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“We don’t have to commit suicide…” But we are…

An interview with Rosalie Bertell (transcript of the video).

Rosalie Bertell, PhD biometrics, is one of the world’s leading environmental epidemiologists. This interview was conducted during a break in a seminar, hosted by the Sisters of Saint Joseph and Associates at D’Youville College, Buffalo NY, Nov. 15, 2003. Dr. Bertell’s talk was based on her book, Planet Earth: The Latest Weapon of War: A Critical Study into the Military and the Environment (2000).

Snowshoefilms: …conspiracy, or clever planning? 

Rosalie Bertell: You know, if you declare yourselves the experts in a subject, and you then provide all the textbooks for the universities, you turn out a lot of people who think the same way, and so that’s not a conspiracy. It’s maybe clever planning. But basically we have that – especially the nuclear industry, for example. Very early on they took control of the information, provided all the textbooks for the schools. In fact, I remember at one point the Atomic Energy Agency in the United States had a bigger budget for film than Hollywood. They really infiltrated the schools, so you really turned out a lot of people liking the “Peaceful Atom”. I think that’s what happens. It’s a combination of very heavy propaganda and people not being critical thinkers.

Snowshoefilms: How serious is the crisis posed by the military in space?

Rosalie Bertell: The military originally tried to control the sea and the land and the air – but now they want to control space. They think that the future of all wars will be in space and they want to be the ones to win all those wars, so it’s scary to me because this is a very delicately balanced life support system we’re living in and there are things that can happen that are really scary.
People know about the sun having these sunspots and big storms every once in a while. Well, that’s a [magnetic] switch. The earth equivalent would be that the south magnetic pole became the north magnetic pole and vice versa. And so the whole climate and orientation of the planet switches. That could cause real havoc. Imagine trying to run a farm or even trying to predict what’s going to happen tomorrow – so these kinds of things can happen. It does happen on earth, but not as frequently as in the sun and so it’s a matter of thousands of years before it does it. But they could cause it to happen. And there are many other delicately balanced life support systems being challenged and moved right up to the edge of crisis and who knows whether or not they can go over that edge and wipe out life on the planet.

If the ozone layer further depletes, for example, you could reduce all life on earth in about two years, so we’re at a scary point. We’re at a very scary point and there’s a lot of emphasis on the day-to-day things and very few people are talking about the big issues which could be the most devastating and the most calamitous, which would happen quickly, when we’re not looking.

Snowshoefilms: What about the architects of this, the military, the scientists – how do they envision their survival, their children’s survival?

Rosalie Bertell: I asked myself that in the beginning. I went to a meeting in Sweden – the strategy planners, the strategy institutes from the UK and a few other countries, together with the people who had written the Law of the Sea. What we found out was the military strategists were planning a little nuclear war in the Pacific Ocean. The first thing I said, “Don’t you have a biologist on your staff?” They had no one. They only hire physicists, economists, financial people and politician-type people. But they don’t have anybody who’s trained in biology or any of the humanities or humanistic science. They don’t look on the Pacific Ocean and say, ‘That’s our breadbox. That’s our big supermarket. That’s where our fish come from. That’s the spawning ground. They thought that would be a nice big place nobody lived to have a nuclear war – so their thinking is tunnel vision. It’s very limited by the expertise they hire, and the expertise is extremely limited.

Snowshoefilms: You led the medical commission investigating Bhopal, among other disasters. Do the American people have any idea what they’ve done, what the American corporations have done?

Rosalie Bertell: No, I think Bhopal is a good example where they covered it up. I remember the reaction of many corporations was that they were going to have to change their ways after Bhopal. But it all got silenced pretty quickly. That company [Union Carbide] in Bhopal was also partially owned by the Indian government, and so what they did was have the trial in India, in Delhi. So it didn’t get too much press in the United States and they settled after three years when nobody really knew the full extent of the damage to people, and they settled. Union Carbide had an insurance policy, so they settled for the insurance money plus whatever had accrued in the three years [since putting] it in escrow when the disaster occurred. So it never cost them [Union Carbide] a penny, basically. And they got rid of it very quickly. There’s a lot of intrigue behind it. People can guess at that. But I don’t think it got the press it should have. To my knowledge, there were about 12,500 deaths from that. And between 200 thousand and 250 thousand permanently damaged from that disaster. It was from methyl isocyanate and some other byproducts and it was a production scenario that’s not allowed in the United States.

