As we become more aware of what we put into our bodies and into the earth, a growing number of us are drawn to products that carry reassuring labels like these.
The reality is, many of us buy organic, chemical-free products because we can. Because we have the luxury of choice. Because we can afford to pay a premium for products whose ingredients won’t contaminate the earth or jeopardize our health.
Most Iraqi families do not have this luxury of choice.
Years of conflict have already contaminated the land they farm, the water they drink, and their children’s bodies. As you can read below, the last three decades in Iraq have been anything but “chemical free.”
It was almost three decades ago that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his own people. The damaging effects were not confined to the initial aftermath—or to the immediate targets of the attacks. The day Saddam dropped a poisonous cocktail of weapons on the city of Halabja (in northern Iraq), 5,000 people died. Thousands more were injured.
“The effects of war may have a lasting and important effect on generations to come.”
—Researchers studying the long-term effects of chemical weapons
Years later, scientists studying the long-term effects of exposure to chemical agents began to report worrying results. One study found a 400% higher rate of congenital defects among children whose parents were exposed to mustard gas and other toxic agents. The effects “may last generations,” they warned.
Another study reported an even more alarming rise in the rate of malformations among Iranians who were targeted during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Basra (1991) & Fallujah (2004)
The first Gulf War in 1991 saw the introduction of depleted uranium (DU) to Iraq. The U.S. and its coalition partners used DU weapons again during the Battle of Fallujah, following the 2003 invasion.
DU bullets were designed to pierce heavy armor and ignite on impact. They were militarily effective, but they may have also had unanticipated, long-term consequences. Whenever a bomb is dropped or a gun is fired, the metals used in those weapons disintegrate on impact, turning to dust. That dust can be inhaled, absorbed into the groundwater and soil, and consumed by humans.
In the aftermath of both wars, a spike in birth defects was reported in cities like Basra and Fallujah, where DU weaponry had been used.
Chlorine gas, mustard gas, yellow phosphorous—in recent months, ISIS has used them all against civilian and military targets in Iraq and neighboring Syria. Their cocktails are not concentrated as those used by Saddam three decades ago, but they still have lethal impact.
Last month, ISIS fired a barrage of chemical rockets at the town of Taza in northern Iraq. Thousands were injured, and at least one small girl was killed.
So when families who have endured years of warfare and the pollution of their homeland set out to rebuild their lives, “chemical free” is not a luxury.
It’s a necessity.
“Chemical free” is a small but meaningful step toward unmaking the legacy of contamination that still haunts many Iraqi families.
Our refugee soapmakers refuse to put any chemicals in their soap—not so they can capitalize on a consumer trend, but so they can begin writing a new story for their lives. So they can offer something that’s pure, from a land others have polluted or written off as a lost cause.
Their soap is a hopeful reminder that the last three decades of chemical warfare and contamination are not the final chapter.
The corrosive effects of hatred and violence are still felt every day in Iraq. But our refugee friends’ soap does more than cleanse. It washes away hate. It unmakes violence. It empowers women and families for whom “chemical free” is more than a marketing hook—it’s their hope for the future.
Photos (top to bottom): Sisterhood Soap, a man injured in the chemical attack on Taza, an ISIS chemical rocket explodes near Sinjar