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Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Not to Report the News

Here's a video some people I know on facebook have been passing around and commenting on.  Note that they just passed on the video, no story, so what was in the video was the only information they were discussing.  The video is actually about a year and a half old, but it seems to have just been rediscovered.

Please note that there are some pretty disturbing images in here.

The story deals with an "increasing number" of babies in Falllujah born with deformities "since the war." 

According to the report, the deformity rates are so high, women are afraid to have babies anymore.  They talk about how there's no explanation for this, only suspicions on the part of the parents that it has something to do with chemicals used during the war.  The only chemical mentioned is white phosphorus, and the only users mentioned is the US.  They then show a series of pictures of babies born "within the last 8 months."  With the date of the video, that would make it though early 2009.

A doctor is interviewed, who tells us they don't actually know how many births like this there are, as "there isn't a specialist centre to register deformities."  He then goes on to say how he and other doctors have "noticed that the number of deformities has gone up in comparison to last year."  That would be 2008.  They then show a man holding his healthy young boy, noting that it took him 8 years to have a child, with the reporter telling us "doctors told him problems conceiving may also be the result of weapons used during the war."

Here we have a story with a tremendous human interest aspect.  The topic is heartbreaking and well worth reporting on and having investigated.

Why, then, did they do such a shoddy job of it?

First off, it's incredibly vague.  It tells us there's a huge increase in these deformities since "the end of the war."  This was in 2009, yet the war in Iraq was not officially declared ended by Obama until Aug. 31, 2010, almost a year after this report was made.  Perhaps they mean since Feb. 2009, when Obama began an 18 month withdrawal of combat troops?  It's unclear, yet this date would put it in the 8 month range mentioned in the video.  That, however, makes little sense.  They would be comparing births of children conceived in the last few months of the war to children conceived and born in the year previous, before the war ended.  When was the last known time any chemicals (I think we're supposed to assume these were chemical weapons) were used?  Who used them?  How much?  What were they?

The only chemical mentioned is white phosphorus.  What is white phosphorus?  They don't tell us, but we're to assume it's something that can cause deformities.  Well, let's look it up. 

It turns out white phosphorus is a substance that smells like garlic, looks like wax, and ignites when exposed to oxygen.

White Phosphorus (WP), known as Willy Pete, is used for signaling, screening, and incendiary purposes. White Phosphorus can be used to destroy the enemy's equipment or to limit his vision. It is used against vehicles, petroleum, oils and lubricants (POL) and ammunition storage areas, and enemy observers. WP can be used as an aid in target location and navigation. It is usually dispersed by explosive munitions. It can be fired with fuze time to obtain an airburst. White phosphorus was used most often during World War II in military formulations for smoke screens, marker shells, incendiaries, hand grenades, smoke markers, colored flares, and tracer bullets. 

Hmmm... nothing about possible birth defects here, and it's apparently been used for a very long time.  From the same source as above, we have:

The Battle of Fallujah was conducted from 8 to 20 November 2004 with the last fire mission on 17 November. The battle was fought by an Army, Marine and Iraqi force of about 15,000 under the I Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF). US forces found WP to be useful in the Battle of Fallujah. "WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE. We fired “shake and bake” missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out. ... We used improved WP for screening missions when HC smoke would have been more effective and saved our WP for lethal missions."
Wait... the last fire mission was in Nov. of 2004?  The story above says this dramatic increase has been since the war ended, in 2009. Why are birth defects now being blamed on something that happened 5 years previously?  How are the parents still being exposed?

We still don't know how this stuff can lead to birth defects.  Reading more at the above link, we find out WP is some nastya$$ $hit that causes severe burns.  It's also used in...


It turns out WP is used in all sorts of non-military ways, including soft drinks, fertilizers, food additives and cleaners, special glasses, fine china, steel production and baking powder.  Oh, lovely... it's also an ingredient in Meth.

We also learn that, while it's never found free in nature, it's found combined with other minerals all over the world.

Finally, at the end, we look at health effects (other than the whole burning and pain thing).  The list of adverse effects is rather long.  They include:

  • for "systemic intoxication" one can develop abdominal pain, jaundice and garlic breath
  • "prolonged exposure" can lead to anemia, cachexia and necrosis of the bone
  • "prolonged absorption" can lead to necrosis of the bone
  • "overexposed workers" have complained of toothache, loose teeth, pain and swelling of the jaw and excess salivation

When it comes to necrosis of the bone, it mentions 10 cases with an exposure range between 10 months (2 cases) to 18 years.  More information and symptoms are mentioned.

