Chris Busby, co-author of the epidemiological study “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009,” discusses the difficulties of carrying out a door-to-door survey of skeptical and hostile Fallujah residents, the severe birth deformities in regions where depleted uranium munitions were used, the study’s focus on infant mortality rates, the military’s outdated risk modeling for battlefield uranium exposure and why a dramatically lower male birth rate is a telling sign of regional genetic damage.
MP3 here. (19:19) Transcript below.
Chris Busby is director of the independent environmental consultancy, Green Audit. He has a first-class Honours degree in Chemistry from London University and a PhD in chemical physics from the University of Kent. He is Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk and a member of the UK Department of Health Committee Examining Radiation Risk for Internal Emitters (CERRIE).
Chris also sits on the UK Ministry of Defence Depleted Uranium Oversight Board and is National Speaker on Science and Technology for the Green Party of England and Wales. Chris is a fellow of the University of Liverpool in the Faculty of Medicine. He is also scientific advisor of the Low level Radiation Campaign which he helped to set up in 1995.
Transcript – Scott Horton interviews Chris Busby, August 4, 2010
Scott Horton: All right y’all, welcome to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m your host, Scott Horton. Thanks for tuning into the show today. We’ve got a good one lined up for you. Andy Worthington’s going to be here to talk about Guantanamo. Bonnie Docherty will be here to talk about the new cluster bomb treaty. And we’re going to start right now with Dr. Chris Busby, and he is the coauthor, I think the principal author, of this study called, “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009.” It was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. You can find it at Scribd.com. Welcome to the show, Chris. How are you?
Chris Busby: Yes, hello. I’m fine, thank you.
Horton: Well thank you very much for joining us today.
Busby: You’re welcome.
Horton: All right, so, I guess before we get too far into this, I’ll just remind the audience that there were two major battles in Fallujah – against Fallujah – in the spring and then again in the fall of 2004. It’s a city in the Anbar province of Iraq there, west of Baghdad, and it saw some of the heaviest fighting of the Iraq War. And so that’s what this study’s about.
Now before we get into the results and what you guys found out, I was wondering if you could tell us, first of all, how you got the idea to do this, and then second of all if we could discuss the method of study a little bit.
Busby: Well, okay. Well, I’ve been concerned about the health effects of depleted uranium since about 1997, and I was on the British Ministry of Defence Depleted Uranium Oversight Board and also on a British government committee looking at health effects of internal radionuclides – these are radioactive substances like uranium which get inside the body and act by destroying cells from inside, rather than external radiation.
So I’ve become, if you like, a scientist involved in examining the health risks of radioactivity. I’ve also done some research looking at weapons in Lebanon and in Gaza – finding uranium in weapons, in weapon craters and in air filters.
I was contacted by Malak Hamdan, who is an Iraqi lady living in London, and she wanted to know if there was any way in which we could investigate the many reports that were coming out of Fallujah of increases in cancer and congenital malformations. There have been a lot of anecdotal reports – people who have been saying, “There seems to be a lot of increase in cancer and so forth.” But there haven’t been any proper epidemiological studies, and so the international community has tended to ignore these reports, although I think they are quite wrong to do this, and also they didn’t do any studies of their own.
So I said to Malak that it was quite possible for us to do an epidemiological study, that we needed to look at about 5,000 people to get statistical significance, and we just had to send people around to knock on doors and ask about the people who lived there – you know, how old they were, how many people, men and women, and whether there’d been any cancers reported or diagnosed in the last 5, 10 years, and infant deaths and so forth, you know.
So you build up a picture of a group of people – a random selection from the overall population of Fallujah, and then you can do a proper epidemiological statistical analysis on that, and then find out whether these reports are true or not.
So she went off and she organized all of this stuff. I created the questionnaire and I did the analysis too and helped out with the general idea, but she organized the people on the ground – very difficult it was, too – in Fallujah.
Horton: Okay, now, so let’s talk about some of the weaknesses in the method which you address actually in the study itself. You say that there was one neighborhood I guess in Fallujah where the word had gone out that you guys were CIA or something and so you weren’t able to really get any answers from anybody, right?
Busby: At the beginning of the study, some of our helpers who were working with us – some of the interviewers who were working with us – were knocking on doors in one area where the people were very, very suspicious. I mean the whole place is full of suspicion, you know? I mean, it’s a terrible war zone, and they were frightened that these people of ours were Iraqi agents or CIA agents or something, so they actually beat them up.
And so after that we had to arrange for some local person who was a significant person who was known in the community, in the particular area, to travel around with the interviewer so that the locals had some faith in what was happening and would give reasonable answers. And after that happened we were okay, we got a pretty good response rate.
Horton: Well and also you mention in here – and this is something I guess everybody knows – that Fallujah has had, of all the five million Iraqis displaced from their homes, a great many of them were Fallujans. And so if you were to go to the refugee camps in Jordan or Syria, you would find a lot of Fallujans there. And so I wonder whether that messes up your science here.