Snowshoefilms: What agencies are doing most of the cover-up and deceit for the military and corporations after disasters occur?

Rosalie Bertell: I don’t know that it’s deliberate deceit. I watched that because I had that question myself. I have found that public relations people will sell anything. And so they’ll produce the same kind of advertising for a nuclear power plant that they do for breakfast food. They don’t differentiate the product they’re promoting. They specialize in promoting it. So you give them a job and say, ‘We want something to promote this’ and they’ll do it. They’re also not scientists. They can say many things that scientists wouldn’t be allowed to say. And you can always say, ‘Well, that’s a public relations person. They’re not technically sophisticated,’ or something. So you can push things off on people who don’t know the technical ins and outs of the statement, and they say it with a straight face and a lot of gusto. They’re promoting a product and they don’t question the product. It’s too bad, but we have turned out a lot of people like that in our schools, unfortunately. We haven’t taught them to question. 

Snowshoefilms: What are the long-term effects on Iraq and the other places where the US has used depleted uranium (DU)?

Rosalie Bertell: As far as we can find out, the Russians used it on a very small scale in Afghanistan, but the first time it was really widely used was in the first Iraq war. The US and the British used it. [minimum: 315 tons] They used it in Kosovo. They used it in Afghanistan, and again in the most recent Iraq war.

It was talked about from 1945 on and they wanted to have something like this as a weapon. I think the way it developed, at least from what I saw, is that when they first started testing missiles, like the guided missiles, the MX and those “dummy” missile tests. They had to fill them with something to get the weight of a nuclear bomb in order to tell whether they were targeting them. They filled them with uranium waste from the enrichment plants. That’s the largest category of nuclear waste in the country. So the first time I came in contact with it, I was out on a Quadrant Atoll in the South Pacific, which is a nice big coral reef that looks like a target. In the middle is a lagoon. A beautiful, beautiful clear lagoon. And we were on the target and the MX missile came in from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. They said it was 8,000 miles and an hour. And it smashed into the lagoon and broke open and dumped uranium in there. You can’t imagine that lagoon. I mean, you can see down for two, three miles. Clear, beautiful tropical lagoon. So they smashed up the coral and destroyed the fish beds. It was awful. I was shocked at the whole thing. But that was the first time I knew they were filling these dummy missiles with uranium.

What I found out about [DU in] Iraq was they were using it instead of tungsten and the reason they used it originally was they got it free from the military because it would have been expensive [to use either tungsten, or DU]. The US laws called for it being handled as a radioactive material and shielded from the biosphere for the rest of the history of the planet. And so they wanted to get rid of it and they shoot it at the enemy.

When it hits a target, there’s a lot of friction and uranium is pyrophoric. It bursts into flame very easily and the flame is very hot – 3,000 to 5,000 degrees centigrade. That is the level of a kiln fire. And what happens is this uranium oxide becomes ceramic uranium oxide, so it becomes like glass It’s sharp, hard and besides that it doesn’t dissolve in body fluid. I mean, we use ceramics to hold water. So what you did was create an aerosol which are very small particles that can be breathed but won’t dissolve in body fluid. So that means it is pulled into the lymph system and travels all through the body in lymph. It’s very hard to get rid of. 

Uranium oxide from a uranium mine, 48 hours and most of it is gone. But we tested veterans from the Iraq war eight and nine years after the war and they were still passing it in urine. So it was in the body for a much longer period of time which means it gave them a much higher dose of radiation. 

Snowshoefilms: What is the effect on the people of Iraq and the US soldiers in Iraq?

Rosalie Bertell: Well, it’s hard to tell because it’s very hard to get numbers. Certainly the Basra area was the highest in Iraq. We do know it reached the civilians because we did do some urine samples. Dr. Sharma in Waterloo did some of the urine samples from some of the civilians in Basra – children, women. They were not part of the military but they had depleted uranium in their urine. And this was seven or eight years after the war – so we know it reached the civilian population. 

That stuff travels very far in air. We had a fire at National Lead in Albany, NY. And 25 miles away they picked it up at the Naval Training Station up there. They picked up the uranium fragments years after the war in Kosovo. Samples of the soil contained it. So it stays around. It can be re-suspended in the air. It’s respirable size. And it’s dangerous.

­Snowshoefilms: What’s its effect? What’s its effect on the human body? 

Rosalie Bertell: It’s hard to say because it’s a very powerful radioactive particle but it only effects a sphere around where it’s located. And so because of its nature – not being soluble – it can locate in different places in the body. So it will affect different organs, wherever it happens to be. That’s why it’s so difficult to prove that the uranium did it. 

