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Proletarian issue 38 (October 2010)
Beyond Hiroshima: the non-reporting of Fallujah’s cancer catastrophe
How the media dictate the terms and scope of our ‘compassion’.
The following article first appeared on 9 August on MediaLens.org. We reproduce it here with thanks.

Compassion is sometimes a central theme of media reporting. On 25 August, journalists across the UK described how a British woman, Mary Bale, had been filmed dropping a cat into a wheelie bin. The cat was later released unharmed. The Guardian reported and commented on the story on 24 and 25 August.

Matt Seaton wrote: “OK, there are lots of acts of random cruelty involving humans on humans every day, but this was somebody’s pet, for Pete’s sake. Who would do such a thing?” (’The woman, the cat and the wheelie bin’)

On 26 August, the Guardian followed up with a report describing how animal protection charities were considering whether to prosecute Bale. (’RSPCA may prosecute woman who dumped cat in a wheelie bin’)

On 27 August, Alexander Chancellor devoted a section of his Guardian column to the story. On 28 August, Michele Hansen also wrote an article focusing on the cat and on cruelty to animals more generally. (’Cat litter episode shows how our pets are both protected and persecuted’)

On 29 August, almost a week after the Guardian had first reported the incident, Euan Ferguson commented: “The same Facebook, the same Britain, that ‘named and shamed’ Mary Bale is the one that had over 30,000 followers for Raoul Moat RIP, who was a killer. Do we love animals more than people?” (‘Mary Bale would have got away with it if she hadn’t picked on a fluffy animal’)

Good question. According to our LexisNexis search (7 September), two articles appeared on the cat story in the Independent and two in the Independent on Sunday. The Daily Telegraph mentioned it in three articles; the Times in seven. The Observer had one article, the Mirror and Sunday Mirror had a total of ten articles. More than 170 articles have so far mentioned Mary Bale in the UK press. 

Fallujah - genetic stress beginning 2004

One month earlier, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, a leading medical journal, published a study, ‘Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005-2009’ by Chris Busby, Malak Hamdan and Entesar Ariabi. As Noam Chomsky has commented, the study’s findings are “vastly more significant” than the Wikileaks Afghan ‘War Diary’ leaks. (‘Wikileaks and coverage in press’, zcommunications.org, 4 August 2010)

After all, the cancer crisis reported in the study is impacting thousands of people in one of Iraq’s largest cities and is so severe that local doctors are advising women not to have children.

In the Independent, Patrick Cockburn wrote: “Dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was bombarded by US Marines in 2004, exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, according to a new study.” (‘Toxic legacy of US assault on Fallujah “worse than Hiroshima”’, 24 July 2010)

The survey of 4,800 individuals in Fallujah showed a four-fold increase in all cancers and a 12-fold increase in childhood cancer in under-14s. It found a 10-fold increase in female breast cancer and significant increases in lymphoma and brain tumours in adults. Researchers found a 38-fold increase in leukaemia.

By contrast, Hiroshima survivors showed a 17-fold increase in leukaemia. According to the study, the types of cancer are “similar to that in the Hiroshima survivors who were exposed to ionising radiation from the bomb and uranium in the fallout”. (Ibid)

Infant mortality was found to be 80 per 1,000 births compared to 19 in Egypt, 17 in Jordan and 9.7 in Kuwait. 

The study’s authors commented: “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.” (Study hosted on mdpi.com)

Dr Chris Busby, a visiting professor at the University of Ulster and one of the authors of the survey, said it was difficult to identify the exact cause of the cancers and birth defects. But, he said, “to produce an effect like this, some very major mutagenic exposure must have occurred in 2004 when the [US] attacks happened”. (Cockburn, op cit)

US troops launched a major attack on Fallujah in March 2004 and then joined with British forces to storm the city in a much bigger offensive, Operation Phantom Fury, in November of the same year. On 30 November 2004, the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Network reported the aftermath: “Approximately 70 percent of the houses and shops were destroyed in the city and those still standing are riddled with bullets.” (‘Fallujah still needs more supplies despite aid arrival,’ irinnews.org, 30 November 2004) 

In January 2005, an Iraqi doctor, Ali Fadhil, reported of the city: “It was completely devastated, destruction everywhere. It looked like a city of ghosts. Fallujah used to be a modern city; now there was nothing. We spent the day going through the rubble that had been the centre of the city; I didn’t see a single building that was functioning.” (‘Fadhil, “City of ghosts”’, Guardian, 11 January 2005)

On 3 March 2005, al-Jazeera reported: “Dr Khalid ash-Shaykhli, an official at Iraq’s health ministry, said that the US military used internationally banned weapons during its deadly offensive in the city of Fallujah.” The official reported evidence that US forces had “used ... substances, including mustard gas, nerve gas, and other burning chemicals in their attacks in the war-torn city”. (‘US used banned weapons in Fallujah – health ministry’, 3 March 2005)

American documentary filmmaker Mark Manning told of “American forces deploying – in violation of international treaties – napalm, chemical weapons, phosphorous bombs, and ‘bunker-busting’ shells laced with depleted uranium. Use of any of these against civilians is a violation of international law.” (‘Diving into Fallujah’ by Nick Welsh, Santa Barbara Independent, 17 March 2005)

Despite this and copious other evidence, the BBC’s director of news, Helen Boaden, told Media Lens in March 2005 that her reporter in Fallujah, Paul Wood, had seen “no evidence of the use of such weapons”.