Busby: Well, all of these things mess up the science to some extent, and so you cannot take the results that we got and say that they were quantitatively accurate, you know, that the numbers were exactly right. It’s extremely difficult to do epidemiology a long time after the event, and there are all sorts of problems with people leaving the area, and also one problem is that people who die, of course, you know, can’t answer the questionnaire. So you have to rely upon some of the people remaining knowing that somebody had died of cancer in the family.
But I have to say that we’ve done these studies in a number of other places, and they tend to work out pretty accurate, pretty accurate. So you can say plus or minus a little bit. And so I am fairly confident that the results qualitatively show – but not quantitatively – that there was a significant increase in cancer and birth defects and also that there is an alteration in the sex ratio.
And the other thing about all of this is that all of these different pieces of information put together, they add up to a picture. So in other words, we are not just finding increases in cancer, which is a genetic disease, but we are also finding increases in infant mortality, increases in congenital malformation – which weren’t reported, incidentally, in the paper for reasons which I can go into – and also this peculiar sex ratio change which only occurred in those children who were born after 2004. So all of these things together point to the introduction in 2004 into that population of a very, very powerful genetically mutating agent – a mutagen.
Horton: Okay, so, well, you make me very glad that I started out with the method here, and I really appreciate the way that you characterize the study, how valuable it is, how much faith or hard knowledge can be gained from it and the difference between quality and quantity and all these things – this is how real scientists talk, sparing in their conclusions and yet still willing to try to dive in and explain what the data show there. So I appreciate that.
So now, I’m sorry, we only have about two and a half, three minutes before we have to go out to the first break here, so I was wondering if maybe we could just start with one of these – and let’s start with the one that you said did not make the paper there, the deformed children. There have been even rumors at least of a child born with two heads in Fallujah.
Busby: Yes, that’s right, we’ve heard of that too. I mean of course you can go into any hospital and find children with deformities, but in Iraq, and also incidentally in Kosovo too, we have had reports of peculiarly horrible deformities, ones that don’t normally get reported and don’t normally turn up. So there does seem to be some agent that’s common to these areas where depleted uranium has been used which result in these very, very peculiar and unusual deformities.
We didn’t use the rates of congenital malformation – the reported congenital malformation rates – and the reason is because it became apparent quite quickly that a lot of people are very concerned about talking – they don’t want to talk about their children’s congenital malformations because they see it as some kind of slur on them. And so in order to get the numbers right, we concentrated on infant mortality because we thought that didn’t really carry quite so much of a stigma with it.
There were reports after Hiroshima also, too, by the women who were affected by the radiation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki – they wouldn’t report congenital malformations because they didn’t want anyone to know. They were ashamed of what had happened to them, you see?
Horton: Well, that’s too bad, but I guess I can see how that would work, you know, because depleted uranium wouldn’t necessarily get the blame or whatever, it could be a stigma for the family, that kind of thing. I understand.
Busby: Yes, sure, sure that’s right, that’s right. And in fact the Iraqi authorities originally when they heard about these increases in congenital malformation, they said, “Well, all the people there are inbred.”
Horton: All right, yeah, of course, “It’s everybody but the Army’s fault.” All right, hold it right there. Everybody, we’re talking to Christopher Busby. He wrote this paper about cancer in Fallujah. We’ll be right back after this.
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Horton: All right y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m Scott Horton. I’m talking with Chris Busby. He’s co-author of this study, “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009,” published at the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. You can find it at Scribd.com and of course the blog entry of the archive of this show, later the mp3, at Antiwar.com/Radio, will have a link straight to it as well.
Okay, so now – well, when we were going out to break we were talking with Dr. Busby here about how the people of Iraq didn’t really like to – well, nobody really likes to answer questions about deformities among their children – so you guys really decided, I guess, that the numbers wouldn’t be concise enough; you just skipped that question and focused on child mortality rates.
Busby: Yes, that’s right. We went through infant mortality. And then the other thing about that is congenital malformation rates are very difficult to compare across countries because different countries record different levels – different types of malformation. So, you know, in the United Kingdom or for instance in Europe, the EUROCAT database, they actually record some quite – well, not terribly important, if you like, you know, not very serious malformations.
So when they talk about the rates of malformation per thousand births, they won’t be strictly comparable with the kinds of malformations that we would be looking at in Iraq – like you were saying, two heads and no limbs and the most peculiar and awful, horrible things – one eye and so forth, you know? You just have an extra finger, and in the EUROCAT database that would be classed as a malformation. So the numbers would then not really be strictly comparable.
There is a big problem with congenital malformations as a comparing system across different databases.
Horton: All right, well, see, my problem is I’m no doctor. I don’t really understand these things. It’s easy for me to imagine that depleted uranium – even if it’s 99% 238 – that, I don’t know, I’m not a chemist, I’m not a scientist, I don’t really know. As far as I know, sure, it shoots out gamma rays and alpha particles and whatever and rearranges chromosomes, but I don’t really know that. Do you know that that’s true?