Nothing about infertility or birth defects.

Looking around some more, we discover that phosphorus (in its various forms) is essential to our health, particularly in the formation of our skeletal and nervous systems, and that a lack of dietary phosphorous disrupts our muscle and blood cells, and leads to muscle and neurological disruption.

Clearly one of those things where the dose makes the poison!

So, in the video report, we have doctors saying they don't know what's causing these deaths and deformities.  Parents suspect "chemicals, such as white phosphorus, used by the Americans during the war."

Why did the reporter move from the generic term "chemicals" to the specific chemical, "white phosphorus?"  What other chemicals were used?  How?  When?  We have nothing.  Why are only the Americans specified?  Did no one else use white phosphorus?

A quick look at the history of military use of WP, we see it goes back to WWI.  Bombs, shells, rockets and grenades have been used by the British, the US, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Russia, Iraq (by Saddam Hussein), and "the Commonwealth" (individual Commonwealth countries were not named).  Though it's not on the lists I've seen, I know the Canadian military has used it since well before becoming involved in Afghanistan. While contact with WP, which has a tendency to stick to the skin, results in extremely painful, severe burns and significant damage, its primary use is for its smoke and light.  Its use is legal, and it is not classified as a chemical weapon.

In searching for this, there are plenty of articles about the use of WP as a weapon in Afghanistan, Iraq and, specifically, Fallujah.  This is not what the story is about.  These parents, as far as I can tell, were not victims of (alleged, suspected, or verified) chemical weapons attacks.  Such attacks aren't even mentioned.  Just a vague 'use of chemicals' comment.  This implies exposure, not contact.  Which means they are most likely to have been exposed to the smoke.  Smoke of all kinds can cause damage and, potentially, death, though there are no confirmed cases of anyone dying of WP smoke.

With WP being used by so many countries for so long, you would think there would be evidence of deformities and infertility connected to its use that goes back at least a couple of generations, and specifically among people people in, say, Vietnam, Chechnya and Iran, as well as among the Kurds in Iraq.  Is there any evidence of this?  Since there is apparently a rise in these deformities noted only during the Iraq war, one is lead to believe there isn't any.  From this story, these deformities seem to be an isolated explosion of cases in Fallujah.  If exposure to WP does lead to birth defects and/or infertility, this should be showing up among the people who trained with WP, as well as those who used it in combat.  Is it?  We're not told.  For all its dangers, birth defects and infertility are simply not mentioned anywhere I've seen.

So if it's not WP that's causing these deformities, what is?  This is a huge issue that deserves better handling than what this video gives us, which is little more than suspicions and insinuations.  A horrible disservice to such an important topic.

If you have taken the time to view the video on youtube, however, you'll find a link with a bit more information.  It's a "letter to the United Nations," also dated in 2009.

Here we're given some actual numbers.

In September 2009, Fallujah General Hospital had 170 new born babies, 24% of whom were dead within the first seven days, a staggering 75% of the dead babies were classified as deformed.

This can be compared with data from the month of August in 2002 where there were 530 new born babies of whom six were dead within the first seven days and only one birth defect was reported.
Then there's brief mention of premature births and surviving babies developing "severe disabilities at a later stage."  No data to back it up, however.

For the above quoted portion, we've got striking dissimilarities between the two sets of numbers.  (I also don't understand why they used percentages with one, while using actual case numbers in the other.)

In a single month before the war in Iraq started, this one hospital saw 530 births.  Six of those (1.13%) died within 7 days, and of those, 1 (16.666% of the 1.13%) was a baby born with a defect.  No word on how severe the birth defect was, or if it actually caused the death.  Jump forward 7 years, and the same hospital has only 170 births in one month.  Of those, 24% (or 40.8 babies) died within the first week, and of the ones that died, 75% (30.6 babies) "were classified as deformed."  Again, nothing on the relationship between the deformities and the deaths.

