The Victims of Fallujah's Health Crisis Are Stifled by Western Silence
To research a possible link between US bombardment and rates of birth defects and pediatric cancer in Iraq is a moral imperative
Four new studies on the health crisis in Fallujah have been published in the last three months. Yet, one of the most severe public health crises in history, for which the US military may be to blame, receives no attention in the United States.
Ever since two major US-led assaults destroyed the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004, Fallujans have witnessed dramatic increases in rates of cancers, birth defects and infant mortality in their city. Dr Chris Busby, the author and co-author of two studies on the Fallujah heath crisis, has called this "the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied".
In the years since the 2004 sieges, Fallujah was the most heavily guarded city in all of Iraq. All movement in and out of Fallujah was monitored by the occupying forces. The security situation made it nearly impossible to get word out about Fallujans' nascent health crisis. One of the first attempts to report on the crisis was at the seventh session of the UN Human Rights Council in the form of the report, Prohibited Weapons Crisis: The Effects of Pollution on the Public Health in Fallujah by Dr Muhamad Al-Darraji. This report was largely ignored. It wasn't until the first major study on the health crisis was published in 2010 that the issue received mainstream media attention in the UK and Europe.
To this day, though, there has yet to be an article published in a major US newspaper, or a moment on a mainstream American TV news network, devoted to the health crisis in Fallujah. The US government has made no statements on the issue, and the American public remains largely uninformed about the indiscriminate harm that our military may have caused.
The report presented at the seventh session of the Human Rights Council gave anecdotal evidence gathered at the Fallujah General Hospital. It included a stomach-turning collection of pictures of babies born with scaly skin, missing and deformed limbs, and horrifying tumors. Two years later, Dr Busby and his team of researchers sought to verify the claims in this report. What they found was that, in addition to shocking increases in pediatric cancers, there had also been an 18% reduction in male births. Such a finding is a well-known indication of genetic damage. The authors conclude that:
"These results support the many reports of congenital illness and birth defects in Fallujah and suggest that there is evidence of genetic stress which appeared around 2004, one year before the effects began to show."
In a follow up study, in which Dr Busby was a co-author, hair, soil and water samples were taken from Fallujah and tested for the presence of heavy metals. The researchers expected to find depleted uranium in the environmental samples. It is well known that the US used depleted uranium weapons in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf war; and Iraqis, at least, are well aware of the increases in cancers and infant mortality rates in the city of Basrah, which was heavily bombarded during Desert Storm. However, what the researchers found was not depleted uranium, but man-made, slightly enriched uranium.
Dr Busby has been the most visible scientist behind these studies, and for that reason, a lot of criticism has been directed at him. He is considered by many to be a "controversial" figure, which only means that his research has often challenged official government positions. His studies on Fallujah have similarly earned the title of "controversial". Many journals were afraid to publish his second study because of "pressure" from "outside people". "Outside people" means types like Roger Helbig – a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force who is well-known for publishing online attacks on those who take a critical stance against uranium weapons – and pressure groups with similar agendas.
Some have criticized the methodology of this study, and they have used this as an excuse to dismiss the entire issue. But as other experts have noted:
"The role of 'quick and dirty' studies like this one, conducted under difficult conditions, is not to inform policy, but rather to generate hypotheses about important questions when resources are not yet available and other research methods are not possible."
Busby is not the only researcher who takes "controversial" positions. His findings are complimented by the work of Dr Dai Williams, an independent weapons researcher. Williams has been investigating what he calls "third generation uranium weapons" (pdf). He has found patents for weapon systems that could use undepleted uranium, or slightly enriched uranium, interchangeably with tungsten, either as a dense metal or as a reactive metal. Undepleted and slightly enriched uranium have also been found on other battlefields (Afghanistan (pdf) and Lebanon). These findings lead researchers like Dr Williams to believe that there is a new generation of weapons being used, possibly by the US and Israeli militaries, that could have serious indiscriminate health effects on the populations living near bombing targets.
Many people have dismissed these hypotheses as speculative, and with that, they dismiss the research, the issue and the suffering of the people on the ground. What these naysayers fail to understand is that hypotheses are always speculative to a degree – they are informed, but they are claims intended to be verified or falsified. This is the nature of the scientific method. First, you observe certain phenomena in the world, then you come up with a hypothesis to explain those phenomena. Then, you conduct an experiment to test your hypothesis.
Many of these naysayers have not responded to these studies by calling for more research and investigation to test the hypotheses of Dr Busby or Dr Williams. Rather, they dismiss these hypotheses because they don't like their moral and political implications. In doing so, they show a great deal of antipathy for the scientific method and the pursuit of truth. But more importantly, they also dismiss the suffering of the people of Fallujah, and all people affected by these issues.
One weapon system that may use uranium, in some form or another, is the SMAW-NE (Shoulder-fired Multipurpose Assault Weapon – Novel Explosive). My former unit battle-tested this weapon for the first time in Fallujah during Operation Phantom Fury in 2004. It is not my intention irresponsibly to lay blame on the US military, but there is a potential connection between this weapons system and the health crisis in Fallujah – and this connection needs to be investigated.
There are also other avenues of investigation besides uranium weapons. One recent study examines the possible contributions of mercury and lead to the health crisis in Iraq. Metal Contamination and the Epidemic of Congenital Defects in Iraqi Cities, by Al-Sabbak et al, compared the levels of lead and mercury in hair, nail and teeth samples from Fallujah and Basrah. The study found that the population studied in Fallujah had been exposed to high levels of "two well-known neurotoxic metals, Pb and Hg".
In Basrah, the authors found even higher levels of lead exposure than in Fallujah. Basrah has the highest ever reported level of neural tube defects, and the numbers continue to climb. The authors of this study note:
"Toxic metals such as mercury (Hg) and Pb are an integral part of war ammunitions and are extensively used in the making of bullets and bombs … the bombardment of al-Basrah and Fallujah may have exacerbated public exposure to metals, possibly culminating in the current epidemic of birth defects."
The conclusion of this study is not abstract, and it is not merely an intellectual or medical issue. It has real world importance. The modern means of warfare may be inherently indiscriminate. This is a scientific finding worthy of discussion at the highest levels of academia, politics and international affairs. While it may yet get some attention outside the borders of the United States, its "controversial" nature (its implications of the US military's guilt in creating possibly the worst public health crisis in history) ensures that it will be ignored at all costs by the callous and corrupt US government and its subservient media establishment.
Ultimately, it may not be the case that either lead alone, or uranium alone, is the sole cause of the health crisis in Fallujah. It could be a combination of the two agents, or something different entirely. But this is an empirical question that demands further investigation. Methodology and proper science are important, but we must remember that science is a means to an end, and not an end in and of itself. The welfare of the people of Fallujah should be our ends, and our goal should be to help them. Those who choose misguided political allegiance over the pursuit of truth, and those who use methodological flaws to dismiss real-world suffering, have already lost their humanity.
What we need to do to help Fallujans is clear. More studies need to be done to figure out what is harming those poor children, and then steps need to be taken to ensure that this never happens again. But first, we must find a way to overcome the stifling silence of governments.
© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited