to be honest we have no way of knowing whether the scrap we are getting is contaminated.”
“Our raw materials do consist of scrap and iron we bring in from southern Iraq,” concedes Haj Mahmoud Ali, director of the Sulaimani Steel plant, just outside of Sulaymaniyah city, in Bazian. “We bring it from central and southern Iraq because there is a lot of it around there and prices are cheap, ranging from about US$130 to US$160 per tonne, dependent on quality.”
But Ali says he is certain he is not using any contaminated scrap because they scan the material for radiation before working with it.
Iraqi Kurdish politician, Zulfa Mahmoud Abdullah, who heads the regional Parliament’s Committee on Health and the Environment says she and her colleagues are concerned. But Abdullah also feels there has been enough publicity on the issue, via a raft of international reports, so that contaminated scrap would be avoided.
“Bringing it to Kurdistan would pose a danger,” she admits. “It’s not only an individual health hazard but has the potential to contaminate or kill other animals and plants too.”
Fathi Mohammed Ali, the spokesperson for the local Ministry of Trade and Industry, admits that there is quite likely contaminated material among the scrap that comes into the northern region.
“We have had a lot of complaints and some have been justified,” Mohammed says. “So the Ministry, along with the Planning Ministry, have made it compulsory to install radiation scanning equipment wherever scrap is being received. If any is found to be contaminated, we send it back to where it came from.”
It’s not possible that any scrap is coming in for unlicensed steel production, Mohammed adds. This kind of work requires too much space and equipment so it is clear where the scrap from southern Iraqi is going.
“We are aware of the dangers and we have conducted environmental tests,” says Fadel Omar, a politician in Bazian where the steel works that use scrap are located. “But up until now we haven’t discovered any kind of pollution or contamination.”
Hossein Hosseini, a lecturer in physics at the University of Sulaymaniyah, says that his department has tested some of the scrap that was exported to Iran and found that it did contain uranium. “But we can’t say that all the scrap is contaminated,” Hosseini cautions.
“It’s just unfortunate that we are not doing more research on the scrap metal coming from southern Iraq,” Dosti Najat Othman, a doctor and senior staff member at Iraqi Kurdistan’s Hiwa Hospital, which specializes in cancer treatments, told NIQASH. “Especially because plenty of international reports indicate that this metal may very well be contaminated.”