A donation of seed grain from the United States to Iraq was wrongly consumed by Iraqis because of language difficulties, leading to widespread mercury poisoning.
A large shipment of seed grain was sent from North America to Iraq in August of 1971. The vice president of Iraq at that time was Saddam Hussein. He came to that position when the Baath Party he led gained power in 1968. Ten years later he became president of the country and remained in that position until overthrown by the U.S. invasion of 2003. As vice president, in 1971 he was in charge of all military as well as all other government operations.
To preserve the grain shipment from damage by insects or rot, it had been treated with a mercury fungicide, harmless if the seed is used as seed but poisonous if eaten. The grain was sprayed with a pink dye to indicate the presence of poison and the Iraqi government warned people not to eat any of it. For various reasons many Iraqis ignored the warnings with the result that hundreds died and many thousands more were seriously injured.
As a part of the Baath Party, Saddam Hussein was vice president of Iraq in 1971. Years before the Baath Party came to power, Iraq, one of the first places in the world to grow wheat, often experienced extended times of low rainfall that ruined its wheat. Iraq in 1971 was still mainly an agricultural economy. Oil had not yet reached the proportions that give it such economic power today.
The year 1971 was one of those very dry years and the country decided to change to a new strain of wheat that would be more resistant to climatic shifts. Mexico, also a country of low rainfall, had developed wheat of this kind so Iraq ordered a large quantity of it in the late summer of 1971. A huge shipment of more than 70,000 tons was delivered to the port of Al Basra in southern Iraq and from there it was distributed throughout the country.
The grain was treated with an organic mercury compound, a fungicide to protect against rot or attacks from insects. This treatment is harmless if the grain is used for seed but poisonous if eaten. The sacks of grain were marked against consumption but, unfortunately, the lettering was in Spanish. The grain was sprayed with a red dye as an additional warning but this, like the Spanish words, carried no significance for the Iraqi workers.
All who handled the grain shipments were warned of the dangers of consumption and this warning was also relayed to all districts of the country receiving deliveries. The quantities allocated to different parts of the country were in keeping with the amounts used for seed in previous years. Nevertheless, it soon became quite clear that substantial quantities of the grain had been taken into homes and was being baked into bread or fed to animals.
Symptoms of trouble were not evident for some weeks but when they did appear they were catastrophic, the worst ever recorded for this type of poisoning in terms of numbers killed and injured. The epidemic was so great that the government appealed for medical help from European countries. At that early stage, no one knew exactly what had happened. When medical teams arrived they quickly diagnosed the epidemic as due to mercury poisoning.
The situation was difficult to monitor as grain had been shipped to several places inland and there was concern that people might panic. Radio blackouts were enforced to keep the information from spreading in order to allow the government time to take control of the situation.
Mercury poisoning is not a new problem. It was well known in England in the nineteenth century among workers in the hat-making industry. A mercury-based product was in use at that time to stiffen the brims of beaver-skin hats. As they worked from day to day, hatters inhaled the mercury fumes and in time suffered brain damage, in some cases to such an extent that they became insane. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland knew all about this when one of the strange characters in that book was named the “Mad Hatter.”
In Canada, in the Province of Ontario, between 1962 and 1970, a chemical company dumped tons of mercury into the English–Wabigoon River, a river that was a source of food for the local Indian population of Grassy Narrows. The mercury found its way into the food chain and the fish became toxic. The people of Grassy Narrows regularly ate fish from the river and soon began to show the symptoms of mercury poisoning. The Canadian government took immediate action to help the people of Grassy Narrows and to stop the pollution but the damage had already been done.
In Japan, thousands were affected when a major petrochemical company dumped tons of mercury compounds into the Minamata River over a long period of time beginning in the early 1930s. Nothing was done about this disaster for twenty years despite the evidence of serious health problems in the neighboring town where fish from the Minamata River was a big part of the local diet. Unusually large numbers of mentallyretarded children along with equally disproportionate numbers of young people with other illnesses were noted but nothing was done about it. Autopsies on those who died revealed significant loss of brain cells.
