Fallujah: City of no children

It was recently reported that doctors had advised women in Fallujah not to give birth. There are many medical reasons for infertility which might shatter the dreams of a young woman. It is not difficult to imagine how heartbreaking it must be for a woman who is advised that she can never bear children. But for the young women of an entire city – tens of thousands of them – to be advised not to give birth, how can one imagine such collective pain? But perhaps it does not matter – one life is a tragedy, a million a statistic? Certainly this episode attracted limited press attention. Media Lens highlighted an interesting contrast with the attention directed at the lady who chucked a cat into a bin – one cat confined for a few hours was a tragedy.

This year the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published a study, "Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009" by Chris Busby, Malak Hamdan and Entesar Ariabi. The report concludes "results confirm the reported increases in cancer and infant mortality which are alarmingly high. The remarkable reduction in the sex ratio in the cohort born one year after the fighting in [Falluja] 2004 identifies that year as the time of the environmental contamination." It was this increase in the incidence of child cancer and deformities which resulted in women being advised not to give birth. Fallujah is not the only city witnessing skyrocketing rates of child cancer. "The rapidly soaring child cancer rate in the southern Iraqi province of Basra has prompted the officials in the country to open the country’s first specialist cancer hospital for children in the province’s capital. […] Since 1993, Basra province has witnessed a sharp rise in the incidence of childhood cancer. 'Leukemia (a type of blood cancer) among children under 15 has increased by about four times,’ said Dr. Janan Hasan of the hospital inaugurated on Thursday in the southern port city of Basra."

In response to such reports, I lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament highlighting the issue. This was of limited interest to my fellow parliamentarians (fewer than 20 supported it), and of no interest to the Scottish media, but it did attract the attention of a number of dedicated individuals campaigning on the issues raised by the Iraq war, including the issue very relevant to the increase in childhood cancers and birth deformities: depleted uranium (DU). I have subsequently come to appreciate their bravery and determination in the face of what would seem to be attack, denial and disinformation by a ruthless, dishonest and uncaring establishment. The Non-Aligned Movement in the UN believes at least 400,000 kg of DU shells have been fired. Precisely how many and even where is uncertain. Whether we will ever know is also uncertain. The United Nations First Committee recently voted, by an overwhelming margin, for state users of depleted uranium weapons to release data on where the weapons have been used to governments of the states affected by their use. However, four nations opposed the motion: the UK, the USA, Israel and France. Three of these nations have used DU weapons; France produces them. The resolution then went forward to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) for a second vote. The result was identical. However, as such votes are non-binding, it is likely that the four nations opposed to the resolution will simply ignore it.

Alongside refusing to divulge precise details on where DU weapons were deployed, the four also voted against previous resolutions accepting that DU has the potential to damage human health (2007) and calling for more research in affected states (2008). Meanwhile the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) claims that not only is the risk low, but that simple countermeasures can deal with contaminated sites. Even the latter point, with which I strongly disagree, does raise the question: if the counter-measures are so simple, why is nobody taking them in Iraq? Nicholas Wood has suggested spraying oil on and around destroyed tanks (a temporary measure to stop the dust blowing about and to discourage children from playing on them) and deploying barbed wire to barricade contaminated areas. In Iraq no such measures have been taken, nor has there been any significant clean-up, though the BBC did report a UK commitment to doing so in 2003. It should be noted that the UK’s failure to do so may constitute a war crime. Nicholas believes that these things are not being done because to do so would be an effective admission that DU might be harmful, and that is not something the UK or the US government/military are keen to admit (more on that later). Meanwhile, children continue to play in contaminated tanks.

