Friday, May 11, 2012

Junk science claims birth defects in Gaza from white phosphorus

There is a new study out that claims a high correlation between birth defects in Gaza and exposure to white phosphorus:
According to a new scientific study there is "a strong correlation of birth defects newborns and parent's exposure to attacks with white phosphorus": at the registation at birth 27% of parents with birth defect children declared exposure to white phosphorus while only 1.7% of parents with normal children made the same declaration.

The report entitled "Birth Defects in Gaza: Prevalence, Types, Familiarity and Correlation with Environmental Factors", published today by International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, was carried out by a team of Palestinian and Italian researchers at the Al Shifa hospital, where 28% of total births in Gaza Strip occur.
And if you read the study itself, it is filled with all kinds of statistics and verbiage that makes it sounds really, really scientific.

But there is a huge flaw in the methodology that invalidates the entire study: it relies almost completely on a survey of the parents to determine whether they were exposed, or think they were exposed, to WP.

Since the parents were surely aware if their kids were born with defects, they naturally would want to blame external factors for their situation.

While the authors - most of whom are Palestinian Arab - said that they verified exposure to WP by using UN maps of the area, they only verified it for the parents who reported exposure, not for all the parents. And nowhere do they describe their methodology of determining how "close" the parents were to the alleged WP locations - within ten meters or within the same square kilometer? It is basic science that if you don't determine these parameters before you do the research, then you are painting the bulls-eye after shooting the arrow. In other words, it is possible that they fudged the statistics (consciously or not) to make it appear that the parents of BD children had more exposure to WP sites than parents of healthy babies.

Which was, coincidentally, the exact finding they were looking for when they embarked on this entire project.

There are also some likely statistical issues. Out of a study of 2,933 total births, 44 were found to have birth defects; out of those, only 12 were reported to have been exposed to WP. The entire study is based on these 12. Combined with the bias in the questionnaire, this makes the study pretty meaningless.

(While the authors admit that 40% of the parents who had children with BD were first cousins, they said that this was the rate among all parents in Gaza.)

Also, the births in the study were for children conceived over a year after the Gaza war, not for patients who were pregnant during the war. So not only are they trying to say that WP causes birth defects, but that it continues to do so after weeks or months of exposure of the sites to the weather.

According to Medline, white phosphorus is not known to cause birth defects - and evidence that it causes birth defects over a year after parents' exposure is even more suspect.

It seems clear that this study was created and performed to come to a pre-determined conclusion. It is not science; it is anti-Israel advocacy pretending to be science.

For other anti-Israel junk science stories see here, here, here, and here.