Thursday, March 18, 2010

Junk science used to claim Israel using WMD in Gaza

The "New Weapons Committee" has just released what appears, at first glance, to be a scientific study of Gaza children's exposure to dangerous contaminants during Operation Cast Lead.

The press release says:
Many Palestinian children still living in precarious situations at ground level in Gaza after Israeli bombing during "Cast lead" have unusually high concentrations of metals in the hair, indicating environmental contamination, which can cause health and growth damages due to chronic exposure. This is the result of a pilot study conducted by the New Weapons Research Group (Nwrg), an independent committee of scientists and experts based in Italy, who is studying the use of unconventional weapons and their mid-term effects on the population of after-war areas.

This research follows the previous one, published by Nwrg on December 17 last year, in which the group reported the presence of toxic metals in the areas surrounding the craters left by the bombing. Those tests had found abnormal concentrations of toxic metals in the craters, suggesting the possible contamination of the soil which, combined with precarious living conditions, particularly in refugee camps, might cause exposure, dermal, via inhalation and through food.

With the new study, the group set itself the objective of verifying whether people were actually contaminated. The result is alarming: even if the quantity of metals in excess, in fact, are only 2-3 times higher than those found in hair of controls, these levels may still be pathogenic in situations of chronic exposure.

The study, which lasted several months, analyzed the hair for 33 metals by ICP/MS (a type of highly sensitive mass spectrometry). The hair is a good indicator of contamination and investigation of environmental contamination based on its analysis are recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Nwrg examined hair samples from 95 people resident in heavily bombed areas (as reported by UNEP on the basis of satellite maps), for the vast majority children. Among them also seven pregnant women and 4 wounded people. The results have established that the distribution of metal contaminants in the three locations where the tests were performed, Beit Hanun, Gaza-Zeitun and Laly Beith, is higher than the average, and more than double in about 60 of these individuals.

The research team is based out of Italy. One of the researchers is Paola Manduca.

Manduca had already determined the results of the research while Cast Lead was still happening, as this press release from January 9, 2009 shows:

Mounting evidence is emerging that Israel is experimenting new non-conventional weapons on civilian population in Gaza. "It is happening again what we saw in Lebanon two years ago", says Paola Manduca, genetics teacher and researcher at the University of Genoa and member of New Weapons Research Committee (NWRC), "where Israel used white phosphorus, Dense inert metal explosive (DIME), thermobaric bombs, cluster bombs and uranium ammunitions. Still today there are unexploded bombs and radioactivity on the ground".

So we already have an indication that some of these scientists had an agenda.

Now let's look at the methodology of the study itself. If one wanted to determine that some Gaza children were exposed to toxic metals from Israeli bombs, what would be a good control group?

I can think of a few:

* Compare the levels in children who live in heavily-bombed areas with those who do not.
* Compare the levels of Gaza children with those in Egypt.
* Compare the levels with those in Israel.
* Compare with the West Bank.
* Compare with hair samples from before Operation Cast lead.
* Compare with people who left Gaza recently, for example, those who are in medical treatment in Israel or Egypt.

The study, however, did no such thing. They compared the levels of Gazans with those of a single reference hair sample from China and a single control sample from Italy.

A careful look at the data also shows that, while in general the levels in Gaza were higher than those of the single sample in Italy, they were not usually that much different (most are less than 2x the Italian sample.) The Italian sample was higher in many metals than for some of the Gazans. The variation within Gaza was high, and it would be instructive to see the natural variation between control samples. Even more interesting was the fact that the differences between the Chinese hair and the Italian hair were much larger than between Italy and Gaza, which would indicate that the Gaza data might not be that significant to begin with.

Despite the control being a single sample, the press release represents the Italian sample as the "average," yet there is no indication that that sample is average in any way.

Let's come up with alternative scenarios that could account for allegedly high concentrations of metals in Gazan hair:

- Hamas weapons production probably does not have very good environmental controls.
- Gaza metal shops and factories do not have adequate safeguards against toxic waste.
- The water in Gaza might be contaminated for some other reason - and the aquifier is shared with Israel.

Despite the big words that the study uses, there is no evidence that there was any scientific peer review or even that it was submitted to any scientific journal. The methodology seems to show that it would be laughed out of any serious scientific journal.

On the contrary, the press release was released to the rabidly anti-Israel Uruknet.

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch and the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons had already determined last July that there was no evidence that Israel used depleted uranium weapons or DIME weapons in Gaza (but they did find evidence of tungsten cubes as sleeves on Spike missiles.)

The "New Weapons Committee" has already shown its bias from its previous press releases that convicted Israel without any evidence, their statements of Israel using DU in Lebanon with no evidence, and the very nature of the study itself. This is not research and this is not science: it is an attempt to smear Israel by hiding behind the fig-leaf of pseudo-science that the vast majority of readers will never bother to check.