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UN to help Iraq clean up pollution threats to human health and wildlife

UN to help Iraq clean up pollution threats to human health and wildlife

In a long-term plan to clean up widespread pollution in Iraq after well over a decade of instability and conflict, the United Nations environmental agency today announced a pilot project to investigate ecological “hot spots” ranging from chemical spills and oil discharges to contaminated food seeds and sulphur fallout.

The project will focus on only five of an estimated 300 contaminated sites but UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Klaus Toepfer stressed its long-term impact in rebuilding the country after the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime and ridding it of threats to human health, wildlife and the wider environment.

“Importantly, UNEP will be training Iraqi experts to carry out the tests in order to build the skills and technical-know how in the country,” he said. “This is part of our long-term aim of creating a fully independent Iraqi team of first class environmental assessors.”

The project, coordinated by UNEP in close cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment, underlines the Iraqi Government’s commitment to put environmental issues in the centre of the reconstruction efforts, despite the continuing difficulties prevailing in the country, the agency said.

Iraqi scientists, trained in the latest laboratory and field testing skills, will share samples with UNEP’s Post Conflict Assessment Unit (PCAU) in Geneva so that testing can be carried out in both Iraq and independent and reputable laboratories in Europe.

The $4.7 million project, which has received generous support from the government of Japan, has pinpointed 10 priority sites from which five are likely to be chosen.

These include the Al-Mishraq Sulphur State Company, which needs an urgent assessment of the impact of sulphur fires on surrounding soils, vegetation and surface and groundwaters, and the Midland (Al-Doura) Refinery Stores where spills of more than 5,000 tons of chemicals, including tetra-ethyl lead, may have affected nearby soils and water sources.

Also included are the Al Suwaira Seed Store where 50 tons of seeds coated with methyl-mercury fungicide, stolen during the recent conflict, could contaminate food supplies such as bread; oil pipeline sites where recent attacks have led to discharges into the surrounding environment; and scrap metal plants where contaminants such as halons, asbestos and engine oils may have been released from stockpiles of damaged and destroyed military vehicles into nearby soils and water sources.