Busby: Yes, that’s about right. But it’s actually worse than that because in the last five years – and I’ve been associated with this research, incidentally, too, it’s all been published in the literature now – what happens is that when uranium gets into the body, it actually binds chemically to the chromosomes, so it targets the chromosomes, because the uranyl ion [UO2]2+ is similar to the calcium ion and it binds to the phosphate backbone of the chromosome, so it goes to the chromosomes. But because it has a very high atomic number – it has the highest atomic number of any natural element on earth – it also absorbs natural background radiation.
So we all get irradiated with natural background gamma radiation, but most of it goes right through us because we’re made of water, essentially. But the absorption of this gamma radiation is proportional to the fourth or fifth power of the atomic number, so you can imagine the atomic number of water being about eight, I suppose, if you use the oxygen, so the fourth or fifth power of eight has to be compared with the fourth or fifth power of 92, which is the atomic number of uranium.
And you’re talking about something which is therefore acting as a little antenna and absorbing hundreds, maybe thousands of times more gamma radiation energy into the DNA, and this seems to be the problem with uranium.
And none of these ideas, none of these developments, have been incorporated into the current risk model. So when the American army or the British army used this material as a weapon and aerosolized it so that it floats around the place and people inhale it, they’re still using an old-fashioned model of radiation risk which goes back to the 1950s, which just deals with the intrinsic radioactivity of uranium. It doesn’t deal with any of these chemical affinities for DNA or this idea of it acting as a sort of agent for focusing natural background radiation into the DNA. I mean, this is an idea, it’s a theory, but calculations show that this idea is correct.
And even if it wasn’t for the calculations, we would be able to tell now from all of the effects that have been seen after exposure to uranium, that there is something seriously wrong with the way in which uranium risks are being computed – being understood.
Horton: Well, you know, I guess the skeptics would say, “Hey, there’s uranium in the ground everywhere. We’re all exposed to uranium radiation all the time,” but I think that you’re really –
Busby: It’s not inhaled, you see, this is the point.
Horton: Right. Hang on a second, because I was just going to explain to the audience that they use this for armor-piercing rounds because the form of the molecular structure allows it to be self-sharpening – rather than getting dull on impact, it gets sharper and sharper, and basically aerosolizes as it penetrates armor. So anybody around is, as you’re saying, breathing this stuff in – in tiny, tiny little particles.
Busby: Yeah, nanoparticles – particles that get into the cells. And this has never occurred throughout the whole of human evolution. Because, as you say, uranium has been around since the beginning of time on earth. So we’ve been exposed to the gamma rays from the uranium in the rocks, but nobody’s ever taken the uranium out of the rocks and made it extremely pure and then fired it at something very hard so that it burns and knocks a hole and turns into these very fine, fine particles that get inhaled. So nobody’s inhaled uranium. That’s the problem.
Horton: Okay, now, you’ve talked about how you’ve been studying this since 1997. I wonder about the – you know, because this was something that I guess few people paid attention to – but some people did, the Gulf War syndrome, Gulf War illnesses, plural, of the 1990s from the First Gulf War. Were European troops, French and British and other troops, exposed to depleted uranium in the First Gulf War?
Busby: Of course they were. Of course they were. And many of them have got seriously ill. Many of them have gotten cancer.
I mean I was an expert witness in a coroner’s inquest with a jury a couple of years ago – September 2008, I think it was – or maybe it was 2009 – anyway, it wasn’t that long ago – and a coroner’s jury listened to the evidence that I gave to them over this Gulf War veteran, a UK Gulf War veteran who had been cleaning out vehicles that had been struck by uranium weapons, and he died of colon cancer at a young age. And the jury found that his cancer was caused by the uranium. This is quite a landmark to have this happen.
But of course what happens is the military just close their ears or bury their heads in the sand and just refuse to listen to this stuff. There’s no doubt about it. There have been huge increases in ill health in American servicemen and in British servicemen and presumably also in other European people working in war zones where uranium was being used as a result of exposure to this material.
Horton: All right, now, I’m afraid we’re running short on time and I have another guest coming up after the next break, so I don’t know what to do here because there’s so much more to go over still. Can you just briefly touch on the birth sex-ratio problems?
Busby: Yes. Okay, genetic defects can be shown by the birth sex-ratio. So in other words, normally, in normal human populations, there are 1,050 boys born to every 1,000 girls. This is absolutely standard. But if you cause genetic damage, you damage the boy chromosomes more easily because they don’t have a redundant X chromosome. Boys are XY and girls are XX, so the girls have a redundant X chromosome, so the boys are preferentially killed off. And so if you find a reduction in the number of boys, it’s a sure sign of genetic damage.
And this was found after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And so this is what we found too. We found 860 boys per 1,000 girls in the Fallujah cohort. And in general all of the things we found in the Fallujah cohort were similar to the Hiroshima/Nagasaki results, but much, much worse. So what happened in Fallujah was much worse than Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Horton: Well, Dr. Busby, I really appreciate your time on the show today. I hope we can do this again. I have so many more questions for you.
Busby: Okay, you’re welcome. It’s a very important subject.
Horton: Okay, thank you very much. Everybody, please go look at “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009.”