All I can say is that people intuitively know the difference between staying out in the sun 15 minutes and staying out for three hours. When you’ve been exposed longer to the DU, you’re going to be burned, you’re going to be damaged. The same way, if you’re out in the sun, if you ask me, ‘What will get burnt?’ Well, its going to be what’s exposed. So one person gets a bad burn on their nose, and the other person’s arms are burnt. So it depends on what you covered up. These are questions that are hard to answer, but they’re perfectly sensible questions. And perfectly sensible answers.

Snowshoefilms: What about the moral and ethical stance of the military to expose its own people to this?

Rosalie Bertell: They have been claiming that there’s no harm at all. The US Congress gave money to look at the DU problem in the veterans and as far as I know, the Pentagon gave all that money to the Rand Corporation to produce a search of the literature. Well, the search of the literature was all uranium mining. That’s not the same as DU that has been burned at the level of 4,000 degrees centigrade. So, you’ve got a whole book there, basically on uranium mining, that says DU is okay to use in war, because we do mining. So, it’s irrational. They didn’t look at the men. Until we went and complained they had not – and this was at least nine years after the Gulf War – they had not tested one veteran for depleted uranium. The ones with shrapnel, they tested for uranium in general but they never broke it down and just said it was either “high” or “low” unless it was way high out of line, they said it wasn’t DU. But they never did the actual measurement. I mean, for a country that is so sophisticated and has such economic and scientific expertise available, that’s outrageous, an outrageous way to treat our military.

Snowshoefilms: What about the European community? Do scientists there have a position on this?

Rosalie Bertell: The British are the only ones who used DU and they have now suspended their use. And they are having some Royal commissions to look into it. They also were the ones that did the first research that reported it was a ceramic. This is not uranium oxide dust. This is ceramic.

Snowshoefilms: When this administration talks about weapons of mass destruction, the irony is horrendous, isn’t it?

Rosalie Bertell: We’re using it. Depleted uranium. DU is declared by the Human Rights Commission to be a weapon of mass destruction. I’m not sure that’s the right terminology to use, but we don’t have terminology that would talk about mass damage to people in a different way than a nuclear bomb which just blows everything apart. I call it a weapon of indiscriminate destruction because it lasts for a long time after the war is over, somewhat like landmines. It also discriminates in that it is more dangerous for women and children. Children are more fragile. They don’t have developed immune systems. They also have a longer lifetime, so diseases that have a long latency period have a higher probability of occurring. Women have very high radiation risk tissue, breast and uterine tissue in particular, so – if you look at a normal population and ask, who is it that would get sick, it’s primarily women and children. It is a biased weapon against women and children.

Snowshoefilms: How close are we to collapse, ecologically?

Rosalie Bertell: I think we are very close. I really think we are very close. And I think our trouble is… I find it very hard to watch the news at night because they keep bragging about the efficiency and productivity of our workforce. It’s not the efficiency and productivity of our workforce we need. It’s the efficiency and productivity of the resources. So if we produce stuff that is so toxic they can’t be recycled, we have moved those resources out of the recycling energies of the planet and so we keep reducing what the planet can produce, what the planet can do. So what we need is efficiency and productivity of resources, and when you look at all the sectors of society that you might want to get rid of – to at least buy time to live in harmony with our planet, the only sector that I can see that you could immediately do without is the military sector. 

And if we’re genuinely trying to build a global village – which there’s a lot of talk about – you don’t need a military. Military fights between nations. If you don’t have nations, you have one village, you don’t need a military. You need a national guard, maybe – or you need police. But you don’t need a military. That would immediately free up enough resources that we could get our act together. So it’s an emergency thing – and I’m not picking on the young men and women who are so heroic, that are fighting our wars, because they’re just trying to be helpful. It’s the people who plan all this; they should be planning better; they should be planning for resource efficiency and productivity and not overworking people. They now have people working long hours without extra pay. And yet unemployment is high. They’re working it wrong. We could manage fine but we have to do things differently. We have to change our heads. It’s our heads that are causing the problem. We’re using very old-fashioned heads in a modern, industrialized world near to collapse.

Snowshoefilms: What are the economic forces? Why do they do this?

Rosalie Bertell: If you took these people who are in charge, if you asked them if they took basic biology, they probably would say no. Most of them took math, physics, chemistry, engineering, political science, economics… They’re out of the stream of consciousness of biology, psychology, these are just not even in their thinking. You’re dealing with tunnel vision here – which is a very serious thing given the crisis on the earth – and their power.

