The Children of Fallujah: Explaining the birth defects

Posted: July 24, 2010 in International politics, Media & Journalism

The BBC has recently reported on unusually high rates of genetic defects among children born in Fallujah after 2004, when US forces launched an overwhelming assault against Iraqi insurgents in the city (BBC2, Newsnight, 21 July). While it’s good to see the Beeb tackle stories like this, its inhibited approach presents a problem for its “mission to explain”. The reporter, John Simpson, tells us about the international medical research study  into the defects and provides examples, explaining that some are too horrific to show on TV; it’s hearbreaking stuff and Simpson tells it with his usual human touch. But from this point in the story it becomes apparent that the research is highly contested by the relevant authorities and for good reason.

The Iraqi government has tried to discredit the study by challenging its methodologies, while the US has refused to comment. Why? Because, as Simpson mentions only briefly towards the end of his film, the cause of these terrible birth defects might well be the type of weapons used by US forces in the battle of Fallujah six years previously. Unfortunately, that is all we are told. We are not told what kind of weapons these are and how they might cause such genetic destruction among the population, a baffling omission because this is a problem first publicised in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991.

The weapons in question are likely to be artillery shells tipped with DU, a depleted or degraded form of processed uranium, which maximises their ability to penetrate armour and concrete or underground bunkers. When the shells explode they produce a cloud of highly poisonous and radioactive dust, which settles in the immediate environment and is therefore likely to be inhaled by unprotected military personnel or civilians in the vicinity. In dust form it can be easily disturbed and spread further afield; and being radioactive, it stays in the environment for a considerable length of time. As for the true scale of the problem, it has been estimated that 300 tons of the stuff were used during the Gulf War in 1991, while large quantities were also used in Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and poor old Iraq again in 2003/04.

So while the study reported in Simpson’s film compared levels of birth defects in Fallujah since 2004 with those in Iraq’s neighbours for the same period, it didn’t refer back to the first Gulf War and its legacy of similar clusters in cities such as Baghdad and Basra. In sum, it gave us no clue that this is not a new problem. Western militaries know the dangers of the weapons they use, including DU, both to their own personnel and to innocent civilians yet they continue to use them and deny their appalling effects. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Western governments should try to persuade their publics that the substance is no more dangerous than the normal background radiation that one might absorb on a sunny afternoon in the park. And when reporting the story, the western media seem to operate on a glaring internal contradiction: reporting the evident dangers of DU to soldiers and civilians yet somehow accepting official denial. Take this Q&A from the BBC, 4 January 2001:

  • What is depleted uranium, and why are people worried about it? Depleted uranium…is mildly radioactive in its solid form, and poses little if any cause for concern. But…[when] a weapon made with a DU tip or core strikes a solid object, like the side of a tank, it goes straight through it and then erupts in a burning cloud of vapour. The vapour settles as dust, which is chemically poisonous and also radioactive. Both the US and the UK acknowledge that the dust can be dangerous if it is inhaled, though they say the danger is short-lived, localised, and much more likely to lead to chemical poisoning than to irradiation.” (!!!!)

There is no comment on how ludicrous this official denial really is because to do so would breach the requirements of journalistic balance and objectivity. According to these, official statements must stand unchallenged. But there’s more:

  • “What actual evidence exists that DU can be harmful? There is no scientifically proven evidence that it is harmful…”
  • “What research has been done on the ground? In Iraq it is almost impossible to do any research that will satisfy Nato governments…”

Scientific research, then, is only valid when it satisfies the propaganda needs of NATO, although I wasn’t aware that the illegal occupation of Iraq was NATO-led.  Member states like France opposed it, while Turkey was kept well out of it.

Anyway, it wasn’t long before the “Coalition of the willing” got the kind of scientific research they could have faith in: a study commissioned by the EU, which – surprise surprise! – concluded two months later, in March 2001, that there are  no risks from use of DU weapons.

The head of the research study, Professor Ian McCauley from Trinity University, Dublin, told the media there was “no reason to be afraid” but that one should take precautions nevertheless. He recommended that, “Warning signs should be put up where there are large concentrations of depleted uranium”, but assured us that civilians need not worry because: “In the case of the average back garden, there is as much uranium as you would find in a shell”.

Information provided by the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and also the World Health Organisation (WHO) would seem to suggest that the Professor is scientifically correct. However, the quantities of DU deployed by US troops in the battle of Fallujah were of a higher order than normal levels of uranium in the environment; it is unlikely, after all, that anyone keeps a big bag of DU in the garden shed or uses it for barbeques or fireworks.

The problem is that the number of these shells used and the amounts of DU contained in each one is classified military information. The Professor may or may not have been made privy to that information, we can’t know. Even if he had been he would not have been allowed to say so. That’s what happens to scientists when they work on difficult research for government and corporations such as BP. We may never know for certain, then, how much poison was released into the environment in Fallujah and if it is indeed the cause of high rates of birth defects among the civilian population. Instead, we’re left with homely little analogies as a way of reassurance.

As for the news media, put someone on TV with a white coat  and the title “leading scientist” or “Professor” and reporters are more than likely to believe what they say as long as it fits the story. There are very few genuine, specialised science correspondents left these days (BBC Newsnight’s Susan Watts is one of a dying breed) who know what they’re talking about, who are not likely to be in awe of science and scientists and who will not be slow to ask real questions about evidence and data.

To end with, here is a non-scientific thought experiment to highlight how science and intelligence is used in propaganda.  In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, we were assaulted with a bewildering battery of scientific evidence and security service intelligence that turned out to have been either false or highly manipulated:

  • Saddam Hussein had built up a fearsome stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
  • Saddam had used such weapons before, during the war with Iran, and would not hesitate to use them again.
  • Saddam had fostered links with Al Quaida and was probably behind the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

The immediate conclusion? The “facts” are very official looking, thus must be authoritative and incontrovertible. This man is evil and must be stopped. Now compare and contrast that with the facts of Fallujah:

  • Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the rate of birth defects among the infant population of Fallujah stands at 80 per thousand, a twelve-fold increase on the rate before 2003; by comparison, the rate in Jordan is 17 per thousand and in Egypt 20 per thousand .  
  • In 2004, American troops launched a devastating assault on Fallujah, using an undisclosed amount of DU-tipped artillery shells.
  • Higher than acceptable levels of radioactive contamination of the environment, such as in Fallujah after the assault, can lead to a range of health problems including genetic damage and birth defects.

The conclusion from these facts? There is no causal link between them. Scientific studies that prove such an inconvenient link are unreliable while studies that disprove it are reliable.  

But we all know the truth now about the case for war in Iraq so maybe it’s safe to dismiss the official science and draw our own conclusions about what’s happening to the children of Fallujah?

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