It is not just in Iraq that little or no action is being taken. The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons reported: "In Kosovo, where most of the contaminated sites are located, and over 70 per cent of the DU was fired, there has been no programme of monitoring since UNEP’s study in 2001". The report further notes that decontamination is difficult work and it is impossible to fully remove all the contamination. It is also very costly. The Cape Arza site in Montenegro cost DM 400,000 (almost US$280,000) and took about 5,000 working person days to decontaminate 480 rounds, which in total took around twelve seconds to fire. The estimated cost of clearing up a test firing site in Indiana is $7.8bn. The report also notes that the health consequences remain unclear with a lack of research data, though it is known that internalised DU is a carcinogen. It is also know that as a DU shell hits a tank it effectively vaporises, resulting in rather a lot of carcinogenic dust. Radioactive materials do not remain radioactive forever, however. DU dust has a half-life of only 4.5 billion years. It is good to know that if we don’t bother to clean up the mess then 150 million generations or so down the line the descendants of today’s Iraqis, Afghans, etc. will only have to cope with half the radiation that people have to face today! The sun will still have half a billion years to burn.

The use of radioactive weapons in Iraq as far back as 1991 was exposed by Professor Siegwart-Horst Gunther, who found, on the highway between Baghdad and Amman, projectiles the size and shape of a cigar (fired from aeroplanes). Professor Gunther took a bullet back to Germany for testing. The bullet exhibited a radioactivity giving an effective dose of 11 to 12 microsieverts per hour and was considered highly dangerous. It was seized by German police, wearing protective clothing, and transported to a safe place. (In Germany, radiology personnel should not be exposed to more than 50 millisieverts per year.) It might also be noted that US authorities closed a DU penetrator ammunition factory on the edge of Albany in upstate New York because airborne contamination levels exceeded 150 microcurie per month, contaminating populated areas up to 26 miles away. This was the equivalent of only one or two 30 mm cannon shells per month releasing their radioactivity to the environment.

The fact that definitive evidence that the shells fired by allied force are responsible for the huge increase in cancers, stillbirths and birth deformities is limited is not surprising, as the nations that fire the shells refuse to provide accurate information on where they have been fired, making accurate statistical analysis all but impossible. However, there is abundant circumstantial evidence, as two minutes on the Internet will show (for example search for "Doug Rokke" on YouTube). Whilst it may appear a cynical view, sadly I have come to the conclusion that the UK Government and MoD are deliberately making such analyses impossible. Indeed, the level to which supporters of DU weapons will go to deny effects are quite considerable. A classical example is a communication I recently received from Roger Helbig, considered by some to be a Pentagon 'attack dog'. In a lengthy email which accused various anti-DU groups of lying, Mr Helbig also included the following quite stupendous line: "There is no such thing as a uranium weapon. That is term that they [the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons] made up to make depleted uranium kinetic energy penetrators look like weapons of mass destruction instead of tank-killing bullets." Yes you did read that correctly: there is no such thing as a uranium weapon, only a "depleted uranium kinetic energy penetrator"!

Recently I asked the Scottish Minister for Public Health and Sport, Shona Robinson, if the Scottish Government held statistics relating to the incidence of cancer, stillbirth and birth deformities in Scottish armed forces personnel and their families. She obligingly wrote to the MoD to follow up my question. I received her reply a few days ago. In summary: (1) the MoD does not believe that there is credible evidence that DU induces cancer and birth defects (2) the MoD asserts that there is no evidence that DU has been responsible for incidences of ill-health in UK forces or in civilian populations and (3) the MoD does not believe that a statistical study would be appropriate as this issue has been addressed under the auspices of the Independent Depleted Uranium Oversight Board (DUOB).

The first and third claims are clearly disputed, while the second statement is a simple lie. At a coroner’s inquest (10th September 2009) into the death of Mr Stuart Dyson a unanimous jury ruled that his death from colon cancer was caused by the DU he was exposed to in the Gulf War of 1990/91. In the USA, Leuren Moret, a geoscientist and geologist has said: "Of 251 Gulf War I veterans in Mississippi, in 67 percent of them, their babies born after the war were deemed to have severe birth defects. They had brains missing, arms and legs missing, organs missing. They were born without eyes. They had horrible blood diseases. It’s horrific." Perhaps the warning given to the women of Fallujah should have been extended to service personnel?

Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009

Bill Wilson for
Scottish Left Review, Bill is MSP for the West of Scotland

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