At first glance, these numbers prove an incredible leap in deformities, but again, what we're lead to believe is so is actually extremely vague and inconclusive.  For all we know, someone cherry picked a single month before the war with the highest number of births and lowest number of deaths, then cherry picked a single month after the war with the lowest number of births and highest number of deaths.  We have no other information; particularly about what happened in the 7 years in between.  We have a major drop in the number of births at that hospital, coupled with a major increase in deaths and deformities, but the lack of data means we actually know nothing at all.  We're just guessing. Why did this particular hospital see such a change in numbers of births?  Are these parents locals, or do we have an influx of people from outlying areas with little or no medical care available?  What range of possible causes have been explored?

Unfortunately, what we've got to work with is largely anecdotal evidence - such as one grave digger in one cemetery who claims to be burying 4-5 babies a day, and his claim that most of these babies are deformed.  Something worth exploring more.

This letter, at least, does mention more than just WP.  It calls for "an independent committee to conduct a full investigation into the problem of the increased number of birth defects and cancer," then goes on to assume they already know the causes, namely WP and depleted uranium.  Once again, we're not given any information.  What, specifically, is depleted uranium?  How is it used?  Why and where?  By whom?  We have nothing.  Instead, the letter talks of "toxic materials used by the occupying forces including depleted uranium and white phosphorus" and the need to "prevent children and adults entering contaminated areas." 

So what is depleted uranium?  How and why is it used?

It's uranium that has about 40-60% (depending on your source) less radiation than natural uranium (military specifications for depleted uranium actually has less of the radioactive isotopes by weight). Natural uranium exists in small amounts pretty much everywhere.  We eat, breath and drink it every day.  Now, before we start freaking out about radiation levels, let's take a moment to examine the realities of radiation.  Lots of things are naturally radioactive, including food.  Like bananas and Brazil nuts.  We are all surrounded by radiation, and some geographical locations naturally have higher levels of radiation than others.  (Interestingly, many people living in these areas tend to have longer average life spans and lower levels of cancer than in other areas.  We don't know why.)

As for depleted uranium (DU), it is extremely dense.  This makes it ideal for use in things like armor plating on tanks and armor-piercing projectiles.  In the civilian world, it's used by the airline industry as counterweights, in medical radiation therapy, industrial radiography equipment and in containers radioactive materials are shipped in.

Who uses DU?  It's quite a list.  Military use includes the US, the UK, France, Canada, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Pakistan and the Gulf monarchies.  That's just a partial list and doesn't even count its civilian uses, both industrial/commercial and medical.  It's even used in false teeth!

Studies on cultured cells and rodents show possible negative effects ranging from neurological effects to cancers.  There are contradictory reports about the effects of exposure to DU by humans. 

If DU is a cause of these defects, given that it's used in armour plating (among other things), you'd think that soldiers surrounded by it day after day, year after year, would be showing signs of infertility and have deformed offspring as well.  Likewise, civilians exposed to it on a regular basis should also show similar signs.  Do they?  We don't know.  The letter doesn't explore the notion at all.  If it is a cause, however, the health problems attributed to exposure to DU should be showing up in the parents of these babies - yet the parents shown and interviewed seem to be healthy.  Of course, we can't judge a person's health just by looking at them, but given the nature of the claims, you'd expect at least someone to mention if the parents themselves have unusually high levels of cancer and other illnesses typically attributed to high exposure rates to DU.  One would have to assume that the parents have been exposed to these conditions for the duration of the war. If exposure to DU and WP are the cause of these defects, why are they not also causing health problems in the parents? 

There are so many possible causes for these defects that aren't being examined.  We don't even have the most basic of data to be able to understand just how widespread and serious the issue is.

What we have are an awful lot of questions, and no answers.

Going back the the video report, we have an utter failure in dealing with a major topic.  We have a heartbreaking situation that deserves to be treated with urgency and seriousness.  Though the letter gives slightly more information, it is little better. 

What the news report should have done was asked more questions.  If no answers were forthcoming (due to lack of data, for example) there should be screaming for the rooftops to find the answers, so that solutions can be found.

Instead, we have suspicions and blamecasting.

A story that should have been hard hitting on facts and questions, while sensitive to the human interest side, was instead used to find something else to blame on the US.

This does nothing to help these poor children and their families.  Worse, jumping to conclusions and playing the blame game delays finding the actual cause of these deformities, which in turn delays finding a solution, compounding the tragedy even more.

Which tells me that, once again, it's more about getting ratings by attacking popular targets (the US and the use of specific chemicals) and not about finding the truth.

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