WHO report on Iraqi birth defects a whitewash: Michael Keefer, interviewed by Jane Williams

This interview with Jane Williams, “WHO report on Iraqi birth defects a whitewash,” was first aired on Redeye, Vancouver Cooperative Radio, CFRO 100.5 FM, on 5 October 2013, 9:05-9:20 a.m. Pacific Time; a podcast is available at Rabble.ca (6 October 2013), http://rabble.ca/podcasts/shows/redeye/2013/10/who-report-on-iraqi-birth-defects-whitewash. The oral quality of the interview has been preserved in the transcript given here.


JW  You're listening to Redeye on Vancouver Co-operative Radio, CFRO 100.5 FM.

In 2003, the United States led an invasion of Iraq, based on false allegations of their possession of weapons of mass destruction. After a nine-year illegal occupation ended in 2012, the Iraq war dropped off the media radar, and Iraqis were left to deal with the devastating aftermath. Among the many daily hardships, there has been a sharp increase in cancer rates and babies born with congenital defects. Not only has this been under-reported internationally, there has been a concerted effort to repress this information.

Michael Keefer is a professor emeritus of Theatre Studies and English at Guelph University; he's also a graduate of the Royal Military College, and he joins me by phone this-morning. Hello, Michael.

MK  Hello, Jane.

JW  Now the Iraqi Ministry of Health just released a report. What's it about, and who is involved in conducting that study?

MK  Well, that's a bit of a mystery, because we know that the report comes from the Ministry—there's no indication of authorship, so it's the Iraqi Ministry of Health with the collaboration of the World Health Organization, WHO. And that came out—I think it was released on September the 11th.

What's interesting about the report is that it has been, I would say, universally condemned by researchers and scientists in the fields of toxicology and epidemiology. In particular, there's a newly published article in the medical journal The Lancet, “Questions raised over Iraq Congenital Birth Defects Study.”

Now what's scandalous about the study is that it in effect claims that there's no problem, nothing significant going on, which is of course quite simply untrue. There have been repeated peer-reviewed studies in medical journals carried out by scholars from many different countries. And insofar as this report makes any mention of those, it dismisses them as “lacking in objectivity.”

JW  So it's a study about birth defects?

MK  Yes, it's a study based on—and this is one of the defects of the study, one would have to say—it's based solely on interviews with mothers. Now there are several problems with that, one being of course that in the case of many of the monstrous births that have occurred in Iraqi hospitals, the mothers are simply informed that it was a stillbirth: they're not told that the child was too horribly deformed for her to tolerate seeing.

Of course in many cases as well where you have subtler forms of birth defect, cardiac problems or other not monstrous sorts of deformations, the parents may not be aware of a defect until some months after the birth. There's also the problem that many of the people in Iraq, many of the women who have given birth to deformed children were themselves very seriously contaminated by toxic agents like depleted uranium, and are dead.

So there are many reasons, methodological reasons, for saying this study is based on the wrong methodology, the wrong research principles. And there's at least one scientist with expertise in the field who has said, “Look, I was consulted by the researchers when they were starting their study,” and he told them, “Look, here's the way to do it; don't do it that way.” And they went ahead in what's, I think, a pretty classic cover-up.

JW  But now you've been waiting a while to actually see the report, I understand.

MK  Yes. I should make it clear—well, you already did in introducing me—that I'm not myself a toxicologist or an epidemiologist. But I was one of fifty-eight signatories of a letter demanding the publication of this WHO report on Iraqi birth defects.

That letter was made public in May of this year [2013]—and the signatories, by the way, include professors of obstetrics, and gynecology, and environmental toxicology, epidemiology, environmental health, neuroscience, genetics, you name it, from universities in Iraq, of course, but also from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands—in other words, a very serious group of international scientists—as well as human rights activists.