Snowshoefilms: How much of our resources are devoted to weapons right now?

Rosalie Bertell: It’s very hard to find out. The Germans did pretty well but I’ve never seen anyone able to do that in the US. It’s very, very hard to find out resources – but, I mean you could make a pretty good guess that they’re taking the lion’s share.

Snowshoefilms: Fifty cents of every tax dollar, we know that much.

Rosalie Bertell: Yes, well, and even that is a phony number because they don’t count… they don’t count veteran’s hospitals and a lot of thing s that I would put into the military budget that are put [instead] into the social works budget.

Snowshoefilms: You’ve said that people can understand if they read carefully. Would you elaborate?

Rosalie Bertell: Well, one thing I noticed is people are very poor at looking at who’s speaking. I remember during the Three Mile Island accident I was giving a public lecture and I asked who was giving the briefing every day and there wasn’t one person in a very large audience, more than a hundred people, nobody knew who the briefing was coming from. Well, it was coming from the National Security Council and that was very important because why would a commercial nuclear plant require the national security adviser to give the briefing every day? Well, they didn’t want people to be afraid of radiation because they were using it in so many ways – to produce weapons, test weapons and every other thing. So there are certain things they sit on. One is the health effects of radiation. You admit that and the whole house of cards falls down.

So, you watch the guarded area and say, ‘What’s the guarded area that nobody dares speak about?’ That gives you a lot of clues, but you also have to look at who’s speaking. If it’s a significant issue, read it in different papers, go on the Web, see what they’re saying in other countries. Start putting this together in your head. We get things in bits and pieces that are unconnected. And if you don’t start connecting them, first of all you lose it. You forget it. Because it isn’t connected. But secondly, it doesn’t make sense because you don’t have a world view within which to put this little piece of information. So you have to have a worldview and you have to understand something of what’s going on in order to take an isolated incident and put it in its proper place.

Snowshoefilms: What is most important for the anti-war movement to understand and do right now?

Rosalie Bertell: I like the positive approach. This is our planet. Let’s organize it by cooperation. We don’t have to organize by military might. There are only two ways to organize. Either with cooperation, win hearts and minds, or force everything using weapons and destroy everything. If I just listen to what they say about Iraq, I hear – the first thing is security, then political and economic systems have to be in place, and then – that’s not that there’s nothing else. I never hear hospitals. Once in a while they’ll show you a school opened, but these aren’t the big things on the list to do, hospitals, schools, social concerns – these are side issues, okay or not. We don’t do that thing, we do the economics and politics and strength, security – whatever that means. That’s lost its meaning for me, that term. I don’t feel secure with all this stuff.

[A book I recommend is] Transforming the Global Biosphere by Elliot Maynard. Every chapter is a challenge and it’s not the run of the mill, ‘We have to do this or there’s nothing.’ We get caught in an all-or-nothing syndrome: ‘You have to do this or something terrible is going to happen.’ So you limit people to only one choice, and yet there’s myriad of choices out there, and unless you have enough imagination and can think of all the other choices, or you have enough communication with people who are working in these areas, you’re stumped. You don’t know what to think. But the more you can read and listen to people who have worked in the areas and are full of ideas, many of which will have demonstration projects which have already been shown to work… But they’re cast aside, they’re not used by society. So there are many ways to solve our problems. We just have to start looking at them; and we’re passive, basically. We take hand-me-downs from the military all the time, to solve our problems. Because the military gets all the money for research. But we need to solve our own problems and save our young people. Our brightest young people are pulled in to building weapons of mass destruction. That’s an awful brain drain.

Snowshoefilms: Fear is being used to move people into succumbing to the rationale for more military. Could you elaborate on that?

ROSALIE BERTELL: I think that’s one of their tricks, too. Keep people busy and have them afraid of the wrong things. I learned that early in the struggle against nuclear power. They throw up this reason why they couldn’t do something, or this problem [over here]– and they’d have everybody answer this question which was irrelevant to them. They didn’t care. But they kept everybody busy, so people were doing all these economic analyses. Everything they could think of as a reason not to do nuclear power, and they kept them all busy and it didn’t affect the decision-makers because the decision-making was being made on a completely different subject.

I find that happening a lot. People are distracted by problems which they then go about trying to solve and it’s not the real problem that’s running the show – and I really think you have to be careful because you only have so much energy. You might as well keep focused and straight-on. Some of these things are just distractions.

