Last year, the World Health Organisation came out with an extremely puzzling study that flew in the face of previous work on the subject: it determined that there wasn’t a firm link between the use of depleted uranium ammunition by US forces in Iraq and the incidence of birth defects. The study is puzzling because it defies pretty much everything currently known and understood about DU, including the results of studies in the Balkans and Iraq illustrating that exposure to DU has been very positively and clearly linked with congenital disabilities, and that the rate of such disabilities has increased in areas polluted by DU.
So why is the WHO, an agency supposedly responsible for global health, suddenly claiming the opposite? For one thing, the study methodology is extremely flawed, and for another, it’s worth taking a closer look at who was involved with the study. As always when evaluating scientific research, I ask myself how it was performed and qui bono—who benefits?
The United States and United Kingdom were both heavily involved with this study, one which could have serious consequences for them. If a global health authority like the WHO can establish a positive link between DU exposure and congenital disabilities, both nations could be considered legally liable, and the settlements they might be forced to make could be substantial. In addition to being compelled to provide compensation to individual victims and their families (including parents who’ve lost children to miscarriages and disabilities incompatible with life along with disabled DU survivors who need assistance with tasks of daily life or can’t work due to their disabilities), these nations could also potentially be required to clean up the huge amount of DU currently polluting the Iraqi landscape.
Costs could climb into the millions or billions, very easily, and the issue, as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is likely to prove to be an ongoing one. This ammunition was chosen and widely used because of its hardness and penetrating power, but radiation lingers behind, and the longer it stays, the more it’s likely to poison the natural environment. In addition to causing developmental disabilities, it may lead to an increased incidence of cancer in the future, and it could be entering waterways, underground water supplies, and soil, there leaving a toxic legacy that will haunt the country for decades. It’s sake to say that both the US and the UK have a serious investment in any study absolving them of responsibility when it comes to management of DU.
What about the methodology of the study? Is it possible that WHO just did what other researchers couldn’t, and these results are valid? The evidence strongly suggests otherwise. For one thing, scores of peer-reviewed studies published in extremely prestigious international journals indicate that 1.) There’s a link between DU exposure and the development of childhood cancers, congenital disabilities, and miscarriages and 2.) There has been an increase of all these medical issues in both Iraq and the Balkans that can be directly connected to DU exposure.
The WHO chose to conduct this study by interviewing mothers in approximately 800 households within a very limited geographical area about their own recollections of stillbirths, birth defects, and related issues. These kinds of lookback studies are notoriously unreliable, because people, as great as they can be, are actually not great witnesses, even (sometimes especially) about traumatic life events. The study authors claim that medical records weren’t available, which doesn’t explain why other researchers were able to find and utilize medical records.
The researchers also claimed that it’s easier to perform such studies in the West, where high economic status makes it easier to accurate diagnose congenital disabilities and genetic anomalies. While that’s true, it’s also true that even a doctor working in an Iraqi hospital that’s been repeatedly bombed by US forces with minimal equipment and funding can still see that something is clearly wrong if, for example, a child is born with fused digits, severe developmental delays, or many other other congenital disabilities. Doctors can also diagnose brain tumours in Iraq just fine, although they lack access to the advanced diagnostic and treatment tools we have in the US—in part due to an embargo we forced through.
While they claim the study was subjected to peer review, the peers who allegedly reviewed it say otherwise. They claim that they were only shown early results, and were not provided with an extended period of time to review and comment on them. This is not how peer review is conducted; a respected journal wouldn’t publish results produced at this standard of research and review, because they would be next to useless. Curiously, the WHO apparently had no problem releasing the study and claiming it offered some definitive results on the DU question.
When financial and political interests collide with science, the results can be devastating, as they could be here. The WHO has a responsibility to the world, not to the US and the UK, to provide accurate and helpful medical and scientific information; if DU is indeed toxic, as much of the evidence is starting to indicate, it’s time to take responsibility for that and to start working on ways to clean it up and address the damage in nations that will be wrestling with its legacy for decades, and possibly for generations. Delaying the release of this study (it was finished nearly a year before it was published), and pretending that a poorly-conducted and dubiously-researched study is scientifically acceptable in the first place, does no service to anyone.