And the response to that letter was thoroughly negative. The group that organized that first letter sent out a follow-up letter in late July, reiterating international concern over the fact that this report was being mysteriously delayed. And of course now that the report has come out, it's quite clear that there have been major political influences exerted on the WHO and the Iraqi Ministry of Health.

And by the way, one needs to say that in a formal sense the occupation of Iraq may be over, but the country is still overrun with so-called contractors—in effect, with U.S. military—and it still has that gigantic embassy complex that is a giant blemish in the middle of Baghdad—and it still has of course a very strong U.S. military presence. So it's by no means a properly independent country, or one whose health ministry wouldn't be subject to the pressures exerted by the U.S. and the U.K.

JW  Now you mentioned a number of peer-reviewed studies that tell a very different story. What kind of thing do they say about the kinds of birth defects that you can see in Iraq?

MK  What they say quantitatively is that the numbers of birth defects have risen catastrophically. There were already in the—Before the invasion of 2003, you remember, there was the Gulf War of 1991, after which the Pentagon acknowledged that it had used something like 320 tons of depleted uranium munitions in Kuwait and Iraq. Following that war, there were studies indicating that rates of birth defects in southern Iraq in particular had more than doubled, and childhood cancer rates had increased in a very disturbing way.

There are subsequent reports indicating much much greater increases in birth defect prevalences—seventeen-fold, according to one study.

So it's a major health disaster, and of course, one can see why, because what you have here is a heavy metal that is radioactive, of course, the by-product of civilian nuclear plants. It's radioactive; it is used by the military because it's extremely dense and it's what's called pyrophoric.

Now, the density means that it punches right through steel armour or through concrete or through stone walls; but when it's fired out of a tank barrel, a depleted uranium shell in effect is already on fire. When it hits something, it goes through it, and fragments into, in many cases, microscopic particles, many of them less than 5 microns. Now a micron is one-millionth of a meter. So these are tiny tiny particles of radioactive material, and of course, anything behind the armour plate or the wall is killed—incinerated, or killed by the shock wave—and the stuff is then dissipated.

Because it has formed these tiny particles, they get carried everywhere. So it's literally impossible, unless you're wearing a hazmat suit, to enter into a depleted-uranium-contaminated setting in an Iraqi city or a former battlefield, wherever that was, without inhaling or ingesting particles of depleted uranium. And once it's inside your body, every radioactive emission from a uranium atom is going to hit something.

So every time one of these particles emits, say, an alpha particle, it's doing damage to you. People can excrete some of it, but of course as it goes through your kidneys it gives you kidney damage. The results have been well known since the 1990s, that DU exposure immediately produces very serious lung damage, kidney damage, produces cancers, and there's now a long series of studies of the genetic abnormalities produced by depleted uranium as well.

JW  Now then, it took a long time for the report to be released. Now that it has been released, what kind of response has there been in the media to it?

MK  Well, I'm glad to say that there seems to be a gathering chorus of condemnation. There was a piece just yesterday I think in the Huffington Post; there have been other essays, articles, appearing elsewhere.

You see, what's involved here is that the—Basically, it's a corruption of science, and it's a corruption of the international agency whose job is to provide leadership—I'm quoting here from the WHO website—“providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options,” and so on.

And they also say, “providing collective defence against transnational threats.” It's not clear what they mean by that, but one would think that a country that is showering defenceless victims with depleted uranium is a transnational threat.

Unfortunately, the principal disseminator of depleted uranium weapons is the United States, which has been quite clearly twisting people's arms to prevent the obvious consequences in international law. I mean, it's—these are—The invasion was a war crime. The use of these munitions is quite clearly a war crime. And so the agency that ought to be doing its job, the WHO, is part of the structure of cover-up.

JW  Well, thanks so much for talking to me this-morning, Michael.

MK  Thank you very much.

JW  I've been speaking with Michael Keefer. He's Professor Emeritus of Guelph University, and a graduate of the Royal Military College, and he joined us this-morning from Toronto.