More people are turning to human networks [away from mass media]. They trust what they hear from other people. The mainstream media is not the major source of media for a lot of people.

Snowshoefilms: You were in Canada for 22 years. How did you find that compared to this country?

Rosalie Bertell: I could do creative things in Toronto, because I wasn’t trying to organize for the next horrible weapon coming down the pike. It was always one thing after the other, it was crisis-to-crisis in the States. And Washington DC is the worst. You go to Washington and it’s like everything in the world depends on the next vote in Congress. They’re hyped up all the time. I couldn’t stand it.

Toronto was a much more creative atmosphere. You could think and put out ideas that were different and you could find people who were interested. They would play with the ideas. It was a different, more open atmosphere. 

I find a lot less international awareness in [in the US]. And I find that the measure of people, or what we think of a person’s worth, in the US, is based on their position, their job, their money – whereas in Canada it’s more based on their experience. I think that people are valued for their experience and I don’t feel that here, in the general population, or conversation. 

I remember trying to speak to the graduating class at Niagara University. I told them to be very wary of a job that paid a lot of money because there was something wrong with it. And they looked at me in complete wonder, like “What, is she crazy?’ But you know, if they have to pay a lot of money to do something, something’s wrong with the job. It seems to me you should make that connection. They were looking for the highest pay. If you’re looking for the highest pay, you’re going to be asked to do something, if you really give it a second thought, that you might not want to do. If you can be bought, in other words. You’ve sold your soul. 

Snowshoefilms: Do you think the rest of the world can influence this country one way or another, whether isolating it or –

Rosalie Bertell: Yes, they’ve really shown their strength now with Iraq. I think they’ve given a very strong message that you’ve got to work with the international community. They tried to go it alone, and said they don’t need anybody. I like the UN. I think it’s got what I call feminine power. It never had masculine power, but it’s got strong feminine power. It’s highly credible throughout the world. It has focused attention on women, children, on water, the air, environment…They’ve built credibility for themselves. They’ve worked through the World Health Organization to the Healthy City. The last general meeting of the WHO, they declared water a human right. That’s something that would have been unthought-of of 10 years ago. Imagine declaring water is everybody’s human right – more important than the vote. These things are happening. I get a lot of strength and encouragement in the international community. But I find the US is the hardest. It’s like a solid core that’s isolated from the thought in the world and is afraid of people, afraid of people from other countries. It’s almost like a wealthy person who builds a castle and puts a big wall around and keeps everybody outside – and then is afraid to go out, you know? It’s not a good way to live. A better way to live is to share and make friends.

Snowshoefilms: Water is being bought up and controlled around the world. How will this declaration of water as a human right play out?

Rosalie Bertell: Well, who knows? But the fact that they got a unanimous vote on it was a miracle. So I don’t know how it will play out but you’re going to have to provide people with drinking water and sanitation water. It’s a human right. So I thought that was marvelous. It came from the 3rd World – 3rd World delegates – and it’s about time. But these things are happening. The 3rd World countries are beginning to feel their power and they’re beginning to use it wisely. I hope they continue to. I think the World Social Forum has a lot going for it. It’s growing in credibility and strength. So there are wonderful things happening in the world. Life is stronger than death – and life breaks out when it seems to be cornered. It breaks out in something new that nobody ever thought of. So it’s good, and it’s happening. 

I love the little flowers that come up through the cement. They’re strong. They find the sun and they live and I think that’s what we should do. We should live on this earth. It’s a beautiful, beautiful planet. And you know, the people are beautiful too. In all the different countries I’ve always found beautiful people who just want to live in peace and bring up their children and have enough money to put food on the table. They’re not asking a whole lot. So there are very, very few people who have this urge to have everything. It’s not universal at all. Universally, people are peaceful.

Snowshoefilms: So you think life will prevail over these powers…

Rosalie Bertell: I think it can prevail. Whether it will prevail, I don’t know. Because I believe you can commit suicide. I mean, you see it. And yes, we could destroy this beautiful earth and the people and the animals and the plants and everything that’s good about it. We could. But I think we also have the ability to live and to stop this nonsense and destructive behavior. We’re an intelligent species. We don’t have to commit suicide. 

(transcript of Part 2 of a video series on Rosalie Bertell. For more information: contact the International Institute of Concern for Public Health (www.iicph.org), an organization founded by Dr. Bertell.)

updated Dec 2003