Wood added, with considerable naivety: “The character of the fighting that I saw was bloody, old-fashioned clearing of houses and buildings street by street, block by block, the kind of fighting which is done with little more than an M16 and a handful of grenades. It doesn’t make sense to use mustard gas, nerve agents, other chemical agents or nuclear devices – to quote the al-Jazeera story – in such a small space also occupied by your own forces.” (Email to Media Lens, 7 March 2005) 

[See previous alerts on MediaLens.org for details: ‘Doubt cast on BBC claims regarding Fallujah’, 18 April 2005; ‘BBC silent on Fallujah’ 17 May 2005; ‘BBC still ignoring evidence of war crimes’, 24 May 2005)]

While the recent survey was unable to identify the weapons used by US forces, the extent of genetic damage suffered by residents in Fallujah suggests the use of uranium in some form. Dr Busby said: “My guess is that they used a new weapon against buildings to break through walls and kill those inside.” (Cockburn, op cit)

The authors concluded: “This study was intended to investigate the accuracy of the various reports which have been emerging from Fallujah regarding perceived increases in birth defects, infant deaths and cancer in the population and to examine samples from the area for the presence of mutagenic substances that may explain any results. We conclude that the results confirm the reported increases in cancer and infant mortality which are alarmingly high. The remarkable reduction in the sex ratio in the cohort born one year after the fighting in 2004 identifies that year as the time of the environmental contamination.” (Op cit)

Media performance

Whereas the story of the maltreated cat received heavy coverage for almost one week across the UK media, we (and activist friends in the United States) can find exactly one mention of the Fallujah cancer and infant mortality study in the entire UK and US national press – Patrick Cockburn’s article in the Independent.

The story has simply been ignored by every other US-UK national newspaper. 


The study has been reported elsewhere. Cockburn’s piece was reprinted in The Hamilton Spectator in Ontario, Canada on 24 July and in the 25 July Sunday Tribune in Ireland. The 27 July Frontier Post in Pakistan ran an excellent piece on the US military’s use of depleted uranium in several theatres of war, including Fallujah. So did the 30 July Irish News. The 3 August edition of New Nation in Bangladesh also covered the issue.

It is much more difficult for us to assess TV and radio performance. To its credit, the BBC did give the story some attention: (See ‘Fallujah children’s “genetic damage”’, 21 July 2010)

The destruction of Fallujah is only one small item on an almost unbelievable list of horrors heaped by the United States and Britain on Iraq – crimes that are rarely considered individually and almost never as a whole.

Readers might like to consider how often they can recall the mainstream media summing up the recent history of Iraq in the way that US dissident writer Bill Blum did recently: “no American should be allowed to forget that the nation of Iraq, the society of Iraq, have been destroyed, ruined, a failed state. The Americans, beginning 1991, bombed for 12 years, with one excuse or another; then invaded, then occupied, overthrew the government, killed wantonly, tortured ... the people of that unhappy land have lost everything – their homes, their schools, their electricity, their clean water, their environment, their neighbourhoods, their mosques, their archaeology, their jobs, their careers, their professionals, their state-run enterprises, their physical health, their mental health, their health care, their welfare state, their women’s rights, their religious tolerance, their safety, their security, their children, their parents, their past, their present, their future, their lives ... 

More than half the population either dead, wounded, traumatised, in prison, internally displaced, or in foreign exile ... The air, soil, water, blood and genes drenched with depleted uranium ... the most awful birth defects ... unexploded cluster bombs lie in wait for children to pick them up ... an army of young Islamic men went to Iraq to fight the American invaders; they left the country more militant, hardened by war, to spread across the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia ... a river of blood runs alongside the Euphrates and Tigris ... through a country that may never be put back together again.” (’The anti-empire report’, killinghope.org, 1 September 2010)

Mainstream journalists see things differently. The BBC’s correspondent Paul Wood reported from Iraq in June 2005: “After everything that’s happened in Fallujah, the Americans aren’t going to find an unambiguous welcome. But Fallujah is more peaceful than it’s been in a long time. Its people like that.” (Wood, BBC 1, 18:00 News, 22 June 2005)
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