The whole tragedy became known as the Minamata Disease. Some indication of the level of mercury poisoning taking place can be gauged if the average amounts found in ocean fish is compared with those caught in the Minamata River, three parts per million in the ocean and fifty parts per million in Minamata. A level of nine parts per million is usually considered very dangerous to health.
Some people in Iraq knew that the grain was poisonous but they thought that if they washed away the red dye they would get rid of the poison. They did this and made bread from the grain. Some seed was fed to animals and when these were killed for food there were significant quantities of mercury in the meat and so the level of mercury that had entered their bodies from the bread was further increased.
The compounding of the problem through the food chain did not end with the animals. When the Iraqi authorities were finally able to convince their people that the whole shipment was poisonous, grain that they did not intend to use for seed was thrown into the Tigris River. Once again, as happened with the animals, fish ate what was thrown into the river and when fish were caught from that same river, additional quantities of mercury were ingested.
The consumption of bread from treated grain became the main source of all that transpired. All the recorded cases of poisoning occurred in rural areas where bread was made at home. In the bigger cities where bread is prepared commercially from government-inspected flour there were no cases of contamination.
Within three months of the initial outbreak the number of cases peaked with hundreds arriving in hospitals daily. Males and females of all ages were affected with the largest number coming from those under the age of nine. There were equal numbers of males and females. Death rates were highest among the elderly and the very young. In order to minimize the destructive effects of the poison a type of resin was given to patients orally to hasten the elimination of mercury. The longer the poison stayed in the body the worse became the results.
First signs of poisoning were numbness in fingers and toes and other extremities of the body. This was followed by unsteadiness of gait and, where the quantities ingested were substantial, loss of coordination to the point that the person was unable to walk. Eyes were frequently affected with difficulties ranging from blurred vision to blindness. Slurred speech and loss of hearing were present in many cases. In all of these instances it is evident that brain damage was the focus of symptoms. Fatalities were the result of failure of the central nervous system. There was little evidence of damage to the cardiovascular or digestive systems. Those who were severely poisoned died in spite of the medical treatment they received.
There were numerous recoveries among those who had lesser doses of mercury. Among them were people who had become bedridden because they could not walk and who did learn to walk but were unable to regain full control of their body movements. Partial sight was recovered in a few cases where there had been blindness initially. The most persistent symptoms were in the extremities. Even when improvements took place in other damaged organs the sensations of pins and needles on peripheral nerves persisted. Hair samples provided dramatic evidence of the speed with which mercury was absorbed into the body after eating contaminated bread. It happened very quickly and it began to disappear slowly from the body as soon as eating stopped.
The mercury from treated grain can enter the human body orally, by inhalation, or just by skin contact. Oral contamination, the main mode of reception, came from contaminated bread, from meat and other animal products obtained from livestock that had consumed treated grain, from vegetation stored in sacks that had contained the treated grain, and from game birds and fish that had eaten the treated wheat. Unborn children of mothers who ate the contaminated bread received greater amounts of mercury than their mothers, proving that the damage to the unborn is the greatest of all affected populations. In one newborn the mercury concentration was three times that of the mother.
The wheat from Mexico was to be used as seed for the following year and the amounts allocated to the various regions of the country matched the quantities seeded in the previous year. Analyses of the amounts diverted in the rural areas to preparing bread showed that only a tiny portion of the total was used up in this way. On average, a maximum of five pounds of grain were consumed by each of the 6,000 who were admitted to hospitals. That total only amounts to one pound of grain from every six hundred pounds stored for seed, a negligible amount but a dramatic demonstration of the destructive power of mercury when it is wrongly used.
In summary, wheat was purchased by Iraq for use as seed but too many things went wrong. The lessons from Japan’s Minamata tragedy were well known and this should have alerted authorities to the dangers of mercury poisoning. The final outcomes of that disaster were published only nine years earlier and they showed that methylmercury was the source of the poison, the same substance that was used to protect the Iraqi shipment. Careful supervision of deliveries and more intensive efforts to alert people to the dangers of consumption could have prevented the disaster. The official figures for casualties listed 6,500 as being admitted to hospitals with severe problems. In total five hundred deaths were recorded but unofficial sources put the